Theater Review: A “Tempest” With the Wedding Bell Blues

Olympia Dukakis’ Prospera is no tough feminist deity commanding a tiny kingdom. She is at her best when she plays the character as a feisty, down-to-earth mother who wants the best for her daughter.

The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tony Simotes. Staged by Shakespeare and Company at the Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA, through August 19.

By Iris Fanger

Olympia Dukakis (Prospera), Rocco Sisto (Caliban) in Shakespeare & Company’s production of THE TEMPEST. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

In this elaborate production of The Tempest, Olympia Dukakis does double duty thematic as Prospera, deposed Duchess of Milan. (Okay, it is Prospero in the text, and yes, it’s a gender switch to give the Oscar-winning actress the role.)

First, there’s the idea of an aging tyrant, albeit one who was washed ashore 12 years earlier on a tiny island, ruling over a population of one—her daughter, Miranda, and a parcel of sprites, elves, and fairies. At lights up, Dukakis is buoyed by the energy engendered by her thoughts of revenge for her brother’s usurping of her kingdom. Later, after the wild storm she has unleashed washes him ashore with his courtiers and puts them in her power, she realizes her dream of restoring Miranda’s birthright, offering her enemies forgiveness.

Old age finally sets in when she declares, “I’ll break my staff,” renouncing her occult studies and retreating to her former life. In these final lines (the text’s epilogue, spoken by Prospero, has been cut), Dukakis shrinks into her bones, lowering her voice to nearly non-existent whisper. It’s the actor’s and director’s choice, no doubt, but one that results in ending the play on a downbeat.

The second focus is on mother-daughter relationships: an intriguing combination of Miranda and Ariel, the spirit whom Prospera rescued and who now does her bidding as if she’s Prospera’s daughter in a parallel world of magic. This domestic approach rings true, and it is one of the most moving aspects of the production. The other bond—more romantic in nature—is the attraction between Merritt Jansen as Miranda, the wild-child raised on the island from toddlerhood, and Ryan Winkles, the elegant Prince Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Naples, who has also been shipwrecked on the island. Winkles’s Ferdinand convincingly falls in love with Miranda at first sight.

Kristen Wold as Ariel should provide the vital link among the disparate characters and plot lines, but she is at her most effective relating to her ur-mother Prospera, at her most problematic when attempting to magically fill the large stage space, which has been expanded by director Tony Simotes to include the aisles, the overhead balconies, and their railings. Wold is a fine actress and sings well, a necessity given the number of songs (including some of the speeches set to music), but she is less agile when she resorts to fairy-like movement, which is meant to represent flying. (Indeed, in many earlier productions, Ariel often floated above the stage on wires.)

You have to love the clowns, led by Rocco Sisto as the brute, Caliban, introduced to the joys of the bottle by the proper butler, Stephano, who, in a spot-on spoof from Jonathan Epstein, comes off as one of the tipsier characters below the stairs of Downton Abbey. Timothy Douglas as Trinculo, a loosey-goosey, Calypso-style jester, also generates laughs.

Jonathan Epstein (Stephano) in Shakespeare & Company’s THE TEMPEST. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

Sisto’s performance is a marvelous combination of anger, adoration of his new masters, and darkness, tapping into an aspect of the play that’s often overlooked in the rush to romanticize and/or fashion political postures. Arguably, the best moment of the production is its opening scene, when Sisto, a rope wrapped around his neck like Lucky in Waiting for Godot, enters dragging Prospera on a platform throne. That they appear to be close in age brings an even more intriguing tinge to the mistress-slave connection. The company of scheming courtiers is portrayed by an interchangeable group of actors except for the noble Gonzalo, brought to life by an anguished and kindly Apollo Dukakis (the brother of Olympia).

Unhappily, the admirable movement and singing skills of the corps of goddesses invoked by Prospera for the inserted masque are undercut by their costumes, which look like retreads from a Ziegfeld Follies musical with the addition of headdresses out of a Carmen Miranda extravaganza. According to the program notes, Simotes has set the scene on a Mediterranean island, c. 1939, but the time and place is hazy, to say the least.

At the end, the gender change is a non-issue. Dukakis’s Prospera is no tough feminist deity commanding a tiny kingdom. The actress is at her best in the scenes when she plays Prospera as a feisty, down-to-earth mother who wants the world for her children. As for the magic, the power, and refusing a ruler’s place in society, that’s of lesser importance. This magus’s greatest wish is to arrange and plan the wedding of her daughter, passing on the dowry of a crown to her daughter.

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