Shakespeare Theatre Co. put together electrifying production of ‘The Tempest’

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Shakespeare Theatre Co. put together electrifying production of ‘The Tempest’
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By Jordan Wright (Photo/Scott Suchman)

Sometimes it’s good for a play to remind you the medium has technological constraints, rather than futilely try to mask them. Thankfully, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest production of “The Tempest” does just that.

Ariel is the feisty sprite in “The Tempest,” who flits around doing Prospero’s bidding. And yes, here she flies, aided by what appears to be a ship’s thick mooring line. It’s refreshing to have it be obvious, unlike the typical metal wire that breaks the illusion when it reveals itself only from time to time. Once you’ve gotten accustomed to it, it seems natural. As if a floating fairy might be considered natural.

If you need a Shakespearean plot refresher, Prospero (Geraint Wyn Davies), the former Duke of Milan, is endowed with magical powers and charges Ariel and her gang of harpies with fulfilling all of his commands — from the murder of his brother, Antonio (Gregory Linington), who stole his dukedom while he was lost at sea, to assuring the love match of his daughter, Miranda (Rachel Mewbron), and her paramour, the smitten Ferdinand (Avery Glymph).

“They are both in either’s powers,” Prospero brags upon their first encounter.

All of this makes Ariel a very busy little spirit, who also must supervise her cohort Caliban (Clifton Duncan). Once the proud owner of this island of Sycorax, Prospero has reduced his status to firewood-foraging duties. Sofia Jean Gomez plays Ariel, a hissing, clawing spitfire, with a duplicitous vulnerability. “Pardon, Master, I will do my spriting gently,” she assures Prospero, hoping to gain her freedom through obedience.

Director Ethan McSweeny presents us with a spare, sand-drenched set adorned with a single shipwreck. This bold arrangement allows the theatergoer to more fully absorb the characters’ relationships in this lightened up adaptation of Shakespeare’s final play, though the stripped-down interpretation still gives the audience all of the humor, skullduggery and romance inherent in the original play.

Although there is plenty of bloodthirsty treachery plotted by both the duke’s brother Antonio and his coterie of royal thugs, comic relief also features prominently.

Trinculo (Liam Craig), portrayed as a hapless jester, and Stephano (Dave Quay), a hilarious drunk, teams up with Caliban to create a classic scene of mistaken identity — if you can mistake three men under a gabardine cloth for a spider.

Meanwhile, the lords are plotting, as embittered royals are wont to do, to murder Prospero. But the sorcerer’s magical powers prove too strong to overcome and Prospero drugs the lords. “What’s past is prologue,” Antonio reminds us as he hatches the scheme.

Adding to McSweeny’s vision, sound designer Nevin Steinberg conjures up some jaw-dropping audio, producing a tempest filled with such thunder claps you’d be pardoned if you thought the entire theater might succumb to a roiling sea. Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind augments the storm’s ferocity with a few masterful tricks of his own.

When at last our two lovers are joined, Designer James Ortiz imagines the joyful goddesses Juno, Ceres and Iris as giant, diaphanously draped puppet masks, bringing to mind the fantastical puppetry of Julie Taymor, known best for her imaginary creatures in “The Lion King.”

With its classic source material, inventive stage and effects design, and booming sound, “The Tempest” is not to be missed.

Through January 18th at Sidney Harmon Hall, 610 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20003. For tickets and information contact the Box Office at 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org. 

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