The Royal Shakespeare Company, predictably brilliant but unexpectedly modern, gave a captivatingd debut performance of “The Tempest” last night at the Power Center.
The stage opened with an overblown image of a transistor radio projected across the curtain, the round speaker cut out to become the window of a storm-blown ship. A booming British voice issues a warning signal overhead before the 20th-century-looking crew starts spouting Shakespearian verse, all in front of a large-scale video of the roaring sea.
Needless to say, this was no amateur production.
“The Tempest” revolves around Prospero, played by the legendary Patrick Stewart. Prospero was once a noble Duke, but has lived sequestered on an island for 12 years after his throne was usurped by his brother Antonio, aided by the King of Naples and the king’s brother. Prospero’s only company is his daughter Miranda, the spirit Ariel he freed from a witch’s spell and Caliban, an island savage he keeps as a slave.
With the help of Ariel, Prospero conjures a tempest to throw his brother’s ship off course, hoping to finally take revenge on the traitor. But when the crew is washed ashore – safe but separated – confusion ensues on the island.
The king’s son, Ferdinand, encounters Prospero and his daughter Miranda, with whom he’s instantly enamored. Thought to be a lone idiot, the prince is enslaved by Prospero who doubts his honest intentions. Antonio attempts to betray the king while he’s asleep, mourning the presumed death of his son. And Stephano and Trinculo – a drunk butler and chef respectively – attempt to tame the raucous Caliban.
Ariel is the omniscient overseer in all this, while anxiously watching an hourglass count down the hours to his promised freedom. Ariel’s presence is impossible to ignore as ghoulish music seeps through the speakers and his three accompanying spirits linger in the shadows. And just when you think you’re getting used to him lurking in the background, Ariel bursts out of a seal carcass dressed in rib bones and spewing blood across the stage. So much for understatement.
But an audience can only handle Ariel’s hair-raising demeanor for so long. Enter comedic duo Stephano and Trinculo.
Trinculo seeks shelter from a snow storm under a makeshift hut, only to find himself in a more-than-slightly compromising situation. When Stephano confuses Trinculo’s backside for Caliban’s second mouth, the audience can’t help but erupt in laughter, half-wondering at how crude a Shakespearian joke can get.
Even though the cast as a whole delivered a nearly flawless performance, Patrick Stewart remains the show’s true gem. After nearly 50 years on stage, Stewart is still going strong (and is still ripped like he’s 20). Moving effortlessly between Star Trek’s Captain Jean Luc Picard and Shakespearian heroes, Stewart is a theater rarity. His intergalactic authority might inspire admiration in ever-awkward Trekkies, but Stewart’s compelling monologues trump anything he could attempt on screen.
Prospero eventually rises above the instinctual drive to seek vengeance on his brother and forfeits his magical powers. He then becomes the voice of reason as the disjointed crew pieces together the history of their island exploits. Stewart’s commanding stage presence echoed through the theater as he uttered the play’s most famous lines in his closing monologue:
“As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”