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Tempest with a Twist at Shakespeare & Co.

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Photos by Kevin Sprague

What’s in an “A”?  In Shakespeare & Company’s rich and nimble production of The Tempest, it’s the difference between Prospero—the exiled Duke, loving father, and generally embittered sorcerer at the center of the story—and Prospera, that same character embodied in female form by Academy Award winner Olympia Dukakis.

The choice colors Dukakis’ fabulously nuanced portrayal of this wronged but compassionate ruler, who struggles between the urge for bloody vengeance and a nagging notion that, maybe, what we all need is to forgive each other and move on.

From the opening moments of this production (helmed by Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes), when Prospera calls forth a mighty storm to shipwreck her long-hated brother and his companions on the shore of her enchanted isle, Dukakis communicates a certain trepidation about the whole business. For someone who’s had over a decade in the wilderness to stew over her mistreatment, while ruling unchallenged over a small population of creatures and spirits, this Prospera goes about her revenge not with bitter glee but mixed feelings.

Plots has she laid, and she’ll get herself off this rock or die trying. But now that the moment has arrived, it’s clear she’s not enthusiastic about the prospect of the body count to come.

And so, when a remark by her spirit servant Ariel (played here by company veteran Kristin Wold in full, barefoot-sprite mode) triggers Prospera’s compassion just as her foes lie at her mercy, her resolution to abjure “this rough magic” comes not out of nowhere but as the culmination of a slowly winding process.

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This central morality play happens in the context of one of Shakespeare’s late-period “romances,” where fairy-tale elements combine with the usual stock of ambitious monarchs and wronged heirs to create a genre that blends fantasy with comedy and tragedy. It’s one of the Bard’s last plays, and one interpretation sees it as his farewell to the theater—with the magician Prospero, and his pledge to bury his staff and “drown [his] book,” suggesting the author’s sentiments at the end of a career.

So there’s humor, deep villainy, and an implausible plot shift or two. The right touch is needed to hit all these notes, and imbue the sometimes-fanciful happenings with earned psychological depth. Simotes ’ direction embraces this weird and wondrous spectrum, forging a whole that is relentlessly engaging and always feels true.

Upon entering the newly named Tina Packer Playhouse (formerly Founders’ Theatre), the audience is immediately brought to a place of otherness and whimsy: a chunk of the thrust stage is missing, transformed into a jagged coastline. Various flotsam, from empty bottles to a phonograph, has accumulated in all the corners of the set, designed by Sandra Goldmark. Ambient, New Age-leaning music (by Scott Killian) fills the air before the top of each act.

Merritt Janson, a company regular here since portraying Desdemona in Shakespeare & Company’s 2008 production of Othello, is convincing as Prospera’s daughter Miranda, salting a naïf-like innocence with precision comic timing and an affable randiness. Her job here is to fall in love with the heir to the King of Naples, played by Ryan Winkles with the sweet boyishness that has become his forte.

Rural Intelligence ArtsThere is much talent contributing to this vivid production, which uses a trimmed text to keep things moving while always finding the rhythm and humor in the verse. Every scene with Prospera, Miranda, and, eventually. Winkles’ Ferdinand is a treat, but the deep supporting cast brings rich colors to the far corners of Shakespeare’s little diorama, where the motives and actions unwinding in different milieus seem to echo and play off each other.

Obie Award-winner Rocco Sisto brings profound layers to the non-human slave Caliban. (As written, the play has him as sort of a fish, but here he is closer to cave man.) Sisto’s voice is heartbreakingly expressive, and when he goes to his lower registers to acknowledge that Prospera and Miranda taught him how to speak, only then to shriek a shrill curse, it implies his depth of feeling as well as the prodigious gifts of his captors.

Rural Intelligence Arts Jonathan Epstein’s butler Stephano is a perfectly rendered drunkard, one who’s perhaps just wandered off the stage of an English music hall. Forgoing broad gestures and gags, he affects the low-volume tipsiness of a professional imbiber, habitually mumbling and murmuring while finding humor in the gap between his instinct for propriety and inability to walk straight.

The director’s notes inform us the production is set in 1939, a too-literal gesture contexturalizing the casually elegant boating attire of the shipwrecked party (perhaps waylaid on their way to the Hamptons), but it does add an overhanging bit of melancholy; the bright future implied at the play’s close is to be followed, we know, by the devastation and war that Shakespeare spared these characters.

It’s just another shade of color in this bright and vivid production. Dukakis’ Prospera suggests that forgiveness is woman’s work, but within the reach of us all. —Jeremy D. Goodwin

The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tony Simotes
Featuring Olympia Dukakis
Tina Packer Playhouse
70 Kemble Street, Lenox
Through August 19

Full disclosure: for parts of 2007 through 2010, the author of this review worked in the communications department of Shakespeare & Company.

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 08/05/12 at 11:12 AM • Permalink