- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2007

It was a dark and stormy night Wednesday both outside and within the Folger Theatre.

Outside, a brief but violent spring thunderstorm crackled across the fast-darkening sky. Inside, the theater’s beefed-up surround-sound and light systems erupted with the howling winds and roaring waves of a hurricane, punctuated by the terrified cries of a doomed ship’s crew — the brilliant opening scene of Shakespeare’s late romance drama “The Tempest.”

This mighty storm is conjured up by an island-bound sorcerer named Prospero. It’s meant to cause a shipwreck that strands Alonso, King of Naples, and a few others on his island hideaway — including Prospero’s brother, Antonio, and the King’s brother, Sebastian. All had plotted many years before to get rid of Prospero, then the bookish Duke of Milan, by casting him adrift on the ocean in a tiny boat with infant daughter Miranda while Antonio usurped his position. Now it’s time to set things right.

In addition to its highly evocative special effects, this unusual production, directed by Aaron Posner, fiddles with the cast of characters, almost eliminating the comic figures of Stefano and Trinculo, the better to focus on the principals.

Generally portrayed as a mercurial figure, Michael Rudko’s Prospero is a peculiarly reflective fellow. He’s still the bookish intellectual he always was, just a little older and mellower. It’s an interesting approach, but it lessens the dramatic tension inherent in the play.

Erin Weaver’s grown-up Miranda is girlish, impetuous and delightfully ingratiating. She meets her exact match in the shipwrecked King’s lost son, Ferdinand. As portrayed by the energetic Mikaal Sulaiman, he’s a charmer of boundless cheer and a starstruck lover if there ever was one. He and Miss Weaver are a good match, adding a welcome spark of romance to a sometimes cerebral evening.

Unfortunately, the bad guys never really catch fire in this production. Michael Stewart Allen (Antonio), Jefferson A. Russell (Sebastian) and David Emerson Toney (the King) remain curiously two-dimensional. Even the thought of whacking the sleeping King in a more violent reprise of Antonio’s earlier coup doesn’t inspire either him or Sebastian to cackle with villainous delight.

Perhaps intended by the director to poke a bit of fun at Washington politics, their mindless, directionless power lust seems hollowed-out and lifeless, as if weighed down by the heavy chains of terminal ennui. This emotional flatness strands poor, gabby Gonzalo (graciously portrayed by Jim Zidar) — and leaves this unredeemable pair of urbanites oddly detached from the play’s redemptive theme.

On the other hand, Mr. Posner’s quirky concept gives Todd Scofield’s thuggish Caliban greater scope in which to operate. Wrapped in filthy white windings like the cinematic “Mummy,” Mr. Scofield’s drunken monster mimes his imaginary friends “Stefano” and “Trinculo” with a wine bottle and a crude sock puppet, turning successive appearances into insane comic monologues that strangely deepen his nasty character beyond the accepted comic-book caricature. Mr. Scofield’s thickly accented yammering, however, is occasionally unintelligible.

As Ariel, the multitalented Marybeth Fritzky periodically materializes behind the aerial scrim upon which John Boesche’s evocative images are projected, speaking and singing in a voice whose pitch is bent and stretched via Lindsay Jones’ clever audio and musical handiwork. This is a sullen and resentful Ariel at the outset, never sure whether Prospero will keep his key promise to set her free, and adding a tantalizing and welcome frisson of tension to a production that could use a bit more of both.

Overall, the Folger’s “Tempest” is a thoughtful evening of theater, presenting the Bard’s work as a moral, if ambiguous, treatise on peace, acceptance and forgiveness. Younger theatergoers will love Caliban and the high-tech stuff, but veteran Shakespeare fans will miss the emotional piquancy they have come to expect in this play.

***

WHAT: “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare

WHERE: Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Performances continue through June 17.

TICKETS: $32 to $50

PHONE 202/544-7077

WEB:www.folger.edu/theatre

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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