Prospero in The Tempest, now receiving a checkered production at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, rules over a magical island — magical in a way that only the Elizabethan imagination, which saw dragons and sea serpents inhabiting all unknown territories, could summon up. Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, but his position was usurped by his brother many years earlier, and he was cast out to sea on a rickety craft with his baby daughter, Miranda. A couple of supernatural creatures inhabit his island: Ariel, the evanescent spirit of air, and the sullen man-beast Caliban. Having learned that his enemies are on a sea voyage, Prospero calls up a terrible storm to deposit them on his shores, and one of the play's central questions is whether he'll take his revenge once they're in his power or show them mercy.
Naturally, being Shakespeare, there are depths upon depths of meaning here. The Tempest is about magic and the magic of creation, and Prospero is often thought of as an artist, a creator of worlds and a stand-in for Shakespeare himself. Many believe that this is Shakespeare's last play and that in Prospero's renunciation of his magic we hear the voice of Shakespeare himself. A sense of melancholy and mortality throbs through the text, which doesn't end, like so many comedies, with a wedding, but with Prospero saddened and alone.
There's a lot of musing about kingship and rightful rule, a topic that fascinated the Elizabethans: Prospero, ruler of his tiny kingdom, is both wise and strong and sometimes angry and curt. The jockeying for power between the clowns Trinculo and Stephano is a farcical counterpoint to the nobility's murderous machinations. Much of Caliban's rage rises from his belief that since he's native to the island, he should be its sovereign — and there's a strong hint in Geoffrey Kent's production that, for good or ill, Caliban will get his chance. Gonzalo's meditation on an ideal state forms a wistful backdrop to all this jockeying for power.
Presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival through July 31, Mary Rippon Theatre, University of Colorado at Boulder, 303-492-0554, coloradoshakes.org.
Kent, who staged last year's miraculous A Midsummer Night's Dream, has said he sees the relationship between Prospero and Miranda as central. Prospero has been able to protect his daughter in isolation, but the intrusion of other people — particularly the young Prince Ferdinand, to whom Miranda swiftly and joyously gives up her heart — creates circumstances he can't fully control.
There's a lot to like about this production. It's lively and inventive and shows a respect for Shakespeare's language that makes the dialogue, the play's overall contour, and the ideas raised clean and comprehensible. The set is a fluidly designed stunner, beautiful in sand colors as the sun lingers on this outdoor venue, equally beautiful later when it's illuminated in darkness. Vanessa Morosco is a self-assured Ariel with a mellifluous voice, and Benjamin Bonenfant makes a handsome, soulful Ferdinand. Trinculo (Rodney Lizcano) and Stephano (Sammie Jo Kinnett) are well cast, and Michael Winters's performance as the older, slower but by no means doddering Gonzalo is notable.
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Other elements are iffy. Ariel clambers, falls, catches herself, turns upside down on a drift of aerial silk, and while at times the effect is dazzling, at others it distracts. Some tricks and tics I could have done without altogether: the bolt of blue cloth wafted around by a group of young women to represent the ocean; Prospero voicing his demand for silence — "No tongue" — like a contemporary dad forbidding his teenager to deep-kiss.
I understand the impulse to work against the usual character interpretations, but Peter Simon Hilton's Prospero is far more cranky than powerful and wise, a choice that leaches all the music from the profound final speeches. Miranda is played by Kyra Lindsey as a sort of hoydenish Victorian street urchin, a girl who must have provided a refreshing contrast to the silken ladies of the court for Ferdinand. But her speech rhythms are off, and she never shows the tenderness at this role's heart, so that you don't feel any real current between Miranda and either her father or her prince. Without pitch-perfect performances in these crucial roles, The Tempest's magic fades.
A warning: Despite the warm days, the nights in the Mary Rippon can become extremely chilly. Bring a winter coat!