Though hurricanes, the stormy skies and the trail of destruction they bring raged across America at the tail end of summer, all was calm and serene as professional artists and community participants alike graced the Delacorte Theatre for one last time before 2025.
The production was a jubilant musical take on Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest, as envisioned by Public Works, currently helmed by Lauire Wooley, featuring well-crafted, richly varied and genre-bending music and lyrics by Benjamin Velez and simple yet playful choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Ancestral spirits from Seneca Village and the Isle of Manahatta, the homeland of the Lenape, must have been roused by the sounds of jubilance and unity resonating abundantly amid Central Park’s brambles, carried through the breezes of a late summer evening.
Created in 2012, Public Works has been building a sense of community and connection by blurring the lines between professional performers (many from Broadway and beyond) and the people of New York City from community partners like Brownsville Recreation Center, DreamYard, Center for Family Life in Sunset Park, and others. Together, they share a stage to tell an uplifted, magical and musical version of a tale over 400 years old with themes that resonate today.
Matched with an audience as eclectic as the City itself, all attending for free, Public Works productions are genuinely by and for the people, an enriching activity for those onstage and off to share a story and enjoy the setting sun of summer’s final week before it’s back to work or school. A version of The Tempest was first performed by Public Works ten years ago, in 2013. The stormy show marks the end of an era ushering in a new and improved Delacorte Theater, opening in 2025, forcing New Yorkers to skip a summer of the Public Theater’s tradition of free Shakespeare.
While a violent squall stirred up by the sprite Ariel (the exquisitely cast Jo Lampert with supportive “spirits” Jason Asher, Eileen Chen, Ella Evans, Jennifer Levine and Angel Divine Universe as their legion) was what washed the Italian nobility to the remote island shores where the exiled Duke and Sorcerer, Prospero, and daughter, Miranda, reside, in the Public Works’ production of The Tempest, the real storms are internal.
Though Prospero, the leading role of what’s considered one of Shakespeare’s final plays, was written as a male, recent versions on stage and screen have portrayed the scholarly nobleman wizard as a woman, notably Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film and Myra Lucretia Taylor in the 2019 Public Theater’s Mobile Unit traveling production (read my review here). After witnessing those powerful performances and considering the character’s complexity and magical inclinations, it is hard to imagine Prospero as anything other than female-identifying. Fortunately, under Laurie Woolery’s direction, another dynamic “Duchess” Prospero can take her place amid the starry sorceresses before her.
Renée Elise Goldsberry (the Tony Award-winning actress who originated the role of Angelica Schuyler in Broadway’s Hamilton) utilizes the mystifying powers of her extraordinary vocal talents and acting abilities to demonstrate that she’s meant to be a leading lady more than capable of carrying an ensemble. She beautifully portrays Prospero’s inner turmoil and struggles with feelings of vengeance versus forgiveness.
Goldsberry possesses such natural elegance that it is easy to picture her royal origins, even amid the island’s atmosphere. Her voice is enchanting and spellbinding, and she delivers Velez’s songs with potency and panache. Her relationship with Miranda and regal yet witchy ways make Goldsberry’s Prospero a kindred soul sister with The Witch from Sondheim’s Into the Woods. That beloved twisted fairy-tale musical was also performed at the Delacorte Theater, and Goldsberry would be a prime candidate to play the role in the oft-revived modern classic.
One of the primary focus points for this Tempest is forgiveness and redemption over revenge and punishment, self-reflection, and personal evolution triumphing over rage, at least in the case of Prospero. It calls to mind another excellent Public Theater success story and “riff” on a Shakespearian tale, James Ijames’s magnificent Fat Ham (see my review here), where the Hamlet character, male or nonbinary with queer and feminine qualities, revokes the cycle of violence and breaks free from the bondage of the neverending karmic loop of pain and suffering.
Alternatively, under Kenny Leon’s direction at Free Public Shakespeare in the Park earlier this summer, Hamlet, his friends, and family weren’t so fortunate to escape the fate the Bard wrote for them. (See my review here). That isn’t to say the best or only way to serve contemporary audiences is to rewrite Shakespeare and make a happy ending (I’d like to see someone attempt that with Titus Andronicus!). Still, with all of the pain and violence in the world thrust in one’s face daily by the (often bad) news, it’s refreshing to encounter stories that highlight the redemptive, enlightened qualities of the human spirit, choosing compassion over retribution, especially for a summer spectacle showcasing community engagement.
