That The Tempest weaves through murderous plots, attempted rape, enslavement, ill-fated lovers and split families — the territory of tragedies, to be sure, and escapes relatively unscathed as something closer to a comedy is a testament to the strength of Shakespeare as a writer. By some counts, this final work by the Bard is his best, a victory lap demonstrating his mastery in capturing the human character.
Of course, any good captain could still fail without careful handling on the part of the ship’s crew, and it’s a credit to the execution at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival that they walk that happy line, dipping a toe on either side. Audiences for The Tempest ride out waves of emotional highs and lows.
The Tempest, of course, does open with a shipwreck. At last, fate has brought the exiled duke Prospero’s enemies within the reach of his influence. With the aid of a spirit, Ariel, and a magical staff, Prospero dashes their ships against the rocks of the island where he and his daughter have been living in the company of Ariel and the disfigured son of a sea witch, Caliban.
That he has raised his daughter on that near-empty island for more than 12 years without the riches his dukedom would have allowed — and, perhaps more importantly, without the library of books he would have used to educated her — has generated a palpable rage in Prospero. He’s ready to weather whatever the demands of setting the wheels of revenge in motion.
But The Tempest isn’t a story of vengeance. It’s a story of redemption and mercy.
Prospero, too, could easily be pushed over the edge into dangerous territory. But, as portrayed by Peter Simon Hilton, though his fury can raise storms, that superpower is tempered by a mortal pain and exhaustion. Hilton plays the occasionally sarcastic Prospero with a nuance that gives both a sense of the ongoing anger at injustice and the threads of the lingering hope that will later give way for mercy. (Forgive the near plotspoilers — we’re all friends here, right? And a full synopsis is in the program notes.)
But that mercy hinges on Prospero being most interested not in righting wrongs but in restoring his daughter to the life she deserves. After all, he expects that he’s not far from his grave. So we have to believe his choices, in the end, are made with his daughter’s happiness in mind.
Director Geoffrey Kent philosophizes that the island is Prospero’s means of providing for and protecting his daughter. It’s given them a way to live when they were sent to die, a place to raise Miranda and a way to school her, at the very least, in being resourceful and strong. But Miranda has outgrown this playground as she has outgrown the clothes in which she first landed on its banks.
Though Prospero’s uncharted island could have been anywhere — it could have been a Caribbean paradise — and the actual geography is unspecified, the atmosphere is one of desperation and need: the need of Prospero to avenge himself, and the needs of Caliban and Ariel to be freed from his rule, and the need of Miranda to also, in some ways, be freed from his influence and to behold the “brave new world.”
Miranda is carried with childlike wonder and ready enthusiasm by Kyra Lindsey that’s endearing on occasions, but there are moments in which she takes a baffling turn toward stereotypical awkward teenager, prone to fidgeting and shrugging. We want her to be the rock to which Ferdinand can cling for life and to which her father can lean in the moment he has to give up all he has wanted for himself in favor of giving her all that her future requires. But this comportment is not that. Prospero is alone in steering this ship.
If he has a compatriot, it’s Ariel, the spirit tasked with executing and overseeing Prospero’s vengeful plots. She’s both tethered to and empowered by the aerial silks on which she spins. It’s an effective visual metaphor for the prison Prospero has kept her in and the ways in which the island has trapped them all. Vanessa Morosco taps a demanding set of skills for this part — she sings, she does aerial dance, she plays music, and she delivers a biting condemnation of liars and a determined wish for freedom with appropriate weight.
As Ferdinand, Benjamin Bonenfant is what a romantic Shakespearean hero should be — dutiful, constant, kind and virtuous. And while the array of period garb from the 1700s is attractive, unlike tellings of Macbeth that moved to Afghanistan, as the Festival did last year, there’s little gained or lost in clarifying the time in which our story is told. It’s a timeless tale, and the best work done to add to the atmosphere, as can so often be the case in the Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre, is the occasional evening storm.
So, let’s end with the fools.
The drunken buffoons Stefano and Trinocolo and the antics to which they descend with Caliban acquired as their drinking mate do much to pull the play back where it might otherwise be steered toward the grounds for a tragedy. In their respective roles as Trinculo and Stephano, Rodney Lizano and Sammie Joe Kinnett are all in — and infectiously in.
And so it must go with ships, and sailors, and the sacrifices made today in hopes for what the wind or waves might bring our way tomorrow.