Although director Patrick Swanson promises 'rough magic' in the promotional material, what the show delivers is light and deft. Music, comedy, and romance combine to lift this Actors' Shakespeare Project production of The Tempest nearly off the footlit stage.
Fortunately, Alvin Epstein as Prospero is there to keep things grounded. Epstein is an extremely experienced actor, and his previous partnership with Swanson in ASP's production of King Lear in 2005 was award-winning. As Prospero, Epstein balances affection and irascibility with just a hint of melancholy. He is manipulative and perhaps just a bit too extroverted. Maybe he's desperate for company outside of his daughter, his spirits, and his slave. We often catch a glimpse of him behind the scenes pouring over his book, but it's somehow difficult to imagine him so studious as to lose Milan to the scheming Antonio, here played sardonic and smart by Richard Snee.
Prospero is the literal puppet-master of this production. The costuming, by Seth Bodie, is shabby Victorian chic, with Prospero as a down-at-heels stage magician, and Ariel his more impeccably-dressed servant. But what Prospero practices is not so much sleight-of-hand as it is the pulling of hidden strings. A wave of his hand sends the other characters off stage, lulls them to sleep, or jerks them harshly nearer to face his wrath. He also calls upon a wooden staff versus magic wand to assist him in his final workings.
It is his magic that propels the action and sets the scene. Although the production hearkens back to the Victorian and the Elizabethan, Swanson and his Prospero are both are concerned with the now, a word that appears nearly eighty times in the play. Timing is of the essence, and you get something of the urgency of a tightrope walker with this performance. Suspended in the air though it is, at any moment it could fall. This undercurrent of trepidation hangs over the audience's heads as a constant reminder that Prospero's every third thought is consumed with sentencing himself.
The Tempest is full of music both in general—it has the most songs of any play in the canon—and in this production. The show opens with a full-throated version of the sea chanty 'Blood Red Roses', and music director/accompanist Eric McDonald fills the island with sweet airs. Marianna Bassham does a lilting turn as Ariel, who, when she's not singing, is craving Prospero's affection and having a bit of harmless fun tricking the unsuspecting castaways. All of the music for the production, as well as any sound effects, is produced by actors or on-stage accompaniment. Actors staged discreetly on a high balcony bark, shout, whistle and coo, creating the surprising and delightful feeling of being surrounded by hounds, spirits, or sweet island birds. The marriage masque becomes a combination drag revue/sword dance, and all is performed in the spirit of fun.
The show is also delightfully funny. Robert Walsh as the drunken Stephano, and John Kuntz as the also drunken clown Trinculo are particularly engaging, but the comedy, especially the physical comedy, is well-timed and well-acted throughout. ASP's artistic director Benjamin Evett is a riot as Caliban; fortunately, his performance never reduces the character to merely a figure of fun. Swanson notes Beckett's Endgame as one of his influences for this production, and Evett seems to have the maxim "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness" in the back of his head as he shuffles, capers, and cringes.
Mara Sidmore as Miranda and Jason Bowen as Ferdinand are funny in their own way, too, but their funny is romantic rather than drunken slapstick. Both play wide-eyed lovers as if they are newly awakened, as if falling in love has given them new senses, and they perceive the world in whole new ways. Their delight in each other is infectious.
The other party on the island is a bit slow and serious. David Gullette is a stern Alonso, and Walter Locke an idealistic Gonzalo. More quick-witted and deadly are Antonio and Sebastian (Antonio Ocampo-Guzman). Their scenes occasionally lack focus, especially when Gonzalo is speechifying, but wit sharpens when Snee and Ocampo-Guzman are cracking wise.
The space in the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center is lovely, and Swanson, along with scenic designer David R. Gammons, make excellent use of the floor—a thrust stage with proscenium backdrop, several trapdoors, and the aforementioned balcony to create a multi-tiered performance. Unfortunately, the unassisted voices of the actors are not always up to the acoustics and lines are occasionally lost.
For the audience, if not for the unfortunate clowns and usurping brothers, this production creates a little island paradise populated with airy delights that anyone would be hard-pressed to leave.