Music & Theater Review: THE TEMPEST (LA Phil and The Old Globe at Disney Hall in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on November 14, 2018

in Music,Theater-Los Angeles


An ill wind hit Disney Hall last weekend with this collaboration between LA Phil’s Guest Conductor Susanna Mälkki and Old Globe Theatre’s Artisitic Director Barry Edelstein. Pairing edited versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Jean Sibelius’s incidental music is a great idea, but the waste of talent and energy and money was staggering to behold. Instead of a storm, we were left drifting at sea.

Sometimes laudable but mostly baffling and frustrating, this behemoth production — which ended at Saturday’s matinee after a three-performance run — manages to muddle Shakespeare’s second-shortest play (after The Comedy of Errors). Usually, the more spectacular the vision of the complex and intricate The Tempest, the better the results. Here, there’s so much going on — and then nothing at all but a badly blocked scene — that it all felt like an imaginative liability. With 150 players on stage, the orchestra squeezed upstage, a gigantic screen, a chorus sitting on either side of the band, Mark Wendland’s set of strange geometric shapes, and Judith Dolan’s gorgeous costumes — a mash-up of Elizabethan and Lewis Carroll whimsy — the story took second fiddle to the overcooked goings on.

The tale of a usurped Duke of Milan, Prospero, who has escaped with his daughter Miranda to a desert isle, the script treats (among others) issues of fidelity vs self-interest, heredity vs self-determination, and reality vs illusion. The relationship of Prospero to his servants Ariel and Caliban is questionable: whether he got his uncanny powers from book-study, as he claims, or from Caliban’s mother Sycorax, a conveniently deceased sorceress who used to live on the island; whether Caliban is a foundling or really his son; whether Prospero and Ariel’s connection is more than master and servant: these questions have been asked and answered by many a production. I have no idea what Edelstein was going for here, except to prove he has a big budget.

After Prospero raises a storm to shipwreck his antagonist brother Antonio, King Alonso of Naples, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian upon Prospero’s island, the duke uses tricks of mirror and smoke to dazzle his enemies into subjugation — and Edelstein pulled out all the plugs of this ship to give us mere confusion, not helped by adding pieces from Auden’s poetic analysis, The Sea and the Mirror. (The supertitles sure looked good, though, given Jeff Sugg’s projections, mixed with Japhy Weideman’s tricky shadow-play lighting.)

I pitied those in the audience at Disney Hall who had never seen The Tempest before. The Elizabethan language and the play’s three plots make it confusing enough, but here the storytelling was convoluted, the acting vacillated between professional and hammy, and sound designer Jonathan Burke couldn’t overcome the amplification issues for performers, which always cause a little reverb. Easily half the audience bolted at intermission.

The biggest problem here was Israeli stage and screen actor Lior Ashkenazi as Prospero. When competing with a full upstage orchestra, soloists, chorus, and electrified echoing sound, you would think Edelstein would hire the most articulate actor — and a local one at that. But every third word out of Ashkenazi’s mouth came out weird: “Milan” = “MEE-lahn”; “Sleep” = “Slip”; “Cedar” = “sitter”; etc. How did an actor making his American stage debut — performing onstage in English for the first time, no less — get this job? Casting sure makes strange bedfellows. (It’s a shame there weren’t supertitles for Ashkenazi.)

Coherent and thoughtful, Audrey Corsa made a fine Miranda. The great Beth Malone was a ravishing Ariel, aided by dancers who literally flew the spirit overhead (creative choreography by Patrick McCollum). Michael Genet as Alonso, King of Naples, had three levels: Screaming, shrieking, and wailing. And for Trinculo, Kevin Cahoon clearly went to the “Frank Morgan as The Wizard” School of Acting. Grantham Coleman needed something more than swooning as the marooned Ferdinand who loves Miranda; and Tom McGowan was a John Candy-esque buffoon as Caliban.

Although Mälkki once again proved herself an amazingly passionate conductor, creating some positively enchanting music, the biggest headscratcher of the night was the dearth of Sibelius’s music. Was it just my imagination, or ennui, or did we not get all 75 minutes? Sure, a lot of it is slight, with incidentals just one or two minutes long, but the music — scored for the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen in 1926 — is rich, inventive, and downright fun.

Given the climate of our age of anxiety, there’s a special message to be found in the play: If Prospero, perhaps to give his daughter a lesson in magnanimity, can forgive the enemies who supplanted him in Milan and consigned him to a barren island, we too can forgive all. But I sure wish I had a magic staff to get those two hours back.

photos by Mathew Imaging

The Tempest
Los Angeles Philharmonic and The Old Globe
Susanna Mälkki, conductor
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave.
played November 8-10, 2018
for future events, call 323.850.2000 or visit LA Phil

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