In the Broadway revival of Present Laughter , currently in performances at the American Airlines Theater, Victor Garber treats the audience to a mournful rendition of the “World Weary.” While a charming addition to the Noel Coward comedy, the song would be more at place onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where The Tempest is being performed by members of The Bridge Project.
Directed by Sam Mendes, this starkly staged production stars Stephen Dillane as Prospero, the Duke of Milan who has been living on an island for twelve years with his daughter Miranda. Ousted by his power-hungry brother, Prospero, who happens to be a skilled magician, is now planning his revenge. Played by Dillane, this Prospero is an intelligent, calculated academic. Nothing he does is impulsive and nothing passes by him. He sees everything happening around him and one gets the impression that he has seen quite a bit. This Prospero is tired; world-weary, if you will.
But he’s not too tired to execute one more spell. With the assistance of the spirit Ariel, played by Christian Camargo, Prospero is at last claiming his title and his power back, and his plan begins with a storm. The swift, powerful staging of this storm is a strong opening to the show; however, the rest of the performance does not follow suit.
And it’s not for a lack of trying. Everyone in the cast is excellent. Juliet Rylance’s Miranda is disarmingly charming and funny. Her reaction to seeing a large group of grown men for the first time in her adult life – “O brave new world, that has such people in it!”- is a noteworthy moment of humor in an otherwise very somber show. Her instant, rapturous romance with the handsome Edward Bennett’s Ferdinand is sincere and believable.
Camargo’s somber, businesslike Ariel is an illuminating presence onstage, and his relationship with Prospero is startlingly sincere and a drastic contrast to Ron Cephas Jones’ Caliban, a native enslaved by Prospero whose brutal loathing of his master is truly disturbing to witness. His drunken scenes with Stephano (Thomas Sadoski) and Trinculo (Anthony O’Donnell) are entertaining, but it is impossible to forget the darkness of Caliban’s fury for long. Michael Thomas’ Antonio, Richard Hansell’s Sebastian and Alvin Epstein’s Gonzalo, as well as Jonathan Lincoln Fried’s Alonso make a fine supporting ensemble.
But even the brightness of the performances can’t escape the heavy darkness of the stage. One small circle of sand indicates the island, while the river that flows behind the stage is so dark one can’t help but wonder what might be lurking in its waters. When not performing the actors sit in chairs in the water, motionless. All except Caliban, that is, who claws his way through the sand to arrive onstage. His entrance, as well as his stance and voice, are reminiscent of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Another example of startling staging occurs when Ariel is called upon to frighten other residents of the island and he emerges in an enormous contraption of wings wider than he is tall and addresses them in a booming, echoing voice. The choice of airing home videos of Miranda’s childhood during a celestial celebration of her engagement to Prince Ferdinand also felt odd and out of place.
Similar to the presentation of the Bridge Project’s other play, As You Like It the drastic difference between dark and light, good and evil, is so stark and, forgive the pun, the bridge is so wide it cannot be crossed. The play is in conflict with itself and Prospero seems to be aware of this conflict. It’s easy to believe him when he says after retiring to Milan, “every third thought shall be my grave.” It even sounds like he’s looking forward to it.