What strange, pitiable figure is it that appears at the beginning of the Washington Shakespeare Company's "The Tempest"? The cheeks are chalky white, but the eyes are blackened and obscured; a blind man's staff scans the ground as the character walks, and long red tresses flow over a timeless, shapeless robe.
Could this be Tiresias, the celebrated blind prophet of mythology and ancient drama?
It is, sort of. The production's vast brain trust -- director Christopher Henley, assistant directors Jenifer Deal and H. Lee Gable, plus dramaturge Cam Magee -- have decided to graft Tiresias onto Shakespeare's banished, magical Prospero, the unhappily ousted Duke of Milan. The overlap is convincing, since both characters have supernatural powers that are gateways to higher wisdom.
Further, a program note reminds us that Tiresias spent seven years as a woman. The upshot of that fact is purely practical: With this particular Prospero divorced from the fixities of gender, Deal gets to play the part. Not that such well-marshaled logic is necessary anymore for nontraditional casting in Shakespeare, but isn't it nice to know someone gave it some thought?
Deal is the noble, meditative center of what turns out to be a pretty straightforward production. "The Tempest" is a revenge play with a benevolent heart, a cycle of foul plots and murderous power grabs that eventually calm and pass, much like the storm Prospero conjures to wreck his enemies on the nearly deserted island where he lives in exile with his daughter, Miranda. Henley and company rearrange some of the action, mainly early in the play, but their guiding impulse is to clarify, not reinterpret. And despite the rare injection of latter-day humor -- invoking the theme song from "The Poseidon Adventure," for example -- the gist of this show is by the book.
It's even a little staid, at least in terms of design; the island locale and magical elements have not inspired hothouse atmospherics. Ariel (Scott Kerns) and his attendant sprites crouch and scamper in the usual unearthly ways, grinning with mischief and striking angular poses, now and then leaping off an elevated platform and sliding down the rope tied to a scaffold in one of the corners of the room. (The play is staged on David C. Ghatan's simple in-the-round set.) The modern costumes that designer William Fisher creates for Prospero's shipwrecked victims are serviceable, and Kim Deane's soundscape supplies everything from wind and thunder to animal chirps, most of it coming across as slightly more on cue than organic. Ghatan's muted lighting design sometimes shifts abruptly, stopping or eliding time and frequently resorting to sea-green tones. The general effect is efficient, but short of transporting.
The show therefore rises and falls almost entirely according to the varied strength of individual actors, and the standouts in the large cast truly stand out. Meg Taintor shows wonderful ease with Shakespearean language as Antonio, the sibling who stole Prospero's dukedom; it's absorbing to watch Taintor's Antonio, in stiletto heels and a business suit, coldly stoke the ambition of Sebastian (Cesar A. Guadamuz). Alexander Strain does vivid work as Stephano, the heavy-drinking butler whose delusions of grandeur are comically inflated by the idolizing gaze of Caliban, the island's beastly native. Strain's relaxed physical energy brightens the stage.
Though there are no glaring miscalculations, some key performances fail to persuade. Daniel Ladmirault does not make an especially feral Caliban (a maligned character that modern productions, including this one, tend to treat carefully). Saskia De Vries is perhaps too strong a presence as the young Miranda; if the force and urgency of her characterization are patterned after Deal's imperial Prospero, it's at the expense of Miranda's sheltered vulnerability, something you really miss when the presumably wide-eyed girl swoons over Ferdinand, one of the shipwrecked royals. De Vries's Miranda seems too experienced to be bowled over by the brave new world she claims to marvel over.
As for Deal, her Prospero is effectively a figure apart and above. Deal makes more inroads with the character's stately mysticism (some perfunctory wand-waving notwithstanding) than she does in etching the struggle between the exile's anger and better angels, and she sometimes strains to capture every bit of romantic fire in the text. Yet Deal has natural authority onstage, and she's terribly intriguing merely watching, in her character's sightless way, sitting mannishly, reacting with richly mixed emotions as her daughter falls in love and her enemies move within reach. The performance doesn't resound with all the depth "The Tempest" has to offer, but it's a lucid piece of work.
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher Henley. With Regina Aquino, Jon Reynolds, Paul McLane, Chris Galindo, Monique LaForce, Anne Nottage, Katrina Wiskup, Joe Baker and Genevieve Williams. Approximately 2 hours 45 minutes. Through Sept. 5 at the Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington. Call 800-494-8497 or visit www.washingtonshakespeare.org.