ASHLAND — Seeing is believing in “The Tempest,” a dazzling display of theater and theatrics.
One of the season opening plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, “Tempest” is a delicious melange of sights, sounds, colors, with a plot that includes magic by a wizardly sorcerer, a pit bull-like monster, young lovers, tipsy servants and evil-plotting villains. Add on enough of Shakespeare’s classically poignant lines to fill several pages of Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations” and it’s a mesmerizing theater experience.
“Tempest” is believed by theater historians to be the last play Shakespeare wrote alone. It’s believed, too, that the renunciation of magic by Prospero, the player’s central character who may represent the playwright, mirrors Shakespeare’s farewell from the theater.
Denis Arndt, a longtime Festival performer who last appeared in Ashland in 1988 before a career in movies and television, returns as Prospero. The former Duke of Milan, Prospero has been stranded 12 years on an island with his daughter Miranda after being usurped by his brother, Antonio with the help of Alonso, the King of Naples.
In his forced exile — Antonio, Alonso and the others believe Prospero and his daughter have died — he refines his magical skills. Prospero uses those abilities to rescue Ariel, a spirit who reluctantly serves him, and to control, Caliban, a deformed monster who is made his slave after he attempts to rape Miranda.
Prospero uses magic to create a violent storm that causes a passing ship carrying his betrayers to wreck on the island. Because “Tempest” is classic Shakespeare, plots abound.
Prospero confounds and eventually confronts his brother and the king, but ultimately chooses mercy and forgiveness over revenge. As part of his calculations, Prospero’s daughter, who has never seen a man, tumbles helplessly in love with Ferdinand, Antonio’s son. Caliban, seeing an opportunity, schemes to murder Prospero. And, because this is one of Shakespeare’s signature plays, a pair of bumbling servants provide belly-laughing comic relief.
Unlike most “Tempest” productions, Arndt plays Prospero extremely low key in a surprisingly mellow tone that doesn’t reveal Prospero’s wounds, frustrations or power.
The void is filled by Kate Hurster as the effervescent, golden-voiced Ariel and, even more dynamically by Wayne T. Carr as the ferociously physical Caliban. It’s a stunning performance, one balanced by Caliban’s conflicted emotions as he foams with hatred for his enslaver and quivers in fear of his magic. As is typical at the Festival, the production is eye-popping, but Carr’s gymnastic movements while barely clothed and covered in green powder is more magical than any of the theatrics or Prospero’s incantations.
Director Tony Taccone says he was influenced by Butoh, a Japanese form of dance that, according to program notes, uses slow, hyper-controlled motion and is traditionally performed in white body make-up. Using forms developed by the Butoh group Sankai Juku, the island’s “strange” natives perform “moves beyond some of the darker, more grotesque features of traditional Butoh, creating pieces that are ethereal, hypnotic and, yes, strange.”
It’s a team production with the play enhanced and amplified by scenic designer Daniel Ostling, costume designer Anita Yavich, lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols and composer-sound designer Andre J. Pluess, who create moods that magnify the words.
Even for audiences who’ve seen the play many times, this tempestuous “Tempest” is a delicious temptation to be savored.