Casting a woman as Prospero in William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is no longer a novelty. Helen Mirren starred as Prospera in the 2010 Julie Taymor film and, more recently, Harriet Walter put her indelible stamp on the role in an all-female “Tempest” that originated at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
What distinguishes Kate Burton’s performance in the entertaining Old Globe production, which opened last weekend at the outdoor Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, is the compassionate spin she gives the character. Under the direction of ace veteran Joe Dowling, her Prospera may still use the masculine “duke” and “prince” when referring to herself, but she is always a mother deeply concerned about the welfare of her impressionable daughter, Miranda (Nora Carroll).
Often portrayed as disturbingly angry if not callous and cruel, the protagonist of “The Tempest” has good reason to be embittered. Twelve years stranded on an island after being overthrown in a coup that was led by his brother, Prospero, the rightful duke of Milan, has been brooding over his grievances while developing his formidable occult powers. His sorcery and conscience are put to the test as he works out his revenge on his way toward partly forgiving his wrongdoers.
Burton’s Prospera is commanding on the outside, soft on the inside. She’s stern with Miranda, who still has so much to learn about life, but her tyrannical parenting is unmistakably born out of anxious love.
Miranda tells Ferdinand (Sam Avishay), the king of Naples’ son who was in a shipwreck that magically washed Prospera’s enemies ashore, that her mother is of a better nature than she seems, and Burton’s performance leaves little doubt that this is the truth. Prospera’s temper routinely erupts as she proceeds on her own timetable to join these innocents in a marital union, but she can’t help gazing from afar at their romantic interaction with a look of infinite tenderness.
Alexander Dodge’s set, a jaunty playground of flotsam and jetsam, is strewn with cinema seats in a production that revels in the open theatricality of the play. At the start of the production, Dowling allows us to see how the storm is created by the company. Prospera’s magic has its roots conspicuously in the theater.
The simpler the aesthetic, the more enchanting the staging. Sometimes David Israel Reynoso’s costumes strive too strenuously for thrills: Ariel (Philippe Bowgen) is dressed like a figure skater on his way to a gymnastics competition presided over by Liberace, and some of the more menacing figures conjured by Prospera seem as though they were ushered in from “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Outdoor productions needn’t be cartoonish to ensnare us, especially when the poetry is as vivid as it is in this late romance, which has often been interpreted as Shakespeare’s virtuosic farewell to the stage. When Dowling turns up the camp, as he does in the pageant of spirits Prospera arranges to entertain Miranda and Ferdinand, the sampling of pop songs in gooey Broadway style is a real hoot.
But it’s the actors doing what they do best — responding to the dramatic situation in language charged with radiant meaning — that truly captivates our imagination. Lizan Mitchell as Gonzala (another role converted from male to female) imbues her counsel to Robert Foxworth’s grief-distracted Alonso, who’s mourning the son he believes has died at sea, with a flaming moral urgency.
The supporting cast is solid enough. René Thornton Jr. as usurping Antonio and Daniel Ian Joeck as opportunistic Sebastian, Alonson’s untrustworthy brother, are power-hungry in all the ways that make Prospera understandably ambivalent about returning to so-called civilization.
The comic characters, to my great amazement, almost steal the show. I more or less gave up on resurrecting the drunken hilarity of the Stephano-Trinculo-Caliban farcical conspiracy. In revival after revival, the scenes have left me stone-faced. But here — thanks to the vaudeville deftness of Robert Dorfman’s Stephano and Andrew Weems’ Trinculo, both having a field day with Manoel Felciano’s preeningly lecherous Caliban — the comedy is reborn.
Dorfman is especially good at making Shakespeare’s language his salty own. Stephano’s lines sound as though they were written for an old New York schemer poking into dives for easy marks. Weems’ nervous Nellie Trinculo is the consummate hanger-on. Felciano’s Caliban deserves his chastity cage.
But the show belongs to Burton. Clarity is her strong suit, and she delivers Prospera’s glorious speeches with the translucence of the purest rainwater.
The character may have lost some of the enigmatic qualities that have enticed modern-day actors to heighten the darker, more turbulent side of the magician-scholar’s nature. Burton’s is a kinder, gentler and a tad less complicated Prospera than we have become accustomed to. But the portrayal is a tonic in these abrasive times.
Accentuating the fairy tale morality of “The Tempest,” in which Prospera recognizes that “the rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance,” is a welcome strategy right now. Startled into compassion by the sympathy Ariel feels for the humans helplessly caught in the supernatural web that has been spun for them, Prospera wonders how it is that this spirit of air could feel more for their affliction than a flesh and blood mortal who is “one of their kind.”
Burton’s handling of the poetry, revealing a mind awakening to its own emotional blind spots, made me wish that the scene could be played for all the politicians throwing their hands up at the humanitarian crisis at our borders.
Prospera renounces her “rough magic” at the end of this gracious production of “The Tempest,” but not before the theater has dazzled us with its spell-casting potency.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: The Old Globe, Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, Balboa Park, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends July 22.
Tickets: Start at $30
Contact: (619) 234-5623, www.theoldglobe.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes