By Act IV’s wedding masque celebrating the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda, I fully capitulated to the spell of enchantment director Ethan McSweeny has conjured for The Tempest, his latest work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company.
With the admonition “No tongue! All eyes! Be silent!” the pageant unfurls: spirits flow across the stage in the form of giant puppets—vividly conceived by puppet designer and coach, James Ortiz—each more wondrous than the next, surrounded by a bevy of lithesome nymphs in a plaintive song and dance. It’s a wonderfully evocative scene, lifted aloft by the angelic voice of singer Nancy Anderson, and in its totality, completely in line with McSweeny’s penchant for painting bold, fresh strokes when reanimating the Shakespeare canon.
STC’s The Tempest is delightfully artful from beginning to end, employing both modesty and spectacle to best effect, from the gorgeous backdrop illustrating the eponymous storm at sea to the sculptural desert isle set, the low comedy of the fools to the sprite Ariel’s high-flying act.
McSweeny’s production is exuberant, hopeful and amply theatrical.
The story begins rightly enough with a storm and a shipwreck stranding the King of Naples and the Neapolitan and Milanese courts on a mysterious island imbued with strange currencies before introducing Prospero, the deposed duke already marooned for a dozen years with his young daughter Miranda. Included in the shipwrecked are Prospero’s enemies: his treacherous brother Antonio, who usurped his royal title and Alonso, the Neapolitan king, who conspired in the act. Other than father and daughter, the island is home to the ephemeral Ariel, a captive spirit engaged in Prospero’s work and the remarkable Caliban, Prospero’s slave and an extraordinary glimpse of the Elizabethan mindset into the burgeoning European expansion into the Americas.
Much like the newly marooned men, the production has a way of putting you under a spell. With a slow start in Act I, this critic’s antennae were restless … but imperceptibly, after literal flights of fancy, smiles and laughs, the gorgeous set design and shimmering lighting … voila! The muscles in my mind fell slack and pleasure washed over. As in the grand fever-dream dramas of filmmaker Werner Herzog, time becomes incalculable and motivations muddy as the characters churn and eddy in mad perambulation, searching for sustenance from a vexing mirage.
Prospero’s role as the runic stage director restoring the past compelled many to think that The Tempest was the great Bard’s valedictory farewell to the theater, and further, a personal rumination on dramatic art and the confines of the creative artist. It’s quite wonderful to think that in capping off his career, Shakespeare would spin a tale reminding the faithful believers that theater is indeed illusion. What a way to bid adieu—after the bloodletting of the tragedies—to wrap up earthly concerns through peacemaking and forgiveness, as he asks to “but release me from bands with the help of your good hands [applause now].”
The stellar production design would have made Prospero (and Shakespeare) proud. Many of the design principals from the STC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream return here. Lee Savage’s set ingeniously brings the action forward-stage, and frames it within a proscenium-like half-shell of Ozymandian ruins. The prominent hillock of sand and striking ship wreckage stays center-stage throughout, seamlessly integrated into each locale.
Jennifer Moeller’s costume work is mostly superb, especially the castaway courtiers’ sumptuous period garb and the island nymphs’ sexy pagan couture. Prospero and Miranda are dressed in the blanched linen look of island exiles everywhere and could have been gussied up a bit (the man is a magi after all), but that’s a small complaint. The lighting design by Christopher Akerlind is another character in the piece, always changing with the time of day or at the mercy of Prospero’s magic. Similarly, Nevin Steinberg’s sound design adds greatly to the overall theatricality of the production.
Closes January 11, 2015
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall
610 F Street NW
2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $55 – $110
Tuesdays thru Sundays
It’s probably true to say that the stagecraft outshines the performances but the actors’ work is welcoming enough and gets the job done. Geraint wyn Davies cuts an imposing figure as Prospero, part trickster, part terror, in a performance that also attests to a kindly authority. He bestows a genuine affection for two of his three island “children,” his natural issue Miranda, ardently played by a winsome Rachel Mewbron, and the otherworldly Ariel, played by Sofia Jean Gomez, in an effervescent, almost entirely airborne performance courtesy of flight director Stu Cox and flying effects by ZFX. The puckish Gomez spends the play omnipotently soaring above the action, tethered to a rope, the symbol of her contract with her master Prospero.
Clifton Duncan admirably captures the spurned “child” Caliban’s humanity and sense of resentment in an underwritten role. The fools Trinculo and Stephano (Liam Craig and Dave Quay, respectively) are the audience favorites, gamboling drunkenly about the set and providing much amusement. It’s also nice to see STC stalwart Ted van Griethuysen comfortably in the role of the good Gonzalo, speaker of the famous utopian lines inspired by Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals.”
McSweeny’s productions at the Shakespeare Theatre Company have become must-see events. From The Persians (2006) through The Merchant of Venice (2011), Much Ado About Nothing (2011), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2012) and now the The Tempest, McSweeny’s work is, by turns, ambitious, showy, electrifying and spectacular. His attentive wonderworks refresh the appeal of Shakespeare’s work while retaining the fidelity and beauty of the language.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare . Directed by Ethan McSweeny . Featuring Geraint Wyn Davies, Rachel Mewbron, Sofia Jean Gomez, Clifton Duncan, C. David Johnson, Avery Glymph, David Bishins, Gregory Linington, Ted van Griethuysen, Avery Clark, Liam Craig and Dave Quay . Scenic design: Lee Savage . Costume design: Jennifer Moeller . Lighting design: Christopher Akerlind . Sound design: Nevin Steinberg . Composer: Jenny Giering . Choreography: Matthew Gardiner . Flight director: Stu Cox . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.