Stephen Dillane gives a magisterial performance as Prospero in Sam Mendes' magical staging of the classic Shakespeare play.
It's felt from the moment Stephen Dillane, playing once-duke of Milan Prospero, walks onstage and begins traversing a circle of sand that has been placed center stage (part of the beautifully spare scenic design from Tom Piper). He sprinkles water from a bucket onto the sand, conjuring a storm that will shipwreck his enemies -- and one friend, the faithful Gonzalo (the always reliable Alvin Epstein) -- on the island where he has lived with daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance) since his brother Antonio (Michael Thomas) usurped the dukedom.
Prospero's magic -- often indicated by Mark Bennett's score, which underscores almost all of the action and, in its fusion of world sounds, places the piece in a sort of global Neverland -- causes more than the shipwreck. It reveals that Antonio and Alonso (whom Jonathan Lincoln Fried renders with a haughtiness that can border on hamminess), his co-conspirator and King of Naples, have an enemy of their own in the King's brother Sebastian (played with choice wiliness by Richard Hansell).
Prospero's spells also bring Alonso's son Ferdinand (Edward Bennett) and Miranda together, and these two young people instantly fall in love. Before the play ends, Prospero, whose work is abetted by the spirit Ariel (Christian Camargo), even plays a bit merry with the drunken jester Trinculo (Anthony O'Donnell) and equally inebriated butler Stephano (Thomas Sadoski), who are also shipwrecked.
Throughout the production, Dillane's magisterial presence and exquisitely musical delivery of Shakespeare's verse create a spell all of their own. But his turn is all the more compelling because of the earthy and common-sense nature with which he imbues the character. Equally impressive is Camargo's turn as Ariel. More leading man than diminutive sprite, Camargo (chicly costumed by Catherine Zuber) effortlessly creates a sense of ethereal lightness in his movements and line readings, fully convincing theatergoers of the presence of an otherworldly creature on stage.
As the young lovers, Rylance and Bennett charm thoroughly. The former brings a spunky naïveté to her role that melts into a lovely sort of stalwart giddiness once Miranda's fallen for Ferdinand. Bennett fully communicates Ferdinand's nobility and amusingly undercuts it with a sort of goofball dimness. One's enchantment with the pair is not even broken by an awkward multimedia sequence that precedes a masque that Prospero conjures, to which he invites the goddesses Iris (Michelle Beck), Ceres (Jenni Barber), and Juno (Ashlie Atkinson) to celebrate Miranda and Ferdinand's betrothal and future together.
When comedy comes to the fore, O'Donnell, who looks as if he's fallen onto the island from a Vaudeville house, and Sadoski, who's dressed in a white dinner jacket as if he might have been serving Noel Coward, make the most of their scenes with Prospero's other minion, the evil-natured Caliban (a carefully constructed turn from Ron Cephas Jones). The trio's camaraderie has a comic pull that's almost impossible to resist.