The first bolt of lightning—white hot and followed instantly by pitch blackness and a ferocious clap of thunder—strikes the audience, not the stage, and the ensuing five minutes of Kate Whoriskey’s vividly staged Tempest is easily the most persuasive ship-sinking you’ll ever see in a playhouse.

Hard on the heels of that first lightning bolt, a second flash illuminates a majestic vessel in extremis on the stage of the Lansburgh Theatre, its crew dangling from rigging buffeted by waves that crash onto the deck, washing men overboard. As the crew fights a losing battle to keep the ship afloat, a sprite flutters through the air above them, seeming unaffected by the whirling hurricane. He sings in an ethereal tenor, gesturing gently, and with each pass, the ship’s plight grows more dire. Then there’s a shift of lighting, the storm’s roar quiets, and the vessel plunges down to the sea floor, where it rests, suspended corpses drifting lazily amid seaweed. Through this suddenly silent seascape—quite as if the water were mere air—a beauty and her father stride magically into view.

Magically, because this is Prospero (Philip Goodwin), Shakespeare’s tempest-conjuring wizard, taking his daughter Miranda (Samantha Soule) on a watery tour that might as well be through their own past. It was in just such a shipwreck that they were stranded on their island kingdom a decade earlier, thanks to the machinations of the folks who were on board this time. Prospero has arranged some long-overdue payback, sending his sprite Ariel (Daniel Breaker) to stir up a typhoon and bring his enemies into his sphere of influence.

Romance will blossom when Miranda spies strapping Prince Ferdinand (Duane Boutté) among the shipwrecked sailors, as will forgiveness when Prospero is reunited with the remorseful royals who did him wrong—but not before the Bard has expounded at some length on art, magic, slavery, the colonial impulse, and intrigues personal and political. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s valedictory—the final playscript he completed on his own—and he had lots of ground to cover before the revels ended; he, like Prospero, opted to stop controlling “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

Whoriskey’s exhilaratingly visual staging is better at whipping up Bard du Soleil– esque frenzies than at parsing the play’s politics. She animates a wedding for Miranda and Ferdinand with whirling windmills, mermaids, and enough long-necked cranes and creepy-crawly dragons to suggest that a company of The Lion King has taken up residence on Prospero’s isle, but the verbal skullduggery among the shipwrecked royals is flat and characterless to the point that identities seem fuzzy. The waterlogged courtiers chatter away about Naples and Milan, and nothing really registers, including the assassination plot that Ariel foils at the last second.

Which is not to suggest that Whoriskey’s interpretation is light on politics. She’s had the genuinely arresting notion of treating Prospero’s slave, Caliban, as if the first letter of his name were a T. Casting Daoud Heidami in the role—and having him play the part as an imprisoned, bearded, swarthy would-be terrorist chafing under the rule of occupying Westerners—lends the evening some real frisson early on, especially in light of the fact that the last time the Shakespeare Theatre tackled this play, it did so in a colonialist staging that used color-conscious casting so ineptly it managed to be inadvertently racist.

Here, when Heidami’s Caliban snarls, “You taught me language,” the line acquires a nicely shaded irony, uttered by a descendent of the tribe from whose libraries Europeans received much of their knowledge of the ancient world—an irony not present when the character is simply portrayed as a savage. Heidami makes him a reasonably nuanced, if murderous, malcontent who proves an intriguing figure in an evening otherwise filled mostly with romantics and buffoons.

Floyd King and Hugh Nees play Stephano and Trinculo, the clowns who introduce Caliban to alcohol, and they have a high old time hamming up scenes of debauchery in slapstickily conventional ways. Michael Rudko makes the Neapolitan king a properly abject mourner when he thinks his son has drowned. And if the other shipwreckees are ciphers—the nasal young prince included—they’re at least well-spoken ones.

The island’s inhabitants are more interesting. Charlie Morrison’s breathtaking lighting tricks mesh with some nifty sleight of scenery by Walt Spangler to turn Goodwin’s Prospero into a persuasive magician, and the actor finds the ruminative, haunted side of this exiled duke who’s waited years for the chance to both punish and forgive the men who’ve wronged him. As his daughter, Soule is radiant, intelligent, and appealingly goofy when admitting to being enamored not just of her beloved’s handsome bod but of the bods of all the wondrous strangers who’ve alighted on her isle.

Flying rings around them all, of course, is Breaker’s perpetually airborne Ariel, who never seems to flit in the same direction twice, so ingeniously does flight director Rob Besserer send him soaring and swooping in a harness that allows him to stand sideways on a wall and flip somersaults in midair. The performer’s clear, otherworldly vocals, underscoring stage events in songs he delivers in Swahili and Arabic, are also an asset.

Why Swahili and Arabic? Well, with a program note that locates Patagonia in Brazil rather than in Argentina and Chile, the production’s grasp of geography is perhaps not its strongest point. What matters more is its grasp of magic, which is firm, and its sense of wonder, which is considerable. And as much as whimsy drives the evening, Whoriskey finds a way to remind you on your way out of the theater that being sensibly grounded has its advantages, too—a fillip in which a sprite who’s always yearned for freedom finally gets to stand on his own two feet. Graceful, that, in an evening so devoted to the pursuit of grace.CP

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