The Harvey Theatre, one of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's playing spaces, strikes one as particularly appropriate for Shakespeare s The Tempest. The theatre, itself a bit shipwrecked, shows its age in its scuffed arches; but as The Tempest teaches us, being shipwrecked can have a certain charm. And charm is something this theatre does not lack.
The stage design was certainly the most striking aspect of the visual presentation. The back half of the playing space was flooded with an inch or so of water and served as the main method of entrance and exit. O brave new stage! Alonso and his crew do indeed arrive from the sea. The side spaces held the musical instruments and Prospero's cave, appropriately fitted with books. Then, sitting in the center of the stage like a beige bull's-eye was a circle of sand, which functioned as the "shore" to the "sea" behind it. The entire play would be set in this playing space.
The production did not begin with the usual conventions of theatre--no reminder about cell phone ringers nor any dimming of the lights. Rather, Prospero (Stephen Dillane) simply donned his tattered coat, picked up a bucket of water, and sprinkled it around the sandy ring. From then on, he never left the stage: Prospero would begin this production, and Prospero would end it.
And he would literally, physically circumscribe the action. The opening tempest scene established these power dynamics. While the boatswain and noblemen narrated the action, Ariel silently manipulated them; meanwhile, Prospero circled outside the sandy ring, watching his production, a pattern he would repeat frequently. All of the play's action took place within the shore's circumference, with characters called forth and dismissed from it. Even if they tried to move beyond the sandy circle, they were invisibly reined back in. Only Ariel and Prospero freely walked beyond its bounds.
The tempest scene also stressed the aurality of the performance. The scene placed the boatswain, the noblemen, and silent Ariel in the circle, with Ariel's staff as the only prop, which alternated as the ship mast or side railing. Despite the sea in the rear of the stage, the tempest existed only in description. The point was significant: the words would show us the storm; the words would bring us to the island; the words would speak for themselves. Shakespeare's language would not be usurped by stage spectacle--it would create it. For the rest of the production, the props within the circle remained simple and warranted by the text, such as a truck of royal clothes, two logs for Ferdinand, and a game of chess. Shakespeare's language took center stage.
Prospero's persistent stage presence was matched only by Ariel (Christian Camargo), a character whose description in the play leads to a wide variety of interpretations. Sam Mendes' production emphasized the sprite's ambivalent gender, as Ariel appeared in a metrosexual suit in the opening scene, in an evening gown in the next, and later as a somewhat ominous harpy with mechanical wings. Just when I became accustomed to Ariel, I was unsettled by the next costume change.
Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones) is also an open character to stage, with his various animal features and yet starkly human presence. The play's most spectacular moment came at his entrance. The audience's anticipation of this productions Caliban was clear--as Prospero called repeatedly to him, the audience fell hushed and eyes darted from stage right to stage left and back again. …