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A CurtainUp Review
The Bridge Project's The Tempest
When he first appears in The Tempest, Prospero is wrapped up in occult reading. Although both Caliban, the coarse son of the witch Sycorax, and the spirit Ariel, whom Prospero has liberated from Caliban's grip, have become Prospero's servants. In their own way, each is a sniveling flunky and hardly equal to Prospero's magic. Most important, it takes him twelve years to cause the storm that sets his plans in motion. What was he doing until then?
Thus, even though The Tempest contains some of Shakespeare's most consistent dramatic themes — the betrayal of close relatives, the usurping of legitimate authority, the destructiveness of envy, lovers unaware of each other's true identity, the magical power of art — the play evolves in mostly cerebral terms. This poses considerable difficulties for a director.
Sam Mendes, enfant terrible of the British stage, might have been expected to perform magic with The Tempest. Instead he directs a surprisingly tame version of the play in The Bridge Project production with BAM, The Old Vic and Neal Street. Yes, there are the obligatory video projections. And Tom Piper's set — a large circle covered with sand hiding a trap door from which Caliban, and eventually his cohorts, can pop out from — may be the most innovative aspect of the production. But for the most part, this Tempest seems to be talk, although admittedly talk written by the great Bard and delivered by some fine actors.
Stephen Dillane is an adequate Prospero but lacks passion. This may be excusable. After all, Prospero's been through a lot. But why should Miranda (Juliet Rylance) and her lover, Ferdinand (Edward Bennett), be equally tepid? And considering the wickedness of Sebastian (Richard Hansell) and Antonio (Michael Thomas), their plot to murder Sebastian's brother, Alonso, King of Naples (Jonathan Lincoln Fried) , brought about by Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones) and Ariel (Christian Camargo) under Prospero's direction, seems remarkably lacking in zeal and villainy. Even the funniest scene in the show, in which the drunken Trinculo (Anthony O'Donnell) and Stephano (Thomas Sadoski) discover Caliban, elicits little more than a subdued chuckle.
On the other hand, Jones does give one of the livelier performances of the evening. And Alvin Epstein is engaging as the honest, old counselor, Gonzalo.
Many critics have understood The Tempest to be an allegory, with Prospero as Shakespeare, Ariel as imagination and Caliban as brutish understanding. Caliban can never be civilized, but Ariel only waits for the moment he will be set free. This may well be, but even an allegory must supply enough interest for the audience to stay alert until the meaning is revealed.
Editor's Note: To read Curtainup's much more enthusiastic review of As You Like It, which is this production's repertory partner, go here.