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“Rough magic” is what the disillusioned sorcerer Prospero abjures in that last exhausted speech in The Tempest—and rough indeed is the magic the Washington Shakespeare Company makes with the play in its latest outing. Christopher Henley’s staging manages to be sophisticated and silly, cerebral and sophomoric by turns; it’s often pretty, occasionally moving, alternately intriguing and infuriating, and it deploys an ensemble whose acting ranges from sensitive and stirring to downright embarrassing. It is, to say the least, rather uneven.
Still, it showcases at least one magnetic performance. Jenifer Deal is the revenge-driven conjurer whose meteorological manipulations set the plot in motion, beaching a shipful of Neapolitans on the remote island stronghold that’s been his fiefdom since the very same villains engineered her ouster from Milan’s dukedom. Yes, that’s “Jenifer,” “his,” and “her,” all with reference to The Tempest’s central figure: Among the conceits Henley and dramaturge Cam Magee have cooked up is one that turns Prospero into a gender-blended personage inspired by the Greek legend of Tiresias, the wandering wise man transformed from man to woman by some peevish god or other. (Prospero, like Tiresias, has also gone blind—which creates a handful of interesting subtextual opportunities, along with an excuse for some fairly startling green-and-black eye makeup.)
In form and appearance decidedly wise-womanish, Deal’s aggrieved Prospero nonetheless remains “father” to Saskia de Vries’ fetchingly coltish Miranda and “sir” to pretty much everybody else; in the effort to subvert the assumptions that attach to such knotty phenomena as family dynamics, political plots, imperialist attitudes, and master-servant relationships, Henley & Co. leave the textual references in their original masculine. It’s provocative, as far as it goes—which is far enough to invite questions about Prospero’s confessed bookishness and disengagement, for instance, as they relate to those of Richard II, another library-mewed (and, by implication, womanish) Shakespearean ruler who ends up losing his throne.
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So, too, is the blindness, which demands that audiences consider the costs of wisdom and of authority—Prospero’s loss of vision came, presumably, after all those books had rendered up their occult secrets—and allows for suggestive allusions to the necessity of trust and dependency, even among the powerful.
And Deal’s an actress with presence enough to pull off a role as iconic as Prospero. Her voice lacks the resonance that would let it truly thrill or terrify in the play’s most electric passages, but it’s expressive enough, and she’s got the technique, the command of language, and the sure sense of her own body it takes to fill a space as large as the Clark Street Playhouse. Her acting choices won’t thrill everyone: The conjure-woman gestures and the Ehhhhhhhhh with which she indicates mystical goings-on will no doubt seem overripe to some. But she’s doing some pretty vivid work.
She’s not alone: De Vries invests the overprotected Miranda with an innocent’s wonder, laced with just enough teenage truculence to keep her on the near side of insufferable. Daniel Ladmirault twists himself literally into knots making Caliban as much victim as monster—which is very much in keeping with what Deal is doing with her tormented tyrant of a Prospero—and finds an angry kind of humor in the part, too. And Henley’s found an interesting new talent in Alexander Strain, who’s making his D.C. debut as a loose, Artful Dodgerish drunk who stumbles into an unexpected position of authority. We’ll see more of him.
But. And yet. On the other hand. For every clever idea, every surprising performance in this Tempest, there’s an overworked gimmick or a garish bit of overacting. Henley fiddles with structure, intercutting sequences and underscoring asides with overdramatic lighting shifts that isolate one character or another. Shadow plays and pantomimes, presumably intended to add visual interest to speeches describing offstage events, come off as distractions—cheesy ones, often as not. The sprite Ariel (the usually dynamic Scott Kerns, tiresomely one-note here) has developed multiple-personality disorder; he never appears unless his homeys—two “aspects of Ariel,” one each in red and blue to complement his white (whazzat about?)—come along with him, trailing whispery fragments of his lines or cackling in a highly irritating fashion. And there’s another gender switch, the unfortunate result of which is that one of those shipwrecked bad guys tries—I am not making this up—to assassinate the King of Naples with a spike heel.
That would be Meg Taintor’s wicked usurper, Antonio, who’s the chief target of Prospero’s revenge plot—and whose forgiveness (and response thereto) is the central concern of the play’s final scenes. He’s Prospero’s sister here, never mind that he’s still called Antonio and would be twirling his silent-movie mustache if—well, if he were still a he instead of a limp caricature of a ruthless, Martha Stewart–style climber. The ludicrousness of the idea that Taintor’s half-baked Antonio might, at any point, have posed a threat to Deal’s stern-jawed Prospero cannot be overstated.
The equally scurvy king, the handsome innocent of a son he supposedly loses in the shipwreck that Prospero engineers, the assorted advisers and hangers-on—they’re all pretty one-dimensional, and the less said about them, the better. Chris Galindo, as Ferdinand, the aforementioned son and Miranda’s love interest, at least has a winning naiveté in his smile—but he’s hardly at ease with the lilt of the language Shakespeare gives him.
Enough grousing, though. Not every company would have the balls to try summoning a Tempest on not much more than a decent teapot costs—much less to twist and turn it in the various directions Henley et al. are willing to take. And make no mistake: The director and his company have substantial things to say—the play does, come to that—about what power and its imperatives can do to good people. So give ’em credit, and enjoy what magic they manage to make. Just don’t expect to be thoroughly enchanted.
Over at the H Street Playhouse, Jeremy Skidmore and the Theater Alliance are proving that basic theatrical magic still has its particular power. Eloquently moody lighting, a spare, simple set, and a precise, communicative sound design are the foundation on which Skidmore builds his fine production of Mary’s Wedding, a two-hander about a young British émigré and the Canadian farm boy she falls for just as World War I is threatening to erupt. Stephen Massicote’s play is simple, too—deceptively so, in that its uncomplicated story contains a world of experience. More than one wise thought, too, about missed chances and small choices that turn out to have larger consequences—about how people and societies chart, all unknowing, the paths that lead from quiet moments at home to nights of unimaginable horror at the front.
Massicote, who made his name in Canada a couple of years back with this show’s hit premiere, has a playful, pointed way with structure: Mary’s Wedding might better be called Mary’s Dream; it’s in the title character’s recurrent night flights that her story unfolds, and the license of dreamscape allows not just flashbacks, but time loops and narrative impossibilities, some of them as amusing as they are moving. Mary, for instance, turns up on the battlefield one torrential night, her tangerine umbrella a heartbreakingly silly incongruity in the filth of the trenches. Another, soberer sequence finds Mary and her Charlie bumping into each other downtown just after they’ve met—only to discover that the mail Mary’s collecting for her mother includes Charlie’s first letter home from the front. The Charlie in Mary’s dream learns his own stories from what he’s communicated to her, what her memory has preserved of him; it’s lovely stuff.
Pretty much everything about this production is lovely, in fact: the performances (by the endearing Kathleen Coons and the peculiarly charismatic Aubrey Deeker), the design scheme (credit Tony Cisek, Dan Covey, Mark K. Anduss, and Frank Labovitz), and Skidmore’s sensitive, understated direction. They’re the elements of simple, honest theater—and their alchemy is one of quiet wonder.CP