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If, as the common interpretation goes, The Tempest’s island sorcerer Prospero is a theater director in thin disguise, then Ethan McSweeny can find a great deal of kinship in the magician’s revels. McSweeny, a behind-the-scenes regular at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, loves to conjure up spectacular, unorthodox visions. He put 25 tons of red sand on the Harman Hall stage in 2006 for The Persians and has staged wild STC reimaginings of other Bards: The Merchant of Venice in 1920s New York and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a 1940s mashup (revived this year). McSweeny’s new Tempest has a little less sand, and the dramaturgy isn’t as slippery, but thankfully, his Prospero-sized ambitions remain unmatched. The production is lush, soaring, full of silhouette and shadow, and above all, richly theatrical.
McSweeny leans into the grand mythos and world-ending weariness of his doppelganger, the exiled Duke of Milan (Geraint Wyn Davies), who orchestrates a shipwreck to capture both his archenemy brother and a suitor for his daughter Miranda (a spritely Rachel Mewbron). The opening storm is earth-quaking; in a brief, brilliant moment, the magician’s servant nymph Ariel, played by Sofia Jean Gomez with eyes and hair wild as a siren’s, descends from above to terrorize the crew. When Prospero himself makes his big entrance, illuminated from behind, clutching his giant magic staff, he resembles Moses—though he quickly assumes God’s mantle as well, conjuring powerful forces from the rafters.
Davies has worked his Shakespearean magic at Canada’s Stratford festival for 11 years, nearly the length of Prospero’s island getaway. A thundering presence, he allows Prospero’s dickishness to come through even during his redemptive arc. Though the character is basically a cultural conquistador, Davies plays him as an unyielding auteur, less a hatemonger than a simple control freak. He relishes his command over every element and person in his circle, including his own daughter.
There’s an unusually high level of source fidelity for a McSweeny production; not much is likely to challenge Tempest regulars, even in the divergences from Shakespeare’s text. Clifton Duncan makes his vengeful island slave Caliban not a deformed “monster,” as the play calls him, but an indigenous, achingly human target of white imperialism. Yet his is a common postcolonial reframing in a world now able to recognize imperialism for what it is.
Likewise, the production team’s visual hierarchy of Caliban and Ariel is obvious but effective: the former hauls chains on the ground while the latter flies through the air on a slack rope. Gomez, by the way, is a wonderful Ariel, letting her motions and lines take flight when her body does—she bellows, “Hell is empty and all the devils are here!” from nine feet up, simultaneously channeling the sailors she overheard and the devils they’ve imagined.
The play innovates primarily with spectacle, and such spectacle there is. McSweeny and STC are drawn foremost to that magnetic central metaphor of the island as grand stage. The magisterial imagery includes a stage-filling puppet show, a feast that drops from the ceiling and continues through the floor, and a frightening voice-distorted Ariel in black robes suspended in midair. The best mark of The Tempest’s success might be how Prospero turns our gazes ever heavenward, even when the action is on the ground. Something miraculous could happen at any moment.
610 F St. NW. $20-$115. 202.547.1122 shakespearetheatre.org