To further drive the point home, the darker elements of the plot concerning the villainous deeds and desires of the striving, conniving Antonio (Anthony Chatmon II), Prospero’s brother, who manipulates Sebastian (Tristan Andre), enticing the pair to plan a coup to overthrow the Alonso, King of Naples (Joel Frost) and seize the crown, are offset by the comedic, lighthearted portrayal of dastardly deeds. Chatmon II and Andre’s song and dance (and oh yes, they can dance!) possess more razzle-dazzle and winking naughtiness of the bad boys and gals from Bob Fosse’s Chicago than Shakespeare’s cruelest villains. Witnessing their murderous intentions felt like watching children at play.
Another interesting character study was the treatment and exploration of Caliban (likably played with sensitivity, depth, and humor by Theo Stockman), the only native resident of the island and an often controversial figure in the story when viewed through modern-day lenses.
Like typical colonizers or conquistadors, the Milanese expats arrived on an island previously unknown to them, set up shop and promptly enslaved the local inhabitants (though Prospero and her child Miranda weren’t seeking fame and fortune but were cruelly driven from their home and status). The descriptions of Caliban’s revolting and grotesque appearance (he is called a “monster”) line up with the ignorant and repugnant attitudes of visitors from far-off lands when encountering cultures and people that do not reflect their views or appearances, labeling them “uncivilized” or worse.
Caliban carries firewood and enacts other hard labor for the exiled enchantress and her daughter. The major crime (besides his looks and nature), which he is never forgiven and constantly reminded of, is one thwarted attempt to come on to Miranda. For this, he is bound to eternal damnation and perpetual slavery under Prospero’s unforgiving command.
But Caliban knows the island, its spirits and secrets, and Stockman’s Caliban seems also to know himself. In a movingly introspective song, Caliban examines why one misgiving condemns him forever, calling to mind troubled youths for which one unfortunate action can perpetuate life in and out of various forms of imprisonment. Like other clever, modern interpretations of Shakespearian characters, perhaps a Caliban play is brewing in some contemporary minds. This musical Tempest Caliban’s “I Want” song is a good start for now.
Caliban is not the only native inhabitant forced to do Prospero’s bidding. Ariel, an airy spirit, was trapped in a tree, bound by Caliban’s mother (another shaman-like witch or sorceress). Upon liberating the spirit, Prospero tricked Ariel into another form of bondage, performing tasks beyond the Milanese magician’s abilities and enlisting other spirits of the island, portrayed by the vast ensemble of New Yorkers of all ages and backgrounds, attired in glorious diaphanous garments tie-dyed turquoise and beige, reflecting the water and sand.
Jo Lampert’s androgyny and rock n’ roll vocals lend themselves perfectly to Ariel, a role they seem born to embody. However, they are shadowed by a chorus of accompanying sprites of varying ages, genders, shapes and sizes.
But as cute and charming as the additional Ariels were, they often get in the way of letting Lampert’s potent presence fully unleash. An exception is a particularly striking moment when Lampert stands alone and becomes a harpy to scare the nobleman, resembling a silver angel with steely wings (sumptuous costumes by Wilberth Gonzalez) and commanding the stage and audiences like the bonafide rock star they are.
The other performers did their best with roles less dimensional, reflective or tendentious than Prospero or Caliban, with Brooklyn’s own Naomi Pierre playing an adorable Miranda and Jordan Best as her puppy-love-at-first sight paramour, Ferdinand, Prince of Naples; Susan Lin as the just and loyal yet elderly councilperson, Gonzalo (who would be the first to be eaten by a wild animal or meet some other ill-fated end if this were a true stranded on a deserted island situation); and the merry buffoons who befriend (and intoxicate) Caliban, Alonso’s drunken butler Stephano (Joel Perez) and jester Trinculo (Sabrina Cedeño).
Still, although the focus might shift toward the more uplifting aspects of The Tempest and offer some probing into the characters’ hearts and minds, it’s crucial to note that this production does not intentionally rock the boat away from the author’s original intent or attempt to shove any agenda down its audiences’ throats. The casting is spot on and appropriate per role, and the diversity onstage and off reflects New York City, the amalgam same as you’d see on the subway. All of this is welcome as a summer breeze given the plethora of more heavy-handed “message” shows or adaptations many attendees have grown weary of and aired their grievances over the comments sections of the numerous articles examining the significant drop in subscriptions and attendance at regional and nonprofit centers across the USA.
With its superb storytelling, endless charm, unity of professionals and community members, easygoing, delightful interpretations of classics and affordability, works by Laurie Woolery and her team of collaborators at Public Works, simply put, work.
The limited run of Public Works’ THE TEMPEST opened on August 27 and ran through September 3, 2023. For more information about Public Works and the Public Theater, please visit publictheater.org.