The production of The Tempest currently running at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre is perfectly competent, with flashes of brilliance, but it suffers from comparison to some of the high points of the company’s season. Director Mary Zimmerman’s recent visualization of Shakespeare’s Pericles was an astonishing and moving production of a not especially distinguished play. In contrast, director Kate Whoriskey here finds comparatively little magic in a much better work.
The production begins promisingly, as thunder and lightning (original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, lighting design by Charlie Morrison) shake the audience as well as the stage. Walt Spangler’s set suggests pieces of the wrecked hull of a ship, and the opening scene seems to take place underwater: “drowning” sailors hover above the timbers, suspended by wires or hanging off free-floating ropes, and the air is thick with fog. Soaring above all is Ariel (Daniel Breaker), here depicted as an African spirit with a painted face, strapped into a flying harness and chanting in Swahili.
Swahili, in Shakespeare? The interpolation of native languages is one of Whoriskey’s conceits – the interplay of cultures, the question of domination and colonialism – and while the idea has some relevance to the play, in practice it’s a little clumsy. Just as Ariel is depicted as African, the slave Caliban (Daoud Heidami) is an Arab who speaks his lines with an obvious accent, and the visions conjured by Prospero (Philip Goodwin) for his masque sing in Arabic and Swahili in addition to the play’s English.
Goodwin, one of the area’s most prominent classical actors, presents a Prospero who is confident without being arrogant, and who visibly demonstrates his tenderness in his love for his daughter Miranda (Samantha Soule) and his regard for Ferdinand (Duane Boutté), the prince he finds for her to love. These scenes, and the interplay between Goodwin and Breaker (who is airborne throughout the play, occasionally upside down, and only comes to earth after Prospero releases Ariel from servitude), bring out the lyricism of the text.
However, not all of the scenes are as well served. The usually sure-fire clowning when drunken Stephano (Floyd King) and Trinculo (Hugh Nees) encounter Caliban comes across as too heavy-handed, and the intrigue involving the noblemen who robbed Prospero of his dukedom, and who are now in his power, never comes to life. Here are Antonio (John Livingston Rolle), who deposed his brother Prospero to become duke of Milan; his ally Alonso (Michael Rudko), king of Naples; and Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Allin), working with Antonio to double-cross his own brother – and it all plays rather flat and boring in this production.
The Shakespeare Theatre