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June 19, 2015

A Classic(s) Saturday

DOCTOR FAUSTUS and THE TEMPEST will never be confused with summer movies. Still, how nice that two plays that were written more than 400 years ago are back in New York as spring gives way to those lazy, hazy, crazy days.

Granted, Classic Stage Company’s DOCTOR FAUSTUS gets off to a rough start. Chris Noth shows early on that he doesn’t have a good theater voice. It’s simply too soft, which is wrong for the hubris-filled doctor. Faustus will later be described as “handsome” and “powerful,” and while the former is a given for Noth, the latter quality is absent both in demeanor and voice.

And yet, a funny thing happens when an actor doesn’t turn up the juice. We experienced it ten years ago when Jessica Lange was just as vocally demure in THE GLASS MENAGERIE. These quiet types make us adapt and listen more intently so we can catch each word.

Nevertheless, matters are pretty verbose and poky for quite a few minutes. By the time that we get to the play’s most famous line -- “Misery loves company” -- much of the audience that’s watching this company is in misery.

Well, “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be,” as Faustus says. And while many of us think of Alfred Hitchcock and/or Doris Day when we hear these words, scholars give Christopher Marlowe credit for first popularizing the phrase.

Finally giving the show the hotfoot it needs is Zach Grenier, playing Lucifer’s messenger Mephistopheles. What a sly look he gives us when Faustus signs the contract that will give him two dozen years of power. Grenier doesn’t appear devilish, but has the demeanor of one who’s just getting through another day on the job. He solidly sets the table for Lucifer’s arrival. The devil is clad in a white suit under whose pants we can spy red socks – the same color that Mr. Applegate and Van Johnson chose for their hose. (I make no implication about Johnson’s true identity.)

The Seven Deadly Sins all come to life. The way that Andrei Belgrader has directed the scene allows for an Eighth Deadly Sin: Suckering the Audience. (‘Nuff said.) But eventually the two-hour shows gets to the issue at hand. To paraphrase Comden or Green, 24 years can go so fast, and now for Faustus, it’s me and Lucifer, Lucifer and me now and forever.

Belgrader and David Bridel have given their adaptation of Marlowe’s 1592 hit plenty of comic relief, not to mention quite a few dick jokes. A droll song comes across as droller because the two men accompany themselves on ukuleles. Is there any instrument that better suggests light comedy than a uke?

Helen of Troy enters in a Don’t-Cry-for-Me-Argentina dress. However, she doesn’t stay in it, which allows Marina Lazzaretto to display a body that would launch 5,000 ships and 10,000 rafts with men on them who’d be willing to paddle with their hands.

But just as some theatergoers become more interested in FOLLIES’ Carlotta Campion, Stella Deems and Hattie Walker (because they entertain) than Phyllis/Ben and Sally/Buddy (because they dolefully wash their dirty problems in public), so too do some DOCTOR FAUSTUS attendees grimace when the low-comics they’re enjoying relinquish the stage to Faustus and his doom-filled life.

Beware, those of you who don’t cotton to audience participation. As the second act begins, I notice that the first-row attendee who was pulled into the action during Act One has left. Is she afraid she’ll be conscripted to go on stage yet again? We’ll never know, but even people in Row D aren’t necessarily safe. In the second act, when the house lights come up once again, many in the audience shake in fear and wish they’d worn nicer clothes.

Three hours later, I’m at Shakespeare in the Park. When the weather’s good (and it is), there is no place on the island of Manhattan that’s better to be on a summer night than the Delacorte Theatre.

And now, following the last play that Marlowe wrote, we have what some scholars believe is the last play that Shakespeare wrote all by his lonesome.

Fewer than 20 years after Marlow’s premature death, THE TEMPEST opened in 1611. Did London theatergoers who’d seen The Bard’s TWELFTH NIGHT 10 years earlier say at the start of the show, “Oh, no, not another shipwreck!”? If they did, then the disaster wasn’t as imaginatively staged as it is in Michael Greif’s production. (Go see how.)

Here Riccardo Hernadez’s set works well, for it offers some rigging, cycloramas of ocean waves, and floorboards which are right for the ship’s deck. But when we’re moved to Prospero’s mysterious island, we get little more than horizontal and vertical neon bars to demarcate different locales.

Wouldn’t it be nice to see a set that’s a veritable magical, mystical miracle? There was a time when The Public spent a good deal of money on making its Central Park offerings look lush and lovely. Wilford Leach’s 1979 set for ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL was a veritable miniature golf course.

Chris Perfetti plays Ariel more as a contemporary gay than an airy spirit. When he’s not on stage, don’t bet against his cruising the just-arrived sailors. Years ago, when gay songwriter-spokesperson Tom Wilson Weinberg penned a ditty called “We’re Everywhere,” he may not have had Prospero’s island in mind, but Ariel makes it a place that qualifies.

Louis Cancelmi’s Caliban walks like one of those satyrs – you know, those bare-chested creatures with the furry thighs and horse legs.
When he speaks, his halting delivery is apt, as if he’s searching for many of his words and hoping he can come up with the right ones. And yet, for a slave, he can be pretty argumentative with Prospero. He comes alive after falling in with Stephano and Trinculo (great name for a pet, no?) as he finds that the master you don’t know may well be better than the master you do.

Why have I taken my time in mentioning Sam Waterston as Prospero? Some people only read a little of reviews – mostly the beginning and the end – and it’s fine with me if we keep a secret that Waterston simply isn’t good. I tried to give the benefit of the doubt as he seemed demented; after all, if you were exiled for a dozen years to a deserted island on which a witch gave birth to a monster, wouldn’t you go crazy, too? And yet, with his funny walk, eyebrows that look heavy enough to close his eyes, and a voice that sounds as if it’s suffering from emphysema, Waterston almost seems to be the mad scientist from FORBIDDEN PLANET (which, in case you didn’t know, was inspired by THE TEMPEST).

Much more impressive is Francesca Carpanini’s Miranda. At first, she’s Daddy’s little girl with a voice that has the right immature-slash-innocent sound. When she’s alone, however, she exhibits the feeling that something’s coming, something good.

Ferdinand does. He’s acceptably played by Rodney Richardson in a no-big-deal performance. Can Greif possibly be making the point that Ferdinand isn’t so much -- but in a world where you only run into your father, a sprite and a monster, he looks damn good.

It’s love at first sight for both of them, although his quick swoon means less than hers; for all we know, he may have a girl in every port. But many men like innocent foreigners, don’t they? The Internet is filled with offers to American men, enticing them to come to Russia and go on a blind date with women who may have more interest in coming into the U.S. of A. than into a relationship.

And while most men love women who make it easy, not much time passes before Miranda proposes. I don’t know about Ferdinand, but I’ve got a singular impression things are moving too fast.

That’s true for Miranda as well. In Act Five, Scene One when she finally gets a gander at all the other sailors, you may see (no matter where you’re sitting) Carpanini’s eyes widen when she says “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!”

Hmmm, will Miranda be happy with Ferdinand now that she’s seen everyone else? Too bad that in THE TEMPEST Shakespeare broke and buried his wand – metaphorically bringing on at least a first retirement. I’d like to see a sequel to find whether or not Miranda’s “love” is a stuff that will endure.


         — Peter Filichia



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