October 29, 2014
Karin Coonrod’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, currently running at LaMama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre opens with one of the finest visual effects I’ve seen in the city. Part of its charm is that it’s a technically simple effect that works perfectly for the moment and combines the efforts of the actors on the stage with the available tech. This stands not only as a metaphor for the storm at the beginning of the play but for the performance itself. Coonrod, working with Liz Swados (who composed the music for this production), creates a world that inhabits the space fully and that allows the actors to actually play within the space, play with the audience and our expectations of this familiar piece of theatre.
Coonrod employs the space fully – actors not only use the entire floor space, but move behind the audience, into the balcony, up among the musicians, and even climb partway to the ceiling. There is an eclectic array of costume styles, matched by the various uses of choreography and soundscape. It’s magical – at least until the seams begin to show.
There are sightline issues with nearly all the seating except the center audience bank. If you have a seat along the sides, you will need to contend with looking around support columns and the heads and bodies of your fellow playgoers. Reg E. Cathey and Joseph Harrington have solid chemistry as Prospero and Ariel. However, they both appeared to be losing their voices during the course of the performance. The theater's temperature dropped during the production, becoming so cold that stepping outside was a warm and welcome relief.
While it is impressive that the running time of the show is two hours and there are apparently no textual cuts, the energy dips in the middle of the play. This is partly due to the text (some judicious cuts would have been welcome), partly due to the structure (there is no intermission), and partly due to the performance itself. Coonrod starts us with a strong and (honestly!) magical moment. Unfortunately, she is unable to maintain or top the moment.
That said, it’s a lovely production – the casting is solid (Slate Holmgren as Caliban and Liz Wisan as Trinculo are standouts), the staging is clever, and the music/soundscape inspired. It’s easily the best version of Tempest you’ll see this year.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Kelly Johnston