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Actors and directors and dramaturges have had four centuries to get The Tempest right, so you’d think they’d at least be able to agree on what the damn thing’s about by now. That’s the fun thing about Shakespeare: Just when you think you know a play, somebody comes up with a take that sheds a little new light.
A little new light on the story of the exiled Duke Prospero and his magic-fueled revenge fantasy is pretty much what the Folger Theatre’s smart if not earth-shaking new production offers: Aaron Posner’s staging slenderizes the show, lopping off whole swathes of text and integrating the parts of drunkard Trinculo and his cohort Stephano with that of the rebellious underling Caliban. Interesting, that: The gambit speeds the play along, to be sure, but it also ups the stakes, making Caliban seem a more dangerous character. His own revenge fantasy, without outsiders to inspire him and egg him on, becomes an entirely interior thing—and as we’ve been reminded of late, a resentment closely nursed can end in horror.
Posner’s staging, meanwhile, manages to feel ambivalent about Prospero’s virtue, which seems in these times quite an understandable response. Consider: Prospero (Michael Rudko), a complacent power cruelly attacked in his own land, has become in another part of the world, an occupying superpower maintaining his hold purely by dint of ruthlessness, bravado, and (barely) superior force. He might look like lord of all he surveys, but look closer: He’s a tatterdemalion emperor, a dictator in rags constantly patrolling his hard-won fiefdom. His subjects might revolt at any moment—they say so to his face—and it’s only his willingness to subdue them with raw power, not any respect between subject for master, that keeps them in line.
Posner’s Tempest isn’t merely political, though; Rudko’s Prospero clearly knows, or at least senses, what his machinations have done to his soul; desperation and regret shadow what’s otherwise a lilting, almost lyrical performance. Todd Scofield, saddled with the Trinculo/Stephano clowning as well as Caliban’s resentful snarling, acquits himself and the conceit quite nicely, and the young lovers (Jefferson A. Russell and Erin Weaver) are charming.
The package that frames all this feels smoothly professional, with a projections-and-sound scheme designed to make the play’s magic happen without more fuss than necessary. The opening tempest is plenty impressive—but the best bit comes when sound designer Lindsay Jones sends the voice of the storm-conjuring sprite Ariel (Marybeth Fritzky) chasing itself through the nooks and crannies of the Folger’s courtyard-style Elizabethan theater. That’s probably an apt metaphor for the show as a whole: It’s not going to strike anyone as an elemental triumph, this Tempest, but it’s thoughtful and polished and handsome, and sometimes that’s enough.