Prospero’s minions may whip up the odd “insubstantial pageant” (as the duke-turned-magician puts it at one point), but the minions themselves are substantial. At least, that’s the case in WSC Avant Bard’s “The Tempest”: Outshining other elements in this uneven production, directed by Tom Prewitt, the depictions of Ariel and Caliban are vivid and intriguing, conjuring up a brave new world.
In a memorable although not unprecedented touch, Ariel manifests as multiple bodies: Emily H. Gilson, Camille Pivetta and Reginald Richard portray the spirit’s tripartite incarnation, sporting fierce gazes, blue lips and glam-thrift-shop garb. (Think, a demonic Cyndi Lauper.) Clustered together, or vigilantly crouched in different parts of the alley-configuration stage area, the actors take turns voicing Ariel’s lines, or speak them in unison.
When the spirit materializes as a harpy, the performers bunch together amid wings and a masklike face. Throughout, the trinity-style Ariel registers as eerie and suitably inhuman. As portrayed by Justin J. Bell, Caliban is also eye-catching, moving in a rivetingly acrobatic and off-kilter style. He sometimes scuttles near the ground, so that he seems to be all knees; other times, he hangs off vertical surfaces, or incorporates a swooping head motion into a step. He’s an appealing fellow, too: When he eloquently describes the island’s “sounds and sweet airs,” his face lights up with infectious enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, Christopher Henley’s portrayal of Prospero is much less satisfying. The company’s former artistic director, Henley displays a faltering stage presence here. Moreover, his Prospero comes across as unauthoritative, avuncular and occasionally giggly. When he’s around his daughter Miranda (Allyson Boate, radiating modern self-possession), you can’t help thinking she might send her dad to his cell without any dinner. (The dorky-looking magic garment he wears doesn’t help.) In addition to making a number of the play’s scenes feel flat, the anemic, chummy-seeming incarnation of Prospero renders the power dynamics in the story — Prospero’s (mis)treatment of Caliban, for instance — less meaningful and resonant.
In supporting turns, Alyssa Sanders and Cam Magee are quite funny as, respectively, the buffoonish Trinculo and Stephano, who dress in amusingly oddball yacht-club garb. The duo double as Sebastia (would-be usurper of the Naples throne) and Antonia (who usurped Prospero’s dukedom), rendered here as female courtiers in the entourage of King Alonso (Frank Britton) and his son Ferdinand (a likable Miles Folley). Andrew Bellware’s atmospheric music complements the now-funny, now-sinister pageantry. Costume/props designer Greg Stevens also created the nifty set, dominated by a ship’s deck. This structure gains significance in the show’s final moments, when actors don overcoats to depict Prospero and others leaving the island. In the sequence, which partly mirrors the initial storm scene (whose dialogue is inaudible), the travelers look weary.
With the compellingly idiosyncratic embodiments of Ariel and Caliban having directed our attention toward the idea of difference, and how we relate to it, the image seems to muse on xenophobia and bigotry in our own world. “The Tempest” is often said to have drawn on reports of New World exploration in Shakespeare’s era. In this staging, the final poignant tableau evokes rebuffed huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tom Prewitt; lighting design, Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.; assistant director and choreographer, Sandra L. Holloway. With Brian Crane. 2 hours 15 minutes. Tickets: $30-$35, with some pay-what-you-will performances. Through July 1 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. avantbard.org.