Shakespeare shipwrecked by a 'Tempest' in New York's Central Park

The Tempest. Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Lee Breuer with Ruth Maleczech. Tradition is gone with the wind in this opening production of the New York Shakespeare Festival's 26th season of free performances in Central Park. Lee Breuer and associate director Ruth Maleczech have assembled an eccentric assortment of elements, themes, and gimmicks undreamed of by Prospero for an untidily sprawling revival of the Bard's lovely last play.

According to Breuer-Maleczech, the comic fantasy takes place "this evening" on "an island in Central Park." The relocation and updating provide cues for a modern-dress cartoon extravaganza as dated as it is ludicrous. Revisions begin at the beginning and continue throughout a long and labored evening. The opening shipwreck scene is reduced to an unintelligible gabble of offstage voices heard over the loudspeakers. The casualty of the storm is a toy helicopter which Prospero and one of his eleven (count them) Ariels dispose of in a toyland prologue. It is an appropriate start for Mr. Beuer's juvenile approach to the text.

The revisionist treatment transforms the marooned nobles into guntoting gangsters from an Italian mafia movie and Caliban into a snarling Cockney punk rocker. One of the Ariels turns out to be a Japanese Sumo wrestler. Trinculo, the jester, is now a maid in the Mae West manner, while Stephano, the butler, seems to be a relative of W. C. Fields.

Visually and musically, "The Tempest" at the Delacorte Theater is equally miscellaneous. The action takes place on a round, slightly domed platform with a busily revolving inner stage. Carol Oditz's motley costumes range from gossamer Balinese garments to the ice-cream suits and Panama hats of the Italian underworld.

The incidental music includes mellifluous gamelan "twanglings" ("sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not"), a samba song-and-dance chorus, and recordings of excerpts from Disney film scores, among them "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The seven dwarfs do not appear. The grab-bag of multi-ethnic strains and images was perhaps a literal-minded attempt to suggest Shakespeare's universality. The result is a kind of mish-mash vaudeville misusing the original text as working scenario. The exquisite lyrics from this magical valedictory have been all but obliterated.

Apart from the wit, authority, and final tender dignity of Raul Julia' sternly schoolmasterish Prospero, the acting is pretty much of a piece with the misguided direction. Some of Prospero's scenes with the youngest Ariels, a few of whom are from the kindergarten set, are humorous and charming. Too often, however, the codirectors trivialize or vulgarize the text for a cheap laugh. As for the Delacorte amplification, it knows not modulation.

Prospective patrons unfamiliar with the comedy would do well to read "The Tempest" before attending a Delacorte performance. The program offers no synopsis and the revival frequently leaves a good deal of doubt as to who's doing what to whom. The festival has survived other calamities and it will undoubtedly survive this "Tempest" in a stewpot. The next Central Park production will be "Henry IV; Part 1," staged by Des McAnuff of the Dodger Theater. It begins performances July 31.

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