Alvin Epstein in The Tempest
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Alvin Epstein in The Tempest
(© T. Charles Erickson)
The Actors Shakespeare Project's version of The Tempest starts off promisingly with a model ship which, once hoisted aloft, trails a long scarf as in a magician's trick. Grasped by a circle of luffing hands, the silk parachute becomes a sea, and you get a vivid picture of a shipwreck. Alas, such imaginative visual treats from designer David R. Gammons grow scarce as this too-often pedestrian production of the Bard's magical play lumbers on.

Director Patrick Swanson's concept calls for Prospero to be got up like a Victorian illusionist, and Ariel (Marianna Bassham) as his assistant. Stage veteran Alvin Epstein stars as Prospero, and the role doesn't suit him as well as King Lear, his last ASP outing. However, Epstein gives the old sorcerer's words a fitting intensity. Physically, though, he has too little to do.

In Ariel's case, the top-hatted, short-skirted costume devised by Seth Bodie comes closer to that of a circus ringmistress than magician's assistant, with all the attendant B&D overtones. The distinction is moot in any case, because Bassham's approach is at odds with either persona: the plummy, headmistressy tone that she employs throughout undermines any illusion of spriteliness.

Meanwhile, Mara Sidmore, as Miranda, is from another world entirely: her "bee-yooteous" take on mankind smacks of the mall (with a touch of Teri Garr). You never get the sense that she was raised in utter isolation or had her world view shaped by an embittered recluse. Miranda's innocence should seem a miracle of nature and not so transparent an exercise in "gee whiz" cutesiness.

Fortunately, the rest of the cast fares better. Jason Bowen is noble, warm, and believable as the washashore prince love-stricken at first glance. Robert Walsh is absolutely captivating as the blustery drunk wine steward Stephano, a role which in other hands might seem secondary or trite, and he gets good counterpoint from John Kuntz as the jester Trinculo. His four-legged congress with Caliban (company founder Ben Evett) "under the gaberdine" resembles an unusually awkward Mummenschanz metamorphosis, and like Stephano, we're agog -- when not convulsed with laughter.

Moreover, Evett pours every disappointment ever suffered by mankind into his abject Caliban, whose deformity is here limited to some splotchy birthmarks and a bit of latex dribbled about the ears. Physically, you couldn't ask for a creature more passively-aggressively craven and resentful. Evett manages to ferret out all the humor in the role, by inserting some laughable attempts to match Prospero at conjuring. As for Caliban's fawning transference to his new chosen master, all I can say is this: Let's hope Walsh has Purel for his shoes.