Arena Stage has stocked its production of "The Tempest" with more magic tricks than you are likely to find anywhere else in town -- save at some of the more prosperous novelty shops.
Stacks of kindling suddenly burst into fire, sending off showers of Fourth of July sparks. A tree sheds all its leaves instantaneously, then moments later changes its mind and sprouts dozens of white blossoms. Ariel, that omnipresent sprite, shoots up through the stage floor like a missile from a silo, while Trinculo, that sodden jester, steps gingerly into a shallow wading pool and promptly disappears.
Yet for all the jack-in-the-box astonishments, the trapdoor stratagems, the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't sleights of hand, this production, which opened last night, is bereft of deeper enchantment. If Arena had set out to illustrate the difference between magic and magic tricks, it could not have done a better job. You will marvel at the technical expertise that has produced so many eye-catching effects. And then you will wonder where the play is.
"The Tempest" may be Shakespeare's most fantastical work, presided over by Prospero, a deposed duke who has spent 12 years in island exile cultivating his supernatural powers and waiting for the day when he can wreak vengeance on his enemies. The characters are extraordinarily diverse -- ranging from Miranda, Prospero's sweet daughter, who at the play's start has yet to lay eyes on any male other than her father, to Caliban, that lump of baseness and appetite, who would lay a rude paw on anyone venturing too close. In addition, there are evil courtiers, goddesses from antiquity, drunken clowns and a shining white knight for Miranda to fall in love with (something, incidentally, Arena's Miranda, Melody Combs, does with appealingly adolescent charm).
All of them are caught up in the spells that Prospero throws over the stage like bolts of shimmering cloth. With Ariel doing his heavy work, he can conjure up the sort of sumptuous banquet tables and lavishly costumed pageants Louis XIV would envy. Or produce lightning and thunder clashes the devil would applaud. At his bidding, men fall into a deep sleep, go mad or lose their bearings and trudge off into the swamp. Eventually some of them find repentance budding in their shriveled souls.
Ultimately, of course, that is what "The Tempest" is about -- the healing of spiteful hearts, the mending of a universe that has momentarily been turned topsy-turvy, and the reconstitution of a social order racked by jealousy and covetousness.
But something mysterious and precious has been lost in the spectacle that director Garland Wright has put together on the polished white pine floor, concealing more surprises than a grab bag. Spectacular as the entrances and exits are -- people and props are constantly emerging from the bowels of the theater, or else dropping down from the rafters -- the scenes in between are flatly uninspiring. Backstage mechanics are the real substance of this production -- not the soul's convulsions -- and even Prospero is eclipsed by so much attention-grabbing business.
Actually, he is upstaged in another significant way. As Wright sees him -- and as Stanley Anderson plays him -- Prospero is the embodiment of the artist. Anderson is dressed in black shirt and pants; a smock serves as his magic cloak. With full mustache and beard, and his hair teased to the brink of wildness, he looks quintessentially Left Bank. But he is very much a contemplative artist, pondering from the edge of the stage the tumult he has stirred up, almost as if it were an unfinished canvas.
The relationship between the artist and his creation may be one concern of "The Tempest," but Anderson's quietly ironic performance is too meditative by half to compete with the rest of this production. Likewise, Ariel (John Leonard) has been transformed from a nimble pixie into the artist's gofer. He even dresses just like Prospero. He may dart hither and yon and swing from circus ropes, but temperamentally he's a chip off the master's block. Any "Tempest" in which Prospero and Ariel take a back seat is a production out of kilter.
The other characters are portrayed with such laboriousness as to further accentuate the imbalance. Trinculo (Patrick T. O'Brien) and Stephano (Mark Hammer) are as colorful as any clowns in Shakespeare, but I'm not sure that playing them as Laurel and Hardy increases their comic stature. Wright underscores their slapstick antics with so many Saturday morning cartoon sound effects that you may not feel the need to add the sound of your own laughter.
Meanwhile, Richard Bauer's Caliban tends to overpower every scene he's in -- merely by looking the way he does. The front half of his skull has been shaved bald; from the back half cascades a great mane of knotted black hair. His body movements suggest a crab with arthritis, while his long nails could scratch through prison walls. When Bauer squints and emits a long locomotive hiss, you may momentarily think you have stumbled into the great demon scene from a Japanese Kabuki play.
As a result, the only moments I truly believed were those between Miranda and her swain, Ferdinand (Brian Cousins). Their romantic interludes hardly constitute the play's strongest moments, but Wright lets them unfold relatively free of zap, crackle and pop, and some human emotions make their way to the surface.
For the most part, however, you'll have to content yourself at Arena with an Elizabethan version of the Doug Henning Show. Granted, Henning can be entertaining and his feats of prestidigitation invariably catch you off guard. But he's not Shakespeare. Neither, I fear, is this flashy, but empty, display of thaumaturgy.
THE TEMPEST. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Garland Wright. Sets, John Arnone; costumes, Jared Aswegan; lighting, Frances Aronson; composer, John McKinney. With Stanley Anderson, Melody Combs, John Leonard, Richard Bauer, Max Jacobs, Brian Cousins, Terrence Currier, Henry Strozier, Richard S. Iglewski, Patrick O'Brien, Mark Hammer. At Arena Stage through Nov. 11.