Prospero's enchanted isle is suggested by the wide circle marked out on the floor of the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center for the Arts in Austin, Texas. As Shakespeare did, director Ann Ciccolella invites the audience to create that world by participating with their imaginations. The scenery is minimal—little more than towering dark blue flats at the back of the playing area, an unassuming balcony or elevation at stage right, rear, and a couple of rickety bushes on platforms pushed onstage as needed.
One needs little more than that, augmented by the rich suggestiveness of Jason Amato's lighting. The dense artificial haze generated as the play begins is superfluous and somewhat distracting.
The waves of the opening tempest are evoked by the stage hands holding long, wide muslin bands across the playing area downstage and deep stage, raising and agitating them so that their billows suggest the increasing fury of the storm. The crew despairs of salvation, the members of the noble retinue returning to Naples from Carthage are aghast. Above them on the island's lookout, gentle Miranda and her father Prospero look on.
The Tempest was probably Shakespeare's last work, and it's easy to interpret it as his farewell to the stage. A studious magician in a magic isle is wrapping up loose ends—preparing to renounce his magic and drown his books, righting wrongs done against himself and his daughter, rebuking the guilty and preparing to leave to re-assume his dukedom. Prospero's a man of wisdom, a master of the isle and the spirits upon it, endowed with powers sufficient to command the elements. Many an actor plays him with sweep and rhetoric and high authority, like Charleston Heston doing Moses in The Ten Commandments.
Steve Shearer's Prospero eschews all that. This Prospero is cerebral and contained, deliberate and patient, a Seneca instead of a Heston. Wikiedia's capsule description of the beliefs of that philosopher fit this Prospero well: "...the universe is governed for the best by a rational providence; contentedness is achieved by a simple, unperturbed life in accordance with nature and the duty to the state; human suffering should be accepted and has a positive effect on the soul; study and learning is important..." This Prospero is wrapping up his affairs, preparing his succession by arranging for Miranda to fall in love with the heir to the kingdom of Naples.
His control and self-control are such that we are disconcerted in Act IV, Scene 1 not by his abrupt dismissal of the masque when he remembers Caliban's conspiracy with the fools but rather by the comments from the young lovers:
Ferdinand: This is strange. Your father's in some passion
That works him strongly.
Miranda: Never till this day
Saw I him touch'd with anger, so distemper'd.
In similar fashion, Prospero's rebukes of Ariel and of Caliban are made emphatically but with only a flicker of annoyance in his eye, and the promise of Ariel's freedom in two days falls from his lips almost as an afterthought. Many another actor would have raged instead of rebuked and woud have teased the spirit instead of simply disposing of him.
To be clear—I very much like this Prospero. Shearer gives us a philosopher instead of a mountebank. There's plenty enough foolery going on in the rest of the piece. In fact, the philosopher king at the end of his exile is surrounded by fools. Not only those who are clad in motley and rags—Trinculo the jester, Stephano the drunken butler and the essence of wickedness Caliban—but just about everyone else on stage.
Lindsley Howard as Miranda and Travis Emery as Prince Ferdinand of Naples are fools for love in their gentle ways. The chillingly malevolent conspirators Scott Daigle as Sebastian and David Boss as Prospero's usurping brother Antonio are fools who suppose that they can overturn the natural hierarchy with deceit and murder.
Gonzalo, the good old lord who did not oppose the conspirators who set Prospero and his infant daughter afloat but supplied their perilously derelict vessel with provisions and the core of Prospero's library? Gonzalo is often played with orotund gravity, a sort of Polonius of the island, but in this version Tom Green makes him a lightweight, an Osric of the campfire.
Caliban and company are the real entertainers of this piece. Michael Amendola as Caliban is elastic, resentful and credulous. Nathan Jerkins creates a joyfully inebriated Stephano, playing against Michael Dalmon's not-too-bright but terribly earnest Trinculo the jester. Every moment these fellows spend upon the stage is a delight.
Shaun Patrick Tubbs as the muscular, mimetic Ariel sets them going against each other. He embodies the energy and intervention—the life force, in short—that Prospero is preparing to renounce.
I was intrigued by talk about the use of projected images by Line Dash in this piece but disappointed by the execution of them. For the masque in Act IV, Scene 1, Austin Shakespeare projects a video piece upon a contraption that looks like tattered sails draped on a chandelier (see photo). We squint at the murky images while trying to associate them with relatively difficult verse written for Greek gods. The masque may have been a late addition to the piece, perhaps to honor a royal wedding. It fits awkwardly in the best of stagings but in this one it virtually brings the action to a halt.
Austin Shakespeare's staging of The Tempest plays gracefully and rapidly otherwise, wrapping up the story in a little more than two hours, including the 15-minute intermission. I expect that the company shortened the text considerably but there's no appreciable prejudice to the charm or the action of one of Shakespeare's most familiar and most appreciated romantic comedies.
As always, the company offers lots of teaching material—via the nightly talk-back after the performance, in dramaturg Christina Gutierrez's essay on performing romance, and (an unexpected bonus) with Bernard Levin's concise little paragraph demonstrating just how deeply embedded in our daily language Shakespeare's expressions remain.