There is irony in sitting down to "The Tempest" hoping there won’t be one. But that is the case as Shakespeare & Company inaugurates its new outdoor stage, the Roman Garden Theatre, with the Bard’s magical valedictory set on an enchanted isle where Prospero, exiled Duke of Milan, rules everyone including Mother Nature. Would that purveyors of outdoor theater could do the same.
But if you get lucky and no one rains on Prospero’s parade, you are in for a bewitching production performed sans technological gimcracks in the late afternoon by natural light (through Sept. 3). Allyn Burrows, who left his post as artistic director of Boston’s Actors’ Shakespeare Project to take the reins at Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company last January, presides over an intimate outdoor staging, amid pines rather than palms, that is alternately thunderous and tender, always clear-headed, frequently funny and none the worse for not turning on the fancy theatrical spigots. There is even rain — dispensed by the spirit Ariel from a hose onto the play’s hapless, shipwrecked villains.
Twelve years before the play begins, Antonio, Prospero’s ambitious brother, abetted by Alonso, King of Naples, usurped the rightful ruler’s dukedom. The deposed duke was set adrift in a leaky ship that, miraculously, brought him and his young daughter to the island whose lingering witchcraft he has since battled with his own powerful, more erudite sorcery. In the process he has commandeered both the sprite Ariel, whom an evil witch had sealed up in a tree until Prospero rescued but did not set it free, and said witch’s “hag seed” offspring, the bestial Caliban.
Now, conveniently, another boat has brought Prospero’s enemies close enough to his colonized atoll that he can turn on a storm, wash them ashore and take his revenge. The play, albeit decorated with magical doings, awakening sexuality, low comedy and a strong whiff of slave rebellion, is essentially Prospero’s journey from retributive anger to humane forgiveness — culminating in the painful trade-in of his necromantic powers (“this rough magic I here abjure”) for lesser, temporal ones.
In the 280-seat Roman Garden, where the audience surrounds the action, Nigel Gore’s harsh and commanding Prospero cues the tempest by way of drums. The enslaved spirit Ariel — a graceful, slightly sinister Tamara Hickey in flesh-colored body suit and various streamers, draperies or feathers — darts here and there, orchestrating the storm as the ship’s inhabitants are tumbled from their beds to flee ashore.
Appropriately, the wracked nobles (minus “honest old councilor” Gonzalo) and their servants are lured as much by Ariel’s song as by fear of drowning. Indeed, throughout the production, the island will prove — as Caliban says — "full of noises, Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not." At S&C these include not just the Bard’s numerous ditties, both haunting and humorous, but a few extra songs and an otherworldly, echoing sound design by Arshan Gailus that casts a spell without overwhelming.
So the outdoor production, which borrows from both Bread and Puppet Theater and Mummenschanz for its low-tech special effects, is charming. But it is the acting, as much as the simple surround-sound staging that sees Ariel flitting from tree to tree that carries this “Tempest.” To begin with, as is always the case with S&C, the actors understand what they are saying, thus so do we. Even the grandest poetry — whether barked by Gore’s authoritarian Prospero or puled by Jason Asprey’s frustrated Caliban — sounds both magisterial and natural.
Gore, wielding his staff less like a wand than a weapon, is intimidating in his anger and even in his love, commanding daughter Miranda much as he does his proud if dutiful go-to sprite. And Hickey’s Ariel, though more physically delicate, is likewise powerful, dropping grown men to the floor by way of magic and an artful backbend. Moreover, the actress brings to the enslaved spirit a fierce sadness that will only be relieved by her freedom from Prospero. It is an imminent separation about which Ariel, not being human, feels far less regret than Prospero does. And Gore and Hickey make all the requisite importance of the exquisite moment in which the spirit, locked into a long faceoff with its master, more or less shames him into mercy toward his enemies.
As a face-painted, sharp-clawed but hardly amphibian Caliban, Asprey seems as liquid as the hooch his character is full of but is never without poignancy and a shredded, vengeful dignity. And as Stephano and Trinculo, the stranded butler and jester who make a sort of pet of the monster/man, Josh Aaron McCabe (who doubles as an aggrieved but decent Alonso) and Bella Merlin prove both musical and slap-ticklish rather than laborious in their broad-comic shenanigans.
Deaon Griffin-Pressley is a handsome, almost giddily smitten Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Naples, whom Prospero matches up with his beloved, here formidable daughter. In the strong, sexy persona of Ella Loudon, this Miranda is not just ebullient and tough but amusingly, lustily gob smacked by lofty “log man” Ferdinand as well as by the “brave new world/ That has such people in’t!”
Burrows’ swan song for Actors’ Shakespeare Project was an impressive, similarly minimalist “Tempest,” featuring a formidable female Prospero, that got a lot of things right. This spare and magical reboot takes the play not only outdoors but also up a notch.
Shakespeare & Company performs "The Tempest" at the Roman Garden Theatre in Lenox through Sept. 3.