Seattle Shakespeare’s season-opening performance of The Tempest on Friday at Center Theater was everything I didn’t know I needed from the Bard’s final play. The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shorter plays, and for a playwright known for labyrinthine plots, also one of his most straightforward. It centers around magician and ousted-duke Prospero (Mari Nelson), who was exiled from her rightful seat in Milan and set adrift on a dingy boat with her daughter Miranda (Allyson Lee Brown). As chance would have it, twelve years later her her treacherous sister, Antonio (Betsy Schwartz) and co-conspirator Alonso, the Queen of Naples (Eleanor Moseley), find themselves sailing past the island on which Prospero and her daughter have made their home. Prospero brings on the eponymous tempest, with the help of her indentured servant, the spirit Ariel, to bring them to shore so that she can enact her revenge and return her and her daughter to their rightful positions.
The performance, directed by Annie Lareau, is breathtaking from start to finish. It was also both literally and figuratively dazzingling, thanks to set designer Julia Hayes Welch, lighting designer Thorn Michaels, and costume designer Kelly McDonald. The silky, shiny Edwardian finery worn on stage made me want to go on a shopping spree in the costume department (and this is coming from someone whose sartorial choices lean strongly towards thrift-store lumberjack). The refined costuming was reflected in the stage itself, which was outfitted with breezy curtains and more than two dozen chandeliers, that lit up like gothic fireflies when Prospero performed her magic.
Speaking of which, I struggle to see how it would be possible to find a more perfect Prospero than Nelson. She embodies the role so entirely that when I think of this character in years to come it will be her face that comes to mind. She is regal, ironic and aloof, the picture of an omnipotent sorceress. At the same time, her moments of childish delight when her schemes come together as planned win the audience over entirely to her favour. But Prospero is not simply a wronged heroine, her character can also be tyrannical and violent, especially when it comes to her servants, the spirit Ariel and the monstrous Caliban (Christopher Morson), and here too Nelson’s simultaneous and seemingly effortless expression of repressive severity and almost parental affection are captivating to behold. As for Ariel, this production has the spirit played by not one, but four actors (Gloria Lee Acalá, Sidney Rakowieki, Sydney Maltese, and Malex Reed). Reed is also the show’s composer and musical director, and under their guidance the four Ariel’s become a twirling, singing quartet, dancing in and out of the stage in a beautiful confusion of sound and movement. The only way they possibly could have come across as more ethereal is if the actors could actually dissipate into mist. A large part of Prospero’s convoluted scheming involved matchmaking her daughter with the also shipwrecked Prince of Naples (Benjamin Neil McCormack). While Brown and McCormack’s chemistry wasn’t quite up to the task of convincingly portraying love at first sight, their open and innocent emotional outbursts were still a lovely counterpoint to the heaviness of the other characters.
This review is already too long, but it would be a crime to refrain from mentioning the performances of Amy Escobar and Peter Dylan O’Conner. They play Trinculo and Stephano respectively, drunken, dumb, and devious member’s of Alonso’s staff who hilariously plot to take over the island with the help of Caliban. Everything from their physical movement and facial expressions to their timing and delivery is visceral, unadulterated comedy that I’d like to watch over and over again.
To put simply, if there is only one play you can see this year, it should be this one.
The Tempest. Seattle Shakespeare Company: Tickets and more info are available here. The show runs through the tenth of November, if I were you I’d buy my tickets now.