First of all, you’d be hard-pressed to have me not recommend a Shakespeare production. Any competent one is preferable to merely reading the play off the page, and most are intriguing just to consider their choices in interpretation and thematic emphasis.
And I think the production of The Tempest at the Shakespeare Theater’s Free-for-All is a very solid offering. It didn’t blow my mind or force me to consider the play in new light, but it staged a pretty faithful enactment of the play that was entertaining and pretty.
If that sounds like faint praise, I must disclose that I have pretty high standards for this particular play. I taught it in middle school for a few years and have seen many, many productions of it, in theaters, in movie theaters, on DVD, on Youtube. It’s a play that invites fanciful, playful interpretation because of its themes of magic and stagecraft, its subsequent employment of special effects and music, and its meta-narrative nature and possible commentary of Shakespeare’s entire career. Prospero is a meaty role, and the secondary roles are not too shabby either: Ariel, Caliban, Sebastian, Stephano, Trinculo, Miranda, Ferdinand, and on and on.
All the actors were very good, but I think they were a little let down by the lack of ambition in direction. Some interesting choices were made: both Ferdinand and Caliban are black, and Caliban has a heavy Caribbean accent, but nothing much is made of the play’s famous mirroring. Prospero is struck by heavy rumination at the end of the wedding scene, but it’s not clear what prompts this — he doesn’t seem particularly moved by Miranda nor Ariel nor anyone else. Miranda is played as a kind of Pippi Longstocking, wild, unconventional, uncultured, and free, but it’s not telegraphed why this might be so fiercely attractive to the prince Ferdinand. Ariel’s jeremiad at the judgment feast is at first appropriately shocking and haranguing, but then goes on too long and feels static and even derivative.
There was one standout moment of delight and wonder in the play, however — the wedding masque. Most directors have real trouble with this scene; it’s idiosyncratic, jarring, and over-long. It’s often excised entirely or redacted severely, and when it isn’t, it often feels shoehorned in. This production decides to honor it with gigantic puppets and an opera singer, and it feels very right. For a flicker, the play became transcendent.
The Tempest is part of Shakespeare Theater’s annual Free-for-All, its free (and popular) summer gift to the city. You can get tickets on the day of showings by online lottery or waiting in line. Shows start at 7:30 or 8:00 most evenings until August 28.