At its best, Shakespeare and Company’s The Tempest is best critiqued by the playwright: “This is a most majestic vision, charming and harmonious” . . . “something rich and strange” . . . “Now I believe there are unicorns” . . . “Marvelous sweet music!”
The play itself is theatrical magic, the alpha and omega of Shakespeare’s art: The first play presented in the First Folio, it was the last play Shakespeare wholly wrote and includes not one but three separate speeches that serve as “farewells” by the aged protagonist, Prospero, for his art, magic—an easy analogy to Shakespeare and his art. Artistic director Tony Simotes sets free Shakespeare’s romance—a play part drama, part comedy—full of spirits, storms, music, magical creatures, and one pivotal character whose lineage is half human, half demon. Think of The Tempest as a more mature Harry Potter or a less licentious Game of Thrones, depending on the audience or the director’s aesthetic. Shakespeare’s second shortest play in number of lines, three-quarters of it in blank verse (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a similar length comedy, is only 40 percent blank verse for example), The Tempest is yet rich in spectacle and aural magic. And when Shakespeare and Company does what it does best, giving life to Shakespeare’s words, The Tempest thrills on many levels. As with their King Lear, performed in repertory this summer with several actors playing in both productions, this Tempest enchants with its humanity, accessibility, and theatrical magic.
Simotes, working with film and theater legend Olympia Dukakis as “Prospera” instead of Prospero, sets his Tempest in the late 1930s; the costume design by Deborah Brothers is full of white linen, beige trousers and naval jackets. Set designer Sanda Goldmark gives the production an island of stone. The coral-colored rocks, the almost-bare tree at center stage, and the wood crates or trunks at the cardinal points of the stage seem to shift under Matthew E. Adelson’s archetypal lighting for the different locales on this impossible island of beaches, swamps, mountains, meadows, streams.
Simotes supports this smart stagecraft by streamlining Shakespeare’s play; the opening shipwreck becomes a wordless tableau revealing the relationship between the mage Prospera, her airy spirit servant Ariel (a sublime Kristin Wold), and the corporal Caliban (the peerless Rocco Sistot). Scott Killian’s sound design creates the title tempest with wind, waves, thunder, and some eerie whispering of the spell that swirls in the storm. In most productions of The Tempest, the opening storm moves in real time; here storm and the basic relationships are set in a minute.
The normally interminable 500-line second scene of exposition for Prospero’s seeking revenge on his usurping brother Antonio (a Romney-slick James Read) and his confederate King Alonso (Thomas L. Rindge), is trimmed and rearranged so that the always crowd-pleasing clown scene introducing Trinculo the Jester (a very funny Timothy Douglas) and the drunken king’s butler Stephano (Jonathan Epstein, channeling his inner Oliver Hardy, master of the slow burn) as well as the attempted murder scene are interspersed. This choice keeps the pace quick and the audience engaged.
Dukakis lends a gravitas that often goes missing. Here the usual menace that for males is a substitute for “gravitas” is replaced by showing the cost of Prospera’s dilemma: revenge or forgiveness. Her choices have weight. As the action takes place in one day, Prospera’s planning and casting of spells take a toll physically on her. The unique interpretation of Caliban as a blond-haired, luminescent albino in a loincloth—he’s like a grown-up Draco Malfoy at a men’s retreat—furthers Simotes’ smart touches. This imaginatively takes the play’s description of Caliban as a “moon-calf” and spawn of a “blue-eyed hag” as the basis of this pivotal character—Caliban was born on this uninhabited island only because his witch mother was banished there— instead of the clichéd “oppressed native” the text doesn’t support.
And yet, when the production ranges far from Shakespeare’s words, the air can be sucked out of the Tina Packer Playhouse. That “whoosh” is heard in act three, scene one, when Prospera utters haltingly and repeatedly “a lesson, a lesson in restraint,” which might be a great acting mantra for the scene, but aren’t words Shakespeare wrote. There is also the marring of the great masque scene that leads to the renowned “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” monologue with some inserted “busyness.”
“Play the play,” as the wise director said. Let Shakespeare critique the results: “You cram these words into my ears” . . . “Let it alone, thou fool; it is but trash” . . . “Sweet lord, you play me false” . . . “Do not infest your mind with beating on/The strangeness of this business.”