Here is Caliban, malformed and brutish slave to Shakespeare’s word-drunk wizard Prospero, assuring his newfound friends that the mysterious island on which they’ve been shipwrecked is not such a scary place:

“Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears; and sometime voice that if I then had waked after long sleep,
will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming, the clouds methought would open and show riches ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again.”

I’ve seen The Tempest dozens of times — several of them in the same Delacorte Theatre as this production in Central Park, the free Shakespeare that has been a hallmark of the Public Theater for over five decades. With its natural surround of trees waving gently in the summer breeze and the Belvedere Castle looming just beyond the stage, it’s a setting that all but invites this play about the uses of enchantment and makes poets of critics with its irresistible alchemy of nature and manufacture blending into something precious. Or sometimes merely semi-precious but alluring just the same.

And while I’ve heard Caliban’s words as many times, I can’t recall another when they struck me like a song — on a perfect New York evening, when the wind itself was so gently but insistently co-operative that the actors’ waving hair and rippling costumes seemed to be in a constant extra-photogenic state. Caliban’s words struck me as a perfect precis of life on this isle Manhattan. Well, Manhattan on a good day, to be sure. For which I’m grateful to Louis Cancelmi, whose performance merges man and monster with a tenderness rarely allowed this complicated character.

Tempest, The Public Theater/Delacorte TheaterAnd so it was little surprise to me that, in this otherwise dispiriting presentation of Shakespeare’s valedictory, the most touching farewell is not Prospero’s to his dutiful sprite Ariel, but to his just-freed slave. It seemed utterly reasonable in a moment pregnant with self-accounting, forgiveness and anticipation. After 15 years of exile with only his precious daughter Miranda and his even more precious books to comfort him, Prospero will be returned to his throne in Milan. He has forgiven the usurping brother brought here through the magical gifts he now can finally give up, though not before seeing Miranda betrothed to the prince Ferdinand and freeing the mirror-image creatures Ariel and Caliban.

The Public and the Delacorte are familiar places for Waterston (currently co-starring on Netflix’ hit series Grace And Frankie and late of Law And Order and The Newsroom), who has played the gamut from angry young Hamlet to mad old Lear. His affect as an actor is to draw the audience into intimate conversation, which was one reason I liked his eccentric Lear a few years back. But his Prospero is more literal-minded than magical, fragmented with oddly bizarre line readings (he charges through “Our revels now are ended” at breakneck speed, as if to toss it off before anyone has a chance to revisit its enduring poignancy) and a jarring casual physicality that frequently suggests he’s dancing a private jig.

Tempest, The Public Theater/Delacorte TheaterThe rest of Michal Greif’s production is merely mundane, from Emily Rebholz’ hodge-podge of costumes (with Ariel and Caliban in matching Christopher Street gear), Riccardo Hernandez’s uninspired seascape setting (thank goodness for those trees) to the mixed bag of acting styles that are the mark of most Central Park Shakespeare productions, sometimes winningly so, sometimes, as here, not. Francesca Carpanini is a willowy, actressy Miranda not well complemented by Rodney Richardson’s earnest Ferdinand. Chris Perfetti’s Ariel is, in the modern mode, less spritely than full of intent. I wish there were more humor in the production; even the comic relief Shakespeare provides with the jester Trinculo and the drunken sailor Stephano seemed, in the performances of Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Danny Mastrogiorgio respectively, to be running on low batteries.

Some Cirque du Soleil visuals were provided by the spirits of Iris (Olga Karmansky), Ceres (Tamika Sonia Lawrence) and Juno (Laura Shoop). They couldn’t compete with the show that nature provided in this only intermittently moving evening.