From the Folger, a Mellow 'Tempest'

Michael Rudko plays a Prospero without much of a temper, and Erin Weaver is his daughter.
Michael Rudko plays a Prospero without much of a temper, and Erin Weaver is his daughter. (By Carol Pratt -- Folger Theatre)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 17, 2007

Folger Theatre's "The Tempest" exerts visceral fascination mere seconds into the Aaron Posner production. A round screen above the stage fills with footage of heavy seas, and Dan Covey's lighting design pinpoints actress Marybeth Fritzky as sirenlike sprite Ariel -- a live figure hovering amid the waves and fleetingly glimpsed celluloid sailors, luring them to shipwreck.

In raw theatrical terms, that's the high-water mark of this otherwise calm, contemplative "Tempest." After the storm, Posner handles this late Shakespearean play as if it's slender crystal. The story might be triggered by exile and vengeance, but this streamlined, prayerful production is all about forgiveness -- a business so delicate that its chief engineer, Prospero, frequently stands in hushed awe.

It's a slightly unbalanced production, with anger and vengeance nearly banished in favor of a benevolence that doesn't seem especially hard-won. "What's past is prologue" is projected on that screen before the play begins, and Posner directs the show as if that initial storm were a massive baptism, instantly washing away years of exile and bad blood.

As he painstakingly explains to his daughter after the squall, Prospero used to be a duke. His own brother hatched the plot that did him in, and now that this fraternal rival and other sundry enemies have sailed within striking distance of his desert island (they're returning from a wedding across the Mediterranean), Prospero has unleashed his dark powers and is poised to settle accounts.

Only this Prospero doesn't seem to have much of a temper or a taste for grudges. Michael Rudko, dressed like a castaway and bearded vaguely like Shakespeare, is strikingly focused and paternal with his daughter, Miranda, explaining their unhappy history like a kindly professor. You get the sense of a father who wants to repair the world before sending the long-isolated Miranda out into it.

The non-threatening nature of Rudko's Prospero costs the show dramatic tension; when he contemplates his options -- virtue or vengeance? -- the outcome is never in doubt. Yet paradoxically the characters, Prospero included, are thrown into sharp relief by the production's magnanimous tone. Nearly everyone is anxious at the prospect of some kind of fresh start.

Erin Weaver's Miranda is especially wide-eyed and chirpy once she spies the handsome young Ferdinand (Mikaal Sulaiman). She's a bluebird peering out of the nest, and the show's generally low-key approach to Shakespearean language is at its most relaxed and colloquial when Weaver and Sulaiman bashfully, giddily woo.

Most daring is Posner's take on Caliban, the island native that Prospero has conscripted as a personal servant. Todd Scofield plays Caliban like an escapee from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," entering in a straitjacket and so obsessed with what he perceives as Prospero's tyranny that he invents Stephano and Trinculo, two confederates to help him overthrow the boss. These shipwrecked characters are typically played by actors, but Stephano is here rendered by Caliban's left hand, while Trinculo is an empty liquor bottle in his right hand. Scofield handles this with inward fury that's just about unhinged; it's as if Posner's channeled all the play's resentments into this festering figure.

The show's rough magic is cued by simple looks and gestures from Prospero and with Fritzky's Ariel perched with John Boesche's flickering projections in that airborne circle, her throaty voice occasionally chasing around the room electronically and descending toward Marianne Faithfull range as she sings. (The original music and sound design are by Lindsay Jones.) Posner cuts down on the extra characters and pageantry; this staging requires but nine actors and clocks in at two hours. Not that it's brisk: The scenes of Prospero's ever-scheming enemies are ponderous, with actors stranded on the flatlands of Tony Cisek's spare set, and the pace is never more than measured.

Was this late play a farewell from Shakespeare? When Rudko steps back and delivers Prospero's "Our revels now are ended" speech, which includes a lament for "the great globe itself" that inevitably evokes the famous theater, it's particularly tempting to think so.

You might encounter "Tempests" with more grandeur or panache, but few as tuned in to this mood of fond reflection.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Costumes, Kate Turner-Walker. With Michael Stewart Allen, Jefferson A. Russell, David Emerson Toney and Jim Zidar. About two hours. Through June 17 at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 210 East Capitol St. SE. Call 202-544-7077 or visit

© 2007 The Washington Post Company