Inventive Fun Carries Shakespeare Romance
New York — THE TEMPEST
By William Shakespeare. Starring Patrick Stewart. At the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through July 19.
'The Tempest'' may be one of William Shakespeare's most complex and poetic romances, but it starts with nothing more subtle than an explosive storm at sea, and the production now onstage at Central Park's outdoor Delacorte Theater makes the most of this tumultuous scene. A stylized ship pitches and sways, an offstage percussion ensemble fills the air with African-Caribbean rhythms, and stilt-borne dancers churn the atmosphere with banners conjuring up nature at its most obstreperous.
If this level of excitement were sustained throughout the evening, director George C. Wolfe's interpretation of ''The Tempest'' might set a record for sheer Shakespearean energy. Unfortunately, its spirits flag as it heads into the second hour, and not all the performances match the inventiveness of the music, dancing, and puppetry that accompanies them.
Still, there's no denying the originality of Wolfe's vision or its effectiveness in lending fun and freshness to a magnificent play that has suffered from many stale approaches.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Wolfe's offering is its success in making a wildly eclectic mixture of ingredients seem perfectly at home in a familiar Shakespearean setting. The show's diversity starts with its cast, assembling talents as different as TV star John Pankow of ''Mad About You,'' modernist comedian Bill Irwin, and ''Star Trek'' hero Patrick Stewart in his New York Shakespeare Festival debut. The stagecraft incorporates puppetry inspired by Japanese bunraku and kabuki, a score that mingles exuberant drumming with strains from renaissance instruments, and plenty of wooing, scheming, clowning, and declaiming in the classical Elizabethan manner.
What glues all this together is Wolfe's realization that ''The Tempest'' takes place in an otherworldly realm - the impossible island that wizardly Prospero and innocent Miranda share with spirits fair and foul - where no limits need be placed on the number or variety of wonderments that may appear.
Some don't quite work, as when strident musical arrangements make Ariel's sweet songs turn harsh and unappealing. But others are truly wondrous, as when the wedding masque unfolds with a burst of visually thrilling ritual, or when Ariel confronts her master's enemies as a horror-movie bat with scarlet-streaked wings and malevolent claws.
''The Tempest'' would be more exciting if such ingenious moments were evenly distributed - most of the better ones are clustered in the second half - and if key characters like Ariel and Caliban were acted with the sort of brio that Stewart brings to Prospero, who's more crusty and wired-up here than in any production I can recall. It's a solid achievement as it stands, though, and marks another milestone for Wolfe, making his bow as a Shakespeare director less than three years after becoming the Public Theater's creative chief.
* ''The Tempest'' marks the 28th entry in the New York Shakespeare Festival's ongoing Shakespeare Marathon.