'The Tempest': McSweeny's Potent Brew Is Hypnotic and Fragile
As with many things in theater, but surely for sure with Shakespeare, you realize that most plays are never really finished. A production may end, but the play never does. At best, it sleeps,waiting for another gentleman caller, another audience, another hardy company to make it come to life again, as if by magic.
These thoughts seem pertinent, when confronting another production of “The Tempest,” the Bard’s presumed last play (discounting whatever he had to do with “Henry VIII”), a play many consider a valediction, a summing up, a goodbye to the stage.
It may indeed be just such a thing, but it is quite a bit more, a play every bit as layered and intertwined like a spool of rich thread with themes as “Lear” or “Hamlet”, although not nearly as tragic as all that. It’s more like a well full of wishes, incantations and complications—every time you thrown down the bucket, something different comes up with the water.
Director Ethan McSweeny manages to pull quite a bit of the play’s rich diversity together in his bewitchingly engaging production now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Sidney Harman Hall. He seems at one with the central character of Prospero, a much wronged duke and self-taught, powerful wizard holding sway over a barren island, in the sense that there’s a feeling of enchantment and spells over this production.
This “Tempest” is a potent brew that is both hypnotic and fragile. You feel sometimes, against all rational will, that if you turned around or closed your eyes for a few seconds, that the world created on stage could all disappear in a flash—the duke, the lords, Ariel and Caliban, the lovers, the fools, the sweet old man, the island, this rough magic. Of course, like all plays, it does exactly that in the end, but it lingers, too, more than most.
This “Tempest” in the end is why we go to the theatre—and particularly why we return to Shakespeare—time and again, and he to us. The work, this play, the canon, are the gifts the Bard’s final present to us, and his own farewell that keeps on giving, and McSweeny and the cast and designers have wrapped it up on ribbons that seem musical and timeless.
Prospero is the ousted Duke of Milan, betrayed by his brother, left after a storm on an island with his daughter Miranda, an island inhabited by the sprite Ariel and the self-described monster Caliban, whom he subdues to his will. Years have passed, and now a ship bearing his brother, his accomplice the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand and Prospero’s old retainer Gonzalo is driven to shipwreck by a mighty tempest conjured by Prospero, bringing his old enemies to him for: revenge, you might think. You might think again that Shakespeare stopped of being so literal, excluding the gaudy grand guignol of “Titus Andronicus” early on.
Prospero wants a conclusion to the things that changed his life. He wants an ending for himself and his foes and his magic, a future for his daughter—and a few other things. He wants solace and meaning and if that sounds too philosophical for today’s audiences, not to worry. McSweeny knows how to tell a story on stage that is crystal-clear in its language, powerful in its focus, and beautiful to look at, paced like scenes from a particularly swift movie.
The entire production—at just a little over two hours—move swiftly, like a loud poem, colorful, from scene to scene, which is something that rarely happens with this play. It’s a play full of distractions and traps, as well as the potential for glory and disaster, both.
Here’s what happens to it and in it: you laugh, you are amazed and awed, you’re dazzled, you come close to tears, as you should, you wiggle a little like a worm because not all of what Prospero does easy to digest. But here we are with no easy answers, but lots of delight.
The Welsh actor Geraynt Wyn Davies, who swashbuckled as Cyrano de Bergerac here several seasons ago, takes command of the production, but he is not just stern and powerful but a wiser and wizened wizard. There’s a storehouse of warmth in him that splashes over the potential bitterness. He is not blameless—here is Ariel, the sprite that makes his magic happen, but is also a slave in his service, as is Caliban a slave. Ariel reminds him that he promised her freedom—this spirit, played with great appeal by Sofia Jean Gomez, flies, but she’s also visibly tethered not just to earth but to Prospero. Caliban, the violent offspring of a dreaded witch who once ruled the island, sees himself a monster and acts accordingly, hitching himself to the show’s clowns, Trincolo and Stephano in a plot to murder Prospero, a plot that’s thwarted by many bottles of wine.
The wayward dukes are also plotting against each other, without knowing of Prospero’s presence. Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples, is lost to them, but meets Miranda, the awe-struck, love-struck daughter of Prospero, played with verve and the kind of frisky, smart sexiness that is all the more appealing for being totally spontaneous. Through it all, actor Ted van Griethuysen, as the stalwart, kind and steady retainer, is a wonder. We have seen him it seems through his whole life, marching through it with his roles.
What Prospero is after is righting things, then forgiving the crimes, including his own. As a kind of pre-wedding gift, he stages a gift of a party for the lovers which comes in the form of spirits played by puppets, becoming larger and more massive with each appearance. It is stagecraft and Prospero’s bit of magic.
“The Tempest” is also about the stage—about stagecraft and theater life—for what is a playwright but a magician who creates whole worlds out of nothing but words, beautiful words. His last act is to give it all up to us, and let us give him his last reward: “For we are such stuff as dreams, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”
Like a dream, “The Tempest” drifts away from us, as all plays do. And it lingers, as the best plays do, as if we not only experienced it in the here and now gone, but as a dream we dreamed before and will hoard for the future.
"The Tempest" runs at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall through Jan. 11.