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Infused with more theatricality--and more songs--than any other play in the Shakespearean canon, yet lacking a plot substantial enough to undergird the work's inlaid histrionics, The Tempest has for centuries fascinated, confounded and inspired directors charged with making sense of the Bard's valedictory. At times a philosophical discourse about reality and illusion, an eerie collection of masques depicting the eternal conflict between natural and supernatural forces and an old-fashioned revenge play that ultimately trumpets the virtue of forgiveness, the dramatic hybrid has resisted categorization ever since it appeared as the opening entry in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays.

Even so, Denver Center Theatre Company director Anthony Powell's version of this textual quagmire radiates with an uncanny and infectious potency that holds theatergoers progressively rapt--even when the onstage happenings seem to defy both reason and intuition. For although Shakespeare's enigmatic swan song appears to be a mishmash of half-baked ideas, shopworn devices and underwritten, though vivid, characters, Powell's entrancing production gradually illuminates an underlying method to the playwright's strangeness.

The play is performed in the Space Theatre on a bare, elliptical platform, a choice that effectively permits each character to create his or her own version of reality on the magical island. In addition, a steeply raked area to one side alternately serves as a beachhead or bluff. (Credit Pavel Dobrusky with designing both the set and the lighting, which, apart from a few hideous projections of flower-power symbols, is beautifully evocative.) Following the hectic storm scene of the play's title, which results in a band of sailors being washed ashore on the same island inhabited by their deposed duke, Prospero (Tony Church), and his animalistic slave, Caliban (Bill Christ), we're given a crash course in the events that preceded Prospero's banishment. Not surprisingly, the mercurial magician has more than a few scores to settle, which include the reconciliation of feelings for his usurping and now-shipwrecked brother, Antonio (John Hutton); the enlightenment of his teenage daughter, Miranda (Shannon Koob); and the management of his spirit-filled netherworld, which is supervised by a fairy minister Ariel (Bruce Turk) and over which Prospero has absolute power save for the passage of time.

Rather than portray the former duke of Milan as a wizened sorcerer trapped in the winter of his own discontent, though, Church renders Prospero as a middle-aged man bound up in his determination to right the wrongs that, by their very nature, are forever fixed in his unchangeable past and serve no purpose in the beckoning fluidity of his present. Irrepressibly regal in both bearing and voice, Church's steady portrait gradually reveals a man for whom the island habitat represents limitless possibility instead of intractable exile. And nowhere is the former Royal Shakespearean more at his lyrical best than when delivering Prospero's set speeches.

During Act Two, when Prospero relinquishes all of his magical powers in favor of mere mortality, Church stands stock still and quietly says, "Our revels now are ended," and his peerless command of dramatic poetry enhances our understanding of a venerated character's cleansing transfiguration. Fast on the heels of this well-acted episode, brilliant shafts of white light replace the smoke-and-strobe pageantry that until now has pervaded much of the drama. A few minutes later, when Ariel spurs Prospero to exact revenge on his brother's motley crew of political pirates, Church movingly replies, "The rarer action is/In virtue than in vengeance." And when Prospero observes his daughter's wooing at the hand of a fresh-faced lad named Ferdinand (Brian Shea), Church perfectly conveys a father's concern for his daughter's discovery of worldly love: "Fair encounter/Of two most rare affections," he murmurs to himself while watching the two from afar before noting ruefully, "So glad of this as they I cannot be!" For the remainder of the 150-minute evening, Church's towering portrayal reinforces the idea that embracing our human limitations is the key to overcoming them.

Although none of the other characters experience anything rivaling Prospero's mighty sea-change of heart, director Powell nonetheless elicits several compelling performances from his stalwart actors. In fact, Powell and company's greatest achievement is the swift establishment and sharp delineation of character. Possessed with supple body and voice, Turk delivers a fully realized characterization of the mischievous and approval-seeking spirit, executing several interesting combinations of ballet and modern-dance movements. As Antonio, Hutton makes the most of his character's power of suggestion, prompting his clueless sidekick, Sebastian (nimbly portrayed by Robert Westenberg), to commit a murder on Antonio's behalf simply by uttering, "My strong imagination sees a crown/Dropping upon thy head." Christ's marvelously controlled portrait of the beastly Caliban is at once arresting and touching. (The idea that Caliban is an anagram for "cannibal" is only remotely explored here: Ariel creates an illusion of a disemboweled Ferdinand and briefly nibbles at his innards.) Second-year conservatory students Koob and Shea are a splendid pair of straight-shooting lovers, while Jamie Horton and Robert Sicular earn generous laughter as a couple of exquisitely rendered clowns. And even though an operatic trio of Island Spirits (Elizabeth Antle, Szilvia Schranz and Ingrid Lambert Shea) bring to mind the sort of "ooh-wah-ooh" theme music that underscored the original Star Trek episodes (as well as the 1956 sci-fi flick Forbidden Planet, which was based on The Tempest), the singers' presence lends an otherworldly quality--and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor--to Powell's inventive machinations.

By the time Church delivers the play's wondrous epilogue, a gentle plea in which the Bard and his star performer ask for "spirits to enforce" and "art to enchant," it's impossible to deny these two kindred souls the liberating reward of an audience's applause. All in all, the means used to transport us on this spiritual journey, however bizarre or silly at times, somehow seem justified by Prospero's--and Shakespeare's--transcendent farewell.--Lillie

The Tempest, through April 17 at the Space Theatre, in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis, 303-893-4100.


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