by David A. Rosenberg
What is it about Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” that drives some directors off a cliff? Is it because they can go wild with the play’s more fantastic elements? We’ve seen some doozies over the years of the Bard’s final solo work, in which he seems to sum up his theatrical philosophy. (“Our revels now are ended. These our actors…were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air.”)
The latest to go awry is Hartford Stage’s forgettable season closer. As staged by that theater’s new artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, this is Shakespeare filtered through Cirque du Soleil. The startling opening has a sleeping female morphing into a ship’s figurehead, the billows of her yellow dress becoming the vessel caught in the title storm. Overhead, a man, presumably a sailor, gets into all sorts of acrobatic positions while enmeshed in material. He appears later, doing the same stunt.
Stunts, in fact, dominate the production. The set and some of the costumes are strewn with words, mirroring Prospero’s bookishness, yet the evening cares not a whit for language. Admittedly a talkative play with little action, certain scenes, like the noblemen’s, are more a chore to sit through than usual.
As servants of the exiled magician Prospero, the dark, earthy and prosaic Caliban and the light, airy and poetic Ariel alternately impede and assist in his quest for justice. Having been usurped from his dukedom in Milan, Prospero causes the storm that lands foes and friends on the island. Among them is young Ferdinand, with whom Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, falls in love. At the end, having chastised his former colleagues, Prospero forgives all and harmony is restored. “Now my charms are all o’erthrtown, and what strength I have mine’s own,” he says.
Critic Arthur Quiller-Couch labeled the dark comedy’s stage history as “a tale of distortion and misuse.” Yet there have been successful productions, such as the 1945 one directed by the great Margaret Webster which is the longest-running Broadway production of the work. As brilliant were exciting productions by director Giorgio Strehler, in Italian no less, and one at the American Shakespeare Theater with Morris Carnovsky.
It’s not an easy play to do. Directors are either confused by or revel in its elements of the masque, the elaborate court extravaganza with roots in fertility rites. First performed in 1611, five years before its author’s death, the play continues to intrigue. A recent film starred Helen Mirren as Prospero. Gender-bending continues when Olympia Dukakis takes the role in the Berkshires this summer.
At Hartford, Daniel Davis is a solemn Prospero. Sara Tophan and William Patrick Riley do well as Miranda and Ferdinand, while Bruce Turk (Trinculo), Michael Spencer-Davis (Stephano) and Ben Cole (Caliban) get a lot of mileage from their scenes, as does Shirine Babb as Ariel.
For contrast, look for Christopher Plummer’s authoritative, amused, magical Prospero. It’s on view when his Stratford, Canada, performance is screened at local theaters. Upcoming, too, is a new operatic version at the Met Opera.
If you go to Hartford, stop in at the Wadsworth Museum, a small treasury of works by important artists. Currently, a superb Andrew Wyeth exhibit reveals more about what “The Tempest” says than the Hartford Stage production. As one explanatory label has it, “look beyond what is familiar in the hopes of finding something deeper.”