The first of this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park productions is restrained and straight-to-the point, but there are moments of whimsy -- mostly in the second act -- that give “The Tempest,” starring Sam Waterston as deposed duke Prospero, its boom, thunder and roar.
Considering that this is a play with magic as a big theme, director Michael Greif (“If/Then,” etc.) has gone surprisingly straightforward and stylized in Central Park. The simple aquamarine backdrop of a churning ocean makes it clear we’re on an island. The “vessel,” on which some six dozen soldiers are trying to return home from a royal wedding, is presented in miniature.
The costumes get across their point, with little flourish: a crown here, an epaulet there. Throw in Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the “Modern Family” actor -- by now, a Delacorte regular -- in a hammy role (Trinculo, the king’s jester) that seems written for its appeal to the groundlings, and this place could be the Globe a few hundred years ago.
Waterston, who has appeared in 13 Public Theater productions, offers a Prospero who clearly hasn’t had contact with another adult for a dozen years, living instead on the lonely island and taking care of beautiful (and, shortly, boy-crazy) Miranda (Juilliard student Francesca Carpanini).
Exiled into a life with just his daughter and the spirit Ariel (Chris Perfetti, of HBO’s “Looking”), Prospero has become less refined than during his royal days, and he’ll get even more barky and lurchy once his “visitors” arrive -- Prospero, of course, has caused the tempest, in an attempt to punish the guilty and get his position back.
Ferguson is having a blast, mugging his way through a scene that finds him attempting to turn the half-naked body of deformed native Caliban (Louis Cancelmi) into a tent to take shelter from the storm.
As Miranda, Carpanini conveys the enthusiasm of a woman who’s never met a man other than her father and suddenly finds a dozen on her door step: “O brave new world that has such people in’t,” indeed.
Perfetti is a nice choice as the ethereal air spirit, who moves like a ballet dancer and makes us believe he’s yearning for his freedom. Cancelmi lends his Caliban a near bestiality, what with all the head-cocking and eye-popping.
Of the men who’ve been shipwrecked (they include the fine actors Charles Parnell, Frank Harts, Cotter Smith and Bernard White), the standout is Rodney Richardson as Ferdinand, who upon realizing that he stands a chance with Miranda -- in spite of her overprotective dad -- breaks out some unexpected moves.
As well, it’s always a treat to see Danny Mastrogiorgio (“Golden Boy,” “Rock”), here as Stephano, Trinculo’s drunken friend. (Ferguson and Mastrogiorgio are pictured, below.)
In the more-engaging second act, we move into flashier territory: Spirits carry a banquet into the forest for the sailors, with one spider-walking, her upturned belly the “table” for a tray of food. Later, Ceres (Tamika Sonja Lawrence) comes to bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, and another spirit performs gymnastics on a climbing rope.
Finally, the set is struck and Prospero delivers his soliloquy, leaving us only to watch Waterston and the view behind him of Belvedere Castle. By now, we’ve moved into Diane Paulus or Julie Taymor territory, and the theatrics lifted me enough that I wished there had been more. Still, Waterston and his colleagues make plenty of waves here.
“The Tempest,” through July 5 at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free and are distributed two per person (age 5+) at the theater beginning at noon on the day of each performance. See shakespeareinthepark.org.