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In Act 1, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the water sprite Ariel gleefully boasts that he has wrecked a wedding cruise, having cast Jove’s lightnings upon the vessel, summoned a sulphurous roar as mighty as Neptune’s trident, and sent the ship headed back to the still-vexed Bermoothes.
If all those words conjure up now are visions of a smelly Carnival Cruise ship full of pissed-off passengers, then see Synetic Theatre’s production of The Tempest, in which the company concocts nautical visions that capture Shakespeare’s tale as well as any 17th century words can.
Because—as fans of the movement-focused troupe know—there are no words when Synetic does Shakespeare. The Tempest is the ninth installation in the company’s Silent Shakespeare series, and it’s a seaworthy one. Aside from a boulder-like platform emerging from the rear of theater, the entire stage is flooded with four inches of water. There is no “pool onstage,” as in Arena Stage’s current production of Metamorphoses. Here, the pool is the stage.
The company has tried this tactic before, with its waterborne 2010 production of King Arthur. That was fun, but this makes a little more sense. Aided by projection artist Riki Kim, the company now treats the water more like a production tool than a gimmick, deploying it in conjunction with music, lighting, and multimedia effects. And the actors are valorous as ever. Philip Fletcher stars as Prospero, the disposed Duke of Milan banished to a remote island somewhere between Italy and North Africa. Dan Istrate goes all-out in silver spandex and platinum face paint as Ariel, the manipulative sprite in Prospero’s service. What this production does best, by far, is show what Shakespeare could only tell, and demonstrate what many productions merely hint at: that nearly everything that happens on this island happens because Prospero and Ariel will it through magical means. So when Istrate gestures backwards with his hand, an actor playing one of the shipwrecked intruders teeters backward, and falls over with a splash.
The show also illuminates the little details. When Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Irina Kavsadze) first encounters the shipwrecked prince Ferdinand (Scott Brown), she caresses his hand like it’s the first human appendage she’s seen outside her family. “A thing divine,” she says in the text. “For nothing natural I ever saw so noble.” When he does awaken, she peers at him from behind an onstage waterfall, and it’s the most beautiful aquatic meet-cute since Claire Danes stared at Leonardo DiCaprio through a tank full of angel fish.
Love at first sight is a bit easier to convey without words than a backstory involving political backstabbing, and here Synetic, er, takes a dive. Flashback scenes depict a woman trying to stab the baby Miranda. And when characters named Antonia, Alonso, and Sebastian end up on the island, their relationships to one another are rather unclear—in part because Antonia, Prospero’s sibling, is Antonio in the original play. As best as the viewer can tell, the actors make up some royal family, wandering the island trying to kill one another. Maybe that lousy cruise made them homicidal? (In the text, they were all returning from a destination wedding in Tunisia. Seriously.)
Nonsense perpetrated by Gonzalo (Irakli Kavsadze), the butler who found the boat’s stash of booze, and Trinculo (Emily Whitworth), makes more sense. The former does a good bit of mime work, including catching invisible fish, and is dressed in the familiar stripes of Marcel Marceau. There is a scene involving cigarettes, sparkly lingerie, and a pink feather boa that breaks from the otherwise-convincing desert island aesthetic, but then, it just wouldn’t a Synetic show without a sequined red brassiere.
Or a water ballet. The lifts choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili has devised for Brown and Irina Kavsadze (Irakli’s daughter, by the way) come straight from classical ballet, the key difference being that here, in a stunning pas de deux, they’re doing swallow lifts in a pool of water. There’s a grand finale dance sequence that should win Synetic the Helen Hayes Award for synchronized swimming. Sit in the front rows, and you’ll leave all wet. But everyone in theater should ship out feeling very, very buoyed.