A beautiful production of a classic play can turn what is normally pleasant and familiar into something strangely beautiful and romantically sweeping. The new production of "The Tempest," starring Olympia Dukakis as Prospera (the female version of Shakespeare's Prospero), at Lenox, MA's Shakespeare and Company is just such a production and it turns out to be revelatory.
What was once a gentlemanly resource in the language of the leading actor turns into the softer side of a female protagonist while his darker spoken words are delivered with the virago-like courage of a woman scorned and beaten who will not bear the brunt of such indignation.
Remarkably, the transition works to the benefit of both the character and the play.
Choreographed by Barbara Allen and with new vocal settings for the songs composed by Scott Killian, the production itself with its beautiful costumes designed by Deborah Brothers, its magical set created by Sandra Goldmark and its deft and defining lighting designed by Matthew E. Adelson is a remarkable feat of theater magic. All of these elements coalesce as if my literal magic and a three-quarter thrust stage opens up into a world not easily conceived off the pages of the play.
Add to this the cast of dreams. In addition to the Greek Goddess Dukakis there is Merritt Janson as her daughter Miranda, Ryan Winkles as her soon-to-be husband Ferdinand, Rocco Sisto as the monster Caliban, Kristin Wold as the fairy Ariel, Jonathan Epstein as the drunken Stephano, James Read as the Duke of Milan (Prospera's hateful brother), Apollo Dukakis as the faithful friend Gonzalo, David Joseph as the plotter Sebastian and Thomas L. Rindge as Alonso, King of Naples.
These and the other members of the company comprise a seamless ensemble of players who move through this play, set on a Mediterranean island at about 1939. The alteration of time only affects the costumes for the men, however. Everything else is as it always has been and so it has little to do with the actual playing of the play.
Director Tony Simotes has made bold and radical choices. He left Dukakis with the strengths of a man and the heart of a woman. She emerges fatally female while staying feverishly feminine. Her tempers and her tantrums are contained in the magic that she and her servant Ariel can perform without attracting attention. She conducts the opening storm with a sense of understatement that is only seen a few times thereafter, but her voice, sometimes too gentle for this theater, holds emotional shades that are rarely heard in this role. It becomes an interesting and unanswered question here whether or not it was her delving into magic, into witchcraft, that caused her to be deposed as Duchess and deserted on this island.
As her daughter, Miranda, who has never seen an actual man before, the ingenuousness brought to the play by Merritt Janson is a delicious and physically devastating set of choices. She and Simotes bring out every comic element of her attraction to Ferdinand -- the equal of her melodramatic repulsion to Caliban -- even to the effect of a kiss on her maiden's lips.
Winkles is quickly turning into the new swain of this company's performances. His romantic youngster in this play is the equal of anything else he has achieved here in the past. What was once an odd facade has turned into an antic romantic, a face and body that appeal to women and to men. He is the perfect human foil for the slightly magical Miranda.
Jonathan Epstein, who has never been my favorite actor in this company, is changing into a delightful comedy player whose work is so much more appealing. Here, as Stephano, he reaches a new highpoint in his transition into the comedy of the classics. Sober or drunk, Epstein's version of this butler is just one perfect choice after another. The work is more than adequate to turn a foe into a fan and this fan was never a foe, just much less impressed with the range of his talents than is now evinced. His scenes alone are worth the cost of a ticket to this show.
He is ably aided by Timothy Douglas as Trinculo, a jester from Jamaica, whose attack on the homebrew that Stephano provides is as funny as his reaction to Caliban's presence on the island.
Caliban is a triumph in the highly talented hands, feet, face and voice of Rocco Sisto. Played as a peroxide blonde, this monster is a triumph for the actor who roars with feeble grace, rampages with monumental sweetness and presents a renewed vision of what makes a monster out of a man denied his birthright. Sisto's Caliban has strengths that cannot be denied and an ugliness that can only be viewed, ultimately, as beautiful in its difference. Pity poor Caliban who may finally get what he has always wanted, a curse for which, as Sisto proves in the final scenes, he must relent and give over his rages.
No one gives a poor performance in this play, but the spirit world is blessed here with Kristin Wold's delicate and exquisite Ariel, Jennifer Young's loud and bombastic Ceres and Stephanie Hedges' Juno. Wold's is the longest and most serious performance of the play and she handles each element with an elasticity of tone and look that is remarkable. Whether speaking, dancing or singing, she has each note perfectly registered and her effect on her audience is spellbinding. Young's big scene is devastating as she rants with large, ever-moving wings. The mock wedding scene is handled perfectly by Hedges as she leads her band of nixies, pixies and trixies through their life-force dances.
James Read and David Joseph are handsome plotters who are forever foiled. Rindge is an attractive elder statesman, very Congressional actually, as the King and Apollo Dukakis impresses with his genuineness, particularly in the second half of the play. Embraced by Olympia's Prospera, one feels the enormity of the double edged appearances here.
What Tony Simotes has created may be limited in its impact as the Dukakis' move on to other theaters and other roles, but this is a production that should be brought back often and in particular in the school year so that students may learn firsthand the magic of theater and the beauty of language. What he has created here is nothing short of genius, the best production this company has offered in a very long while and there have been other great shows here.
Perfection, though, is hard to achieve and in "The Tempest" there is a teapot of flavor, heat, strength and determined grace that cannot be ignored or overlooked or missed. When something is this well made you have to take a long, sweet, succulent sip as often as possible.
"The Tempest" has a limited run through August 19 at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare and Company’s Lenox, MA campus, located at 70 Kemble Street. For information or tickets call 413-637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.