Review: ‘The Tempest’ at Smith Street Stages. What a Wonderful Storm.

Review: ‘The Tempest’ at Smith Street Stages. What a Wonderful Storm.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic

‘The Tempest’ is one of Shakespeare’s final plays. According to some sources it was his last of all, or at least the last he wrote alone. At any rate, it would be nice if ‘The Tempest’ was his final play, given it’s plot. An old sorcerer, living on a distant island for years, conjuring forth spirits storms and faeries… surrounded by monsters, plagued by usurpers, he enjoys his power, but longs for some kind of peace at the end of it all. He speaks of actors melting in to the air, and how the globe itself shall dissolve. Then at the end of the play, he breaks the magical implement he uses to summon forth all his visions and disappears from his exile, never to return. The parallels are beautiful. When staged well, it is a play that feels about as Shakespeare as Shakespeare can be. It can currently be seen in Carroll Park, Brooklyn performed by Smith Street Stage, and their feels pretty Shakespeary.

Outdoor Shakespeare is a lovely thing, it often feels like Shakespeare in its natural habitat, with all the “Can we have class outside today, sir?” sentiment that goes along with it. Smith Street Stages plays up to that nicely, making full use of park space in their staging, often having actors run in from the other side of the park, shouting their lines to great comic effect. In fact the comedic aspect here is as strong as I have ever seen it in a production of ‘The Tempest’. The central comic trio of Stephano, Trinculo and Caliban (Played by Kate Eastman, Will Sarratt, and Patrick Harvey respectively) are some of the most fun you can currently have in an NYC park after dark. Their bawdy songs, drunken revelry and ineffectual plotting quickly move sublimely from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous. On the other side of this, Peter Molesworth plays a wonderful Ariel, every inch the ethereal wisp. His athletic yet soft movement about the stage, combined with his waif-like speaking voice give him an almost translucent quality which is distinctly other-worldly.

In fact, the whole cast are rather excellent, with one exception, who manages only to be rather good instead: Kate Ross as Prospero. I’m all for gender-flipped Shakespeare, anything that gives a girl some decent lines to say is alright by me. As I already mentioned, Kate Eastman as Stephano is possibly my favorite part of this show. But something seems off about Kate Ross’ performance. I often found myself glancing at a nearby ice-cream truck during Prospero’s many speeches. It was particularly noticeable in the first tenth or so of the show, before the plot kicks in proper. Something about her presence lacks gravitas. When she interacts with Arial, you don’t get the sense that she is in control, even though the script manifestly demands that she is. It improves as the play develops, but it was the one core aspect of the show that felt like a loose girder.

However, if we’re going to get back to ways in which this performance excels, and we are, I’d like to talk about the music. The soundscaping here, composed by Clara Strauch, is gorgeous. She works with musicians Joe Jung, and Oliver Palmer performing multiple instruments. Everything from accordions, to guitars, to thunder-sheets, and create a folky, ambient, occasionally trance-like soundtrack that gave the play more character than Peter Sellers in the middle of mental breakdown. The component performances were generally wonderful, but the music unifies it, creating a wistful, buoyant, yet melancholic tone that tugged on my heart’s manifold strings. By the final scene of the play, where Prospero stares out at the ship she is to join, and sail upon back to civilization, leaving behind all her magic, and the home she has kept for twelve years, I was ready to forgive all transgressions, imagined or otherwise, that the production had done to me, just for a few more sweet moments of that visual with that music. Bravo to director Beth Ann Hopkins and all accompanying fellows.

All in all then, I would say that this is a rather successful ‘Tempest’. Plenty of heart, plenty of funnies and music to die for. It starts slow, but when it gets going you quickly forget these issues and get swept up in what’s going on. I can whole-heartedly recommend it, particularly if you like ‘The Tempest’, and particularly if you haven’t seen Shakespeare before. This is a non-threatening, easily accessible way to be introduced to the Bard, and you should definitely catch it before its closure on the 26th of June.

‘The Tempest’ runs until June 26th at Carroll Park, produced by Smith Street Stages. It is directed by Beth Ann Hopkins. Admission is free. For full show schedule and further information, consult smithstreetstage.org.

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US, the Abbey Theatre Dublin and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His theatrical writing has been performed on three continents. He performs improv comedy professionally and plays lead guitar in two bands. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

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