Tradition, Fantasy Blend in 'Tempest'

The Tempest directed by Ron Daniels at the American Repertory Theater through December 31

When an experienced director of Shakespeare like Ron Daniels collaborates with the man who played Ivan Ooze in the movie version of "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," something special is in the air. Daniels's innovative decisions and Paul Freeman's excellent, traditional performance as Prospero add up to a production of "The Tempest" that is unique and elegant.

Daniels successfully conveys the wonder and strangeness of the "brave new world" so crucial to any production of "The Tempest." He does this by appealing to his contemporary audience's idea of the exotic, as well as to a modern conception of "the other." In the middle of the scenery sits an imposing but unidentified concrete structure. The magician Prospero is dressed not like a sorcerer but instead as an African medicine man. And the music incorporates elements of rap and opera. "Ultimately," says Daniels, "I want to see how one comes to understand the experience of 'the other.'" He does this in part by setting Prospero's experience in such an unfamiliar environment.

Designed by John Conklin, the stage consists of a large, off-white, semicircular structure in the middle of a desolate landscape. The structure, which looks like a huge, broken astronomical instrument, looks both beautiful and out of place on the desert island. This fantastic stage, which contrasts with the brief, dramatic storm scene that opens the play, is where the bulk of the action takes place.

The character of Caliban (Jack Willis) also goes against convention. Instead of a quick-tempered, bestial brute, Daniels casts Caliban as a calm, wry cynic. He thus lends a shrewd, cynical edge to lines usually spoken in anger or resentment: "You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse; the red plague rid you for learning me your language!"

The music of composer and sound designer Bruce Odland brings the songs of the spirit Ariel (Benjamin Evett) to life. Evett's great falsetto and mysterious vibrato make the songs sound magical and strange. Yet his conch shell allows for diversity: Ariel does everything from a rap segment-using the conch as percussion-to a call in which he speaks through the amplifying and distorting shell.

Costume designer Gabriel Berry also combines the mysterious with the familiar by juxtaposing the Milanese court's clothing, based on the clothing of seventeenth-century European aristocrats, with Prospero's shaman costume. Ariel and Caliban, dressed and body-painted like native islanders, also contrast effectively with the conservatively outfitted Milanese. The butler Stephano (Charles Levin) and the jester Trinculo (Thomas Derrah) who boast more colorful costumes, go through several changes-including some cross-dressing-after they discover a glistering wardrobe.

At the heart of Daniels' modern interpretation lie the play's masques, which originally incorporated images of the Roman goddesses Juno, Iris and Ceres. Daniels replaces Shakespeare's masques with new ones written and composed by Odland with the help of anthropologist David Guss. These masques, performed by Europe, Americas, and Africa, are intended to represent themes of nature and multiculturalism to a modern audience. Unfortunately, Daniels' masques replace a considerable chunk of the original text: but then again, Shakespeare's masques never got an audience to clap along.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this unconventional production of "The Tempest" is Freeman's strong conventional performance. Prospero is a magician exiled from his dukedom who seeks revenge. When the men who betrayed him are near the shore of his island, he sends a storm to wreck their ship and bring them all onto the shore. As he plans revenge, oversees the engagement of his daughter Miranda (Jessalyn Gilsig) to Prince Ferdinand of Naples (Scott Ripley) and foils Caliban's plot against his life, Freeman evokes every doubt, conviction and emotion Prospero experiences. He is temperamental and harsh with his spirit-servant Ariel, kind but strict toward Caliban and a little amazed by his own decision to forgive his betrayers and give up his powers. In the midst of the fantastic world created by Daniels, Freeman's Prospero gives the play a familiar and human center. Both his controlled performance and the dazzling monologues in which he faces the audience in wonder endear Prospero's character to the audience.

"Prospero's journey," as Daniels puts it, "is very much [about] what is both lost and gained in exile." The mystery and magic of the production's visual and aural effects create this feeling of exile. But for many people Prospero's renunciation of his magic represents Shakespeare giving up writing in this his final play. Paul Freeman evokes this idea in a powerful performance of Prospero's monologues: After recalling with both enthusiasm and nostalgia what his "so potent art" had once done, he says regretfully. "But this rough magic I here abjure."

As with any play, new interpretations of "The Tempest" require not only intelligent, careful innovations, but also a good representation of both the characters and the plot. Not only does Daniels bring decades of experience with Shakespeare to his production, but the actors, especially Freeman, play their parts masterfully.