Shakespeare & Company's new outdoor Roman Garden Theatre provides an ideal setting for The Tempest, Shakespeare's late-career tale of sorcery, romance, and revenge. Jim Youngerman's open-air set, a simple stage decked with yellow reeds, stony outcrops, and marshy recesses, also makes use of the venue's wooded surroundings and lends a wildness to the scene that suits this energetic, gutsy production. Under Allyn Burrows's confident direction, the play brims with spellbinding performances and memorable stagecraft that makes The Tempest a must-see in the Berkshires this summer.
Nigel Gore leads the strong cast as Prospero, the dethroned king of Milan, alongside an electric Ella Loudon as Prospero's daughter, Miranda. Long ago, father and child were stranded on an island far away from their native city, where Prospero's usurping brother, Antonio (a guilty-faced Mark Zeisler), seized power and set Prospero and Miranda adrift. Now, when Antonio, his son, Ferdinand (a charismatic Deaon Griffin-Pressley), and others by chance sail past the island (among them is the comical Thomas Brazzle as the impatient and flippant Sebastian, brother of the king of Naples), Prospero uses his "art" to raise a storm and wreck the ship.
With the help of his woodland spirit Ariel (a delightful Tamara Hickey), Prospero plans to take revenge on his brother and at the same time lead his daughter into the loving arms of Ferdinand — all while troubled by his unruly slave, Caliban (Jason Asprey in a mesmerizing performance). In the end, though, Prospero chooses not to take revenge, and instead gives up his "rough magic," forgiving the wrongs others have done to him as he begs forgiveness for his own.
The Tempest makes an ideal play for Shakespeare and Company's new venue, a theater in the round situated between two large pines, which Burrows makes frequent use of in this staging. Hickey, as the spritely Ariel, often stands aloft in one of these trees as she speaks her lines, producing a joyfully rambunctious atmosphere that would be difficult to replicate in an indoor theater.
Burrows has kept the play spritely, too, with some edits that keep the run time down to a little over two hours. The old man Gonzalo has been excised completely, and a few other judicious cuts keep the action moving briskly enough to afford a generous 20-minute intermission for the audience to wander the grounds without breaking the play's spell.
Govane Lohbauer's threadbare costumes for Prospero, Miranda, and Caliban contrast with the military outfits of Antonio and his train, suggesting the action of the play to be around the late 19th century (allowing one to draw a parallel between home rule movements in Ireland and elsewhere and the struggle of Caliban to regain control of his domain). But Burrows refreshingly makes this staging less about politics and more about the craft that goes into immersing an audience in another world. Arshan Gailus's subtle sound design, with its gusts of wind and delicate fairy-dust sound effects, contribute seamlessly to the mystery of the island.
The performances as well as the setting have much to do with creating real stage magic. Gore's Prospero, a tough customer with an imposing voice and physical presence, has raised a strong-willed and daunting daughter. Loudon carries herself with the same fearlessness and grit of Game of Thrones' Arya Stark, barking a scathing rebuke at Caliban in a speech ("Abhorred slave,/Which any print of goodness wilt not take") that many adapters reassign to Prospero because it seems too harsh coming from Miranda.
Loudon, however, rips Caliban to shreds with those angry words and makes them convincingly Miranda's. It's a marvel that the same actor can turn on a dime and create such romantic chemistry with Griffin-Pressley, whose extensive experience performing Shakespeare is apparent here. Asprey, for his part, performs the demanding role of Caliban as though he's done it all his life. With equal parts menace and humor, particularly in his hysterical scenes with Josh Aaron McCabe as Stephano and Bella Merlin as Trinculo, it's hard not to feel sympathy for the justifiably angry "monster."
Inevitably, some words get lost in the open-air venue as actors project, without mics, to everyone on all four sides of them. But the delightful, family-friendly wizardry of this production isn't lost for a moment. While Prospero's charms may be o'erthrown in the end, the play's charms follow us home.