Sleekly assembled and easy on the eyes, Shakespeare Theatre Company’s new “The Tempest” is a highly enjoyable rendering of Shakespeare’s late romance and one of the warmer productions to brighten the confines of Sidney Harman Hall.
Director Ethan McSweeny, whose strength as a classical imagist has been on display in the past in works such as Aeschylus’s “The Persians,” here offers a wise and alluring take on Shakespeare, a “Tempest” of white-sand beaches under a haze-shrouded sun, of gods as monumental puppets manipulated by billowy sprites.
The sprite-in-chief, Ariel (Sofia Jean Gomez), on this occasion is an airborne spirit whose flight time proves far more exhilarating than the puddle-jumping executed on NBC’s recent live “Peter Pan.” The engaging Gomez’s liftoffs occur courtesy of ZFX’s flying effects. They send her up into the rafters and clear across the stage on an amusingly thick rope — the purposefully visible tether binding her inexorably to Prospero (Geraint Wyn Davies), lord of the magic-infused isle.
It’s Davies’s spirit, however, that sets the benevolent tone of this “Tempest,” which begins with an impressive storm, washing Prospero’s enemies onto his shores, and moves with considerable grace and speed toward a climax of comeuppance and reconciliation. Through Davies’s assured and beautifully declaimed performance, an audience understands fully that Prospero receives an education here, too, in compassion and restraint. For just as his overreaching brother Antonio (Gregory Linington) stole Prospero’s Milan dukedom, so has Prospero in exile turned usurper, subjugating the island’s ethereal Ariel and brawny Caliban (Clifton Duncan).
Most of the narrative thrust of “The Tempest” is comic: In the love story of Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Rachel Mewbron) and Ferdinand (Avery Glymph), one of the shipwrecked party, resides a tender romantic comedy; in the tale of Caliban, enlisting the silly Trinculo (Liam Craig) and inebriate Stephano (Dave Quay) in a plot to overthrow Prospero, the clowning escalates to broad oafishness. It’s only in the subplot of the retinue of Antonio and the King of Naples (C. David Johnson), on whom all-powerful Prospero seems bent on revenge, that Shakespeare charts a potentially destructive course. But even that thread feels only a halfhearted stab at darker intent; the playwright’s own magic is marshaled for a more magnanimous end.
In his judiciously trimmed version, McSweeny treats this gentle leitmotif as his inspiration, one that’s shared by the entire design team. Set designer Lee Savage spreads across the Harman stage a hillock of sand as pristine as one would find on the Caribbean beach of one’s fantasies (the accent of Duncan’s excellent Caliban suggesting as much). Jennifer Moeller’s voluminous oyster-colored robe for Prospero wittily establishes him as a majestic beachcomber, and Christopher Akerlind’s subtle lighting scheme gives off a series of softly becoming, occasionally multi-hued, glows.
This “Tempest,” too, feels as if it’s a valentine to good parenting. The relationship forged between Davies and Mewbron, in a beguiling turn as Miranda, comes across as an affectionately evolved bond; there’s a payoff, it seems, to being a stay-at-home dad on a desert island. (Intriguingly, Davies delivers the oft-quoted “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” speech to Miranda and Ferdinand in the admonishing voice of a dad who’s seen it all.) A comparable (if slightly more fraught) parent-child connection is suggested between Prospero and Ariel, the latter communicating in Gomez’s zesty portrayal some underlying bedrock of trust: the idea that while she’s not free, she counts on Prospero’s word that soon she will be.
McSweeny’s Ariel is served by a legion of assistant Ariels; one has seen this conceit before, but never developed quite so fluidly. With Gomez suspended above in her supervisory capacity, the fairy ensemble is unleashed to carry out the enchantments, as in the seductive interlude when some members of the shipwrecked party are guided into slumber in the spirits’ embraces. The sprites dance, too, in exuberant patterns devised by Matthew Gardiner, to Jenny Giering’s richly emotional score.
A culminating masque, accompanied by singer Nancy Anderson, reaffirms McSweeny’s sophisticated sense of spectacle. It’s the scene in which Prospero confers his blessings on Miranda and Ferdinand, via the gods Iris, Ceres and Juno. They are embodied here in an eye-filling parade, as puppets (by James Ortiz) in raiment of purple and gold, each of more massive scale than the one before.
These artier elements are meant to be leavened by the antics of Stephano and Trinculo, though out-and-out buffoonery is not one of “The Tempest’s” strong suits. Craig and Quay, in concert with Duncan, take the jokes just far enough. If not laugh riots, their scenes do no harm to the spell the play casts.
And this “Tempest” does succeed in casting one, a result that turns all of us into Prosperos: like him, bound for home in a generous frame of mind.
by William Shakespeare. Director, Ethan McSweeny. Set, Lee Savage; costumes, Jennifer Moeller; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Nevin Steinberg; original music, Jenny Giering; choreography, Matthew Gardiner; flying effects, ZFX; puppets, James Ortiz. With David Bishins, Ted van Griethuysen, Avery Clark. About 2 hours and 20 minutes. Tickets, $20-$110. Through Jan. 11 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Visit shakespearetheatre.org or call 202-547-1122.