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A CurtainUp Review
The Tempest

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. — Caliban
Reg E. Cathey (Photo: Vanessa Schonwald)
A triptych of Tempests is breezing through New York this season. The first, directed confidently by Karin Coonrod amd with music and lyrics by Elizabeth Swados, is now on the boards at La MaMa (at the Ellen Stewart Theatre). As part of the company's La MaMa Earth program, it weighs in with a social conscience and a nod to the world ecology. And, with the dynamic Reg E. Cathey as Prospero, it will speak cogently to New Yorkers who all too well remember the real-life devastations of Hurricane Sandy.

Whereas most of the Tempests that I've seen on stage and film in recent years have whipped up faux storms of fierce proportions, Coonrod radically departs from this traditional staging and begins it in a hushed atmosphere. The entire cast, elegantly outfitted, silently file into the large rectangular performance space, which is swept bare except for a large black orb at center stage that is suspended by a wire from the flies.

As soon as the actors assume their stage positions, than a loud thunderclap sounds, and the performance space totally blacks out. Only the orb remains in view, now twinkling with lights, and swinging back and forth in pendulum fashion. A beat later, Prospero and his young daughter Miranda come to the fore.

Prospero first quells her fears about the offshore shipwreck that she has just witnessed, then starts to tell her the strange personal history (and one of the longest expositions in the Bard's canon) that brought them to the remote island 14 years ago. Miranda strikingly sums up the political treachery which caused her father to lose his rightful dukedom to her power-grabbing Uncle Antonio: "Your tale, Sir would cure deafness."

This production just might cure those theatergoers who have been deaf to this play's poetry and charms. Although Coonrod does toss in a generous dollop of symbolism with the pageant-like opening and the aforementioned pendulum that neatly suggests the movement of a ship pitching through colossal waves, it never gets heavy-handed.

According to a "Director's Note" in the program, this Tempest evolved from a workshop, "The Tempest and the Image of the Sea." which Coonrod and Swados participated in at LaMama in the summer of 2012. When two months later, Hurricane Sandy blasted through New York, Coonrod not only found herself "catalyzed" by then Mayor Bloomberg's comment at a press conference, that "the tide is rising," but was inspired to appropriate his words to Shakespeare's late romance.

Concepts and politics aside, what really makes this play fly is the uniformly excellent acting of its ensemble. Reg E, Cathey's Prospero possesses just the right blending of passion and sangfroid.

Other powerful performances include Joseph Harrington, as Ariel, who from the moment he materializes on the balcony level of the set truly "flames amazement." If his acting is spot-on, his dancing is even better (He's performed the titular role in Broadway's Billy Elliot).Miriam A. Hyman, as Miranda is very much her father's daughter here. Equally riveting are Liz Wisan and Tony Torn, as the clowns Trinculo and Stephano bring their own brand of tomfoolery to their comic parts, and together create double-trouble for Prospero til the Magus exposes their assassination plot on him. Also well cast is Ching Valdes-Aran as the honest old councilor Gonzalo. In this play's world, with so many "loose cannons" afoot, Valdes-Aran is a clear rational voice and holds, along with Prospero, the moral compass.

Christopher McLinden's Ferdinand is credible as Miranda's love interest and future husband. And though Slate Holmgren looks almost too clean-scrubbed here to be the villain Caliban, he does deliver his famous monologue in Act 3, Scene 2 with convincing pathos ("Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.").

The Bard's verse is intact. But it here ends up taking a back seat to Swados score and music energized by Cara Kjellman choreography and a 3-piece musical ensemble.

Coonrod and Swados team up here to give us a visual and aural feast, blending bold symbolism, stylized movements, athletic dancing, and ethereal-sounding music.

Future Tempests in La Mama's pipeline this season: the Korea Mokwha Repertory Company in late November (for 4 performances only) and the third offering from Italy's Nella Tempesta in mid-December (8 performances only). But there's no doubt that Coonrod's venture, buttressed by Swados' original music and a fine cast, will be a tough act to follow.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Directed by Karin Coonrod
Cast: Reg E. Cathey (Prospero), Sorab Wadia (Sebastian) Angus Hepburn (Alonso). Joseph Harrington (Ariel) Tony Torn (Stephano) Miriam A. Hyman (Miranda) Liz Wisan (Trinculo) Ching Valdes-Aran (Gonzalo), Earl Baker, Jr. (Antonio), Slate Holmgren (Caliban), Christopher McClinden (Ferdinand).
Sets: Riccardo Hernandez
Costumes: Oana Botez
Music and lyrics: Elizabeth Swados
Lighting: Christopher Akerlind
Choreography: Cara Kjellman
Stage Manager: Brae Singleton
At La MaMa, Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 East 4th Street. Tickets: $40. For additional information, please call La MaMa at 212 -475-7710 or visit
Performances will be Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30pm and Sunday at 4:00pm.
From 10/02/14; opening 10/09/14; closing 11/02/14.
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 10/04/14
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