A boatload of gimmicks threatens to swamp the Washington Shake- speare Company’s production of “The Tempest,” the last play written by William Shakespeare, a storm-tossed work about nature versus civilization.
The most skillful change in director Christopher Henley’s multiangled take on the classic is casting Jenifer Deal as Prospero, traditionally a male role. Miss Deal’s commanding height and brusque, take-no-prisoners delivery is ideal for Prospero, a former Italian duke exiled to a strange, magical island where he corrals its sorcery for his own dark purposes.
Enslaving the island’s spirits — the gossamer trickster Ariel (Scott Kerns) and the angry, earthbound Caliban (Daniel Ladmirault) — Prospero sets in motion a plot of revenge against those who wronged him that starts with that mainstay of Shakespeare plays, a shipwreck. If everything goes according to plan, Ariel will regain his freedom and Caliban will once again own the island with his monster-mommy, Sycorax (Genevieve Williams).
Miss Deal’s Prospero is also based on the classic Greek character of Tiresias, the blind prophet who spent time as both a man and a woman. Like Tiresias, Prospero is without sight and, notwithstanding the casting of Miss Deal, identified as a man — especially by his daughter Miranda (Saskia de Vries), an innocent who grew up around marvelous creatures but whose experience with humans is vague. Miss Deal is an unsettling mix of male and female — obviously feminine but lacking any warm maternal instinct. She is a harsh paternal figure in the guise of a woman.
Got all that? It gets trickier.
Mr. Henley also has reversed the genders of some of the European characters who get washed ashore. Prospero’s nefarious brother Antonio (Meg Taintor), loyal supporter Gonzalo (Monique Laforce), plotting councilor Francisco (Katrina Wiskup) and adviser Adrian (Anne Nottage) are all played by women, yet they are still referred to as men. Here, the ostentatious gender-flipping adds nothing to the production but confusion.
In addition to getting back at his sister for stealing his royal title, Prospero also has something more romantic up his sleeve. He has chosen for Miranda a husband, a genial fellow named Ferdinand (Chris Galindo), son of the king of Naples. Although feared drowned by his father and minions, Ferdinand is very much alive — and so bewitched by the guileless Miranda that he is thrilled to gather wood and do menial chores for Prospero in order to bask in her company.
The zippy, hormone-fueled courtship between Miranda and Ferdinand is one of the lively spots in the WSC’s often somnambular production. Miss de Vries and Mr. Galindo give off waves of innocent, frolicsome heat in their scenes together, happy as teenagers at the beach.
Other aspects of the show are meant to take off with equal buoyancy but do not. Mr. Kerns is nimble and fleet-footed as Ariel, but his rope-swinging and gymnastics on a raised platform are awkwardly choreographed, conveying the exact opposite of a breezy spirit. He is ably assisted by two fellow spirits, played by Regina Aquino and Jon Reynolds, who are cunning wisps of naughtiness.
In fact, it is in the fantastical world that “The Tempest” succeeds. A scene not at all integral to the plot, in which three spirits — Iris (Miss Nottage), Juno (Miss Wiskup) and Ceres (Miss Williams) — bless the union of Miranda and Ferdinand, is sensual and sweet, and for a brief moment, the production is lighter than air.
This “Tempest” is, however, predominantly placid and static, the bland before the storm.
WHAT: “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare
WHERE: Washington Shakespeare Company, Clark Street Playhouse, 601 S. Clark St., Arlington
WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 5.
TICKETS: $22 to $30