- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

The Shakespeare Theatre’s snazzy new production of “The Tempest” spices the Bard’s sometimes confusing drama with a bracing blend of exoticism and world politics.

Haunted by weird creatures, buffeted by violent gusts of human emotion and pulsating with magical energy, director Kate Whoriskey’s compellingly strange evocation of Shakespeare’s “brave new world” takes this play in an unaccustomed direction.

Exiled on a mysterious island with his young daughter Miranda, Prospero uses his sorcery books to gain advantage over a shadowy witch and control the native spirits. Sensing his old enemies nearby, he conjures up a gigantic storm, wrecking their ship on his island and forcing them to face his revenge. Yet, things turn out rather differently than Prospero imagines.

“The Tempest,” generally regarded as Shakespeare’s final solo effort, is thought to have been inspired by the adventures of Sir Walter Raleigh and others in the New World, but director Whoriskey seizes upon the play’s little-noted references to Africa and Arabia to put a challenging spin on this nearly 500-year-old play.

With program notes alluding ominously to the academic left’s obsession with post-colonialism, and with the director herself referencing Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive nihilism, one could be forgiven for expecting this “Tempest” to quickly degenerate into overt propaganda.

But Miss Whoriskey is better than that. She creates instead that rare theatrical evening where a classic is transformed for a new century with its spirit left intact. By re-imagining a Shakespearean spirit world populated by a Pan-African Ariel, and a comically Saddam-like Caliban, she draws fresh attention to Shakespeare’s dominant themes of sin, forgiveness and transformative redemption.

True, her vision necessitates tweaks like the current version’s finale, which substitutes Ariel’s mortal transformation for Prospero’s valedictory. But on the whole, everything is tastefully done. The sheer theatricality of the production’s colorful pinwheels, primitive monsters, and aerial derring-do helps transform this “Tempest” into a thoughtfully entertaining evening of theater.

The acting is generally first-rate, especially Daniel Breaker’s airborne Ariel. Free and yet not free, Mr. Breaker flies about the stage like a vertiginous African shaman. Performing airborne acrobatics while singing in exotic tongues, he imparts a genuine sense of magical realism to the production. This is Helen Hayes Award-winning material for sure.

As Prospero, Philip Goodwin is near letter-perfect as the mercurial magician whose fixation on revenge gradually transforms into a desire to forgive his enemies and emancipate personal demons. As his teenage daughter Miranda, the winsome Samantha Soule is charming yet wise beyond her years, impelled by a sense of wonder and trust very much at odds with the harsh realities she encounters.

Miss Soule’s romantic encounters with Ferdinand (Duane Boutte), the lost son of shipwrecked King Alonso, are highly effective. Mr. Boutte’s character proves his love by enduring Prospero’s constant abuse and indignities with a cheerful indifference. It is fitting that this innocent young couple is able to teach cynical adults that the essence of love is the absence of preconceived notions and roles.

Finally, a hat tip to the remaining major cast members. Daoud Heidami is humorously oafish as a more-plausible-than-normal Caliban. John Livingstone Rolle adds the proper villainous touch as Antonio. And Helmar Augustus Cooper is perfectly charming as the wise if dotty councilor, Gonzalo.

****

WHAT: “The Tempest,” by William Shakespeare.

WHEN: Through May 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW.

TICKETS: $23 to 68

INFORMATION: Call 202-547-1122 or visit https://www.shakespearetheatre.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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