Conjuring up a brave new world out of magic isn't for amateurs or, as we say today, Muggles. That applies not only to practicing wizards like Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but to stage directors in charge of creating theatrical legerdemain that will enthrall an audience and illuminate a 400-year-old text.
In his dreamy, elegant production of Shakespeare's storm-tossed romance at the Old Globe, director Adrian Noble pulls a number of clever ideas out of his hat: introducing Japanese-style bunraku puppets; refashioning several of the play's verse-chants as songs that vaguely evoke British New Wave electronic pop. ("Coming up next on
we've got Ariel and the Ethereals with their fab new hit, 'Full Fathom Five!'")
In realizing the play's lush, poetic imagery and its roaring bestiary of ideas, this production honors sensuality as well as clarity. It bathes the performers in soft light and mist. Mediterranean sky blues and crisp naval-officer whites dominate Ralph Funicello's scenic design and Deirdre Clancy's costumes. A giant aquatic fabric unfurls across the Globe's outdoor stage, imitating violent ocean swells or gentle, lapping waves, as this masterwork of metamorphosis casts its Ovidian spell, transforming water into runaway horses, bones into coral, submission into freedom, death into life.
But Noble and company aspire to more than wading around in the ambient shallows. They're diving after psychological depths in the tale of Prospero (Miles Anderson), the Milanese nobleman wrongly exiled and banished to a magical island with his daughter Miranda (Winslow Corbett), monstrous slave Caliban (Jonno Roberts) and spirit alter ego Ariel (Ben Diskant). When his former tormenters get shipwrecked, Prospero becomes the ultimate Hollywood mogul, casting his human marionettes in an epic of his own devising, replete with marine-layered subplots of vengeance, romance and
, all skillfully executed here.
After the play's four centuries in the repertoire, most audiences of "The Tempest" probably walk in knowing that a Hollywood happy ending is guaranteed. But Noble, artistic director of the Old Globe's Shakespeare Festival and former head of
, sustains the suspense, or rather the anticipation, that another edifying surprise is just around the corner.
His cast seems to share this sense of delight in discovery, speaking its lines with an unfailing freshness and spontaneity. When the King of Naples (Donald Carrier) and his cohorts Sebastian (
Allen), Antonio (Anthony Cochrane), Gonzalo (Charles Janasz) and the rest first discover themselves cast adrift in a strange place where neither God's nor man's normal laws apply, the actors make their words vibrate or hiss with the dazzling potential for good or evil.
Similarly, Diskant's glee in Ariel's mischief-making, and Roberts' wounded bafflement as the indignities get heaped on Caliban's grotesque shoulders, anticipate Miranda's wide-eyed pronouncement about the fantastic human creatures she encounters. When that moment of sublime generosity, and irony, arrives in this production, it feels completely organic.
Anderson — barefoot, alert, with the compact muscularity of a middle-age shogun — isn't a towering, monumental Prospero, but he's a resourceful and commanding one, a dictatorial benevolence, emotionally the sum of all the play's characters yet ultimately like none of them. When he stands side by side with Diskant, it's like looking at one of those 16th century allegorical paintings of the Ages of Man.
And rightly so. In this, his final work, Shakespeare insists that the most magical sea changes of all are those that occur within the self.
The Old Globe, San Diego.
Through Sept. 25.
Two hours, 30 minutes.