Prospero, the former Duchess of Milan, rules her island kingdom with the sprite, Ariel, at her side. Dressed in a tunic-length, military-style jacket and skirt, as if ready for a workday in far-off Victorian England, Prospero is determined to wreak revenge on the trio of persons who deposed her and set her adrift in a leaky boat, accompanied only by her young daughter, Miranda. Now, some 12 years later, Prospero is armed with powerful spells she has learned from her beloved books and the aura of magic on the isolated island where they landed. She conjures up a terrible storm that wrecks the ship carrying her enemies and brings them to her.
Thus begins Shakespeare's late, great play The Tempest, presented by Actors' Shakespeare Project as if it were a staged version of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, giving instructions about women's leadership. The cast's eight actors — four men and four women — change roles convincingly regardless of gender. Director Allyn Burrows has stripped down the text, cutting both the opening scene on the boat, except for some thunder, lighting and sound effects; the show-slowing masques from Acts 3 and 4; and, more sadly, several of Ariel's charming songs.
Burrows has set down this production in the normally inhospitable, bland Willet Hall at Brookline's United Parish, where a raised proscenium stage is stuck in the middle of one long wall. However, designer Tyler Kinney has managed to improve the space with a backdrop of two broad sails to serve as canvas screens for silhouettes of the actors appearing in pantomime and gestures, and as hideouts when they are eavesdropping on the action.
Burrows livens up the surroundings by using the aisles as extra entrances, blocking the actors up the ramps that crisscross the front of the stage. Lighting designer Chris Bocchiaro works miracles with a pantheon of tiny, colored lights glowing across the entire play space and spilling out onto the ceiling, thus suggesting the fantasy of Shakespeare's imagined Garden of Eden.
Marya Lowry plays Prospero as a strong but feminine woman, very much in command of the small band of followers on her island. Lydia Barnett-Mulligan as Miranda is a randy, hormone-driven adolescent of 15. Samantha Richert makes the lovely, fast-moving, Ariel, into a gravity-defying fairy, bounding through space, sometimes on a tiny foot trapeze that floats her through the air.
As portrayed by Richert, Ariel embodies an appealing sweetness and loyalty to Prospero, even though she longs for her freedom. Mara Sidmore takes on two roles: Alonso, here the queen of Naples, rather than the king, setting up a mother-son contrast to the mother-daughter relationship between Lowry and Barnett-Mulligan; and the delightfully prissy, tipsy Trinculo, who seems to be always off-balance or landing upside down.
Jesse Hinson leads the men in an impressive performance as a matinee idol-like Caliban, clothed in grungy rags and dripping venom from his hissing and flickering tongue, like the serpent that tempted Eve. The gentle Kai Tshikosi is endearing as Ferdinand, besotted by the sight of Miranda, and willing to trudge through the tasks set by Prospero in order to win her. Michael Forden Walker is double-cast as Sebastian and the drunken servant, Stephano, attached to his bottle as if it were a favorite baby blanket.
One might wish that the arc of strength projected by Lowry's Prospero in the beginning did not soften so much at the end, when she forgives the villains and leaves off her casting of spells to return to Milan. Despite the imaginative touches in this bare-bones production, it is difficult to forget the Actors' Shakespeare Project' persuasive version of The Tempest in 2008, centered by Alvin Epstein as Prospero. However, the current staging stands as a worthy farewell for Allyn Burrows, longtime artistic director of the troupe, who leaves to take up a similar role at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.