The wind picked up in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival Amphitheater just as the first act of “The Tempest” reached its culmination on opening night Saturday. Tree branches bashed about, leaves rustled, turkey vultures stirred from their nests and patrons in the nearly sold-out house grabbed for the blankets they’d brought.
This is the magic of outdoor theater: A moment when the natural environment of the space perfectly complements the action on stage. Swirls of wind reflected the currents of thought and emotion that run through ISF’s wonderful production of Shakespeare’s most cerebral play.
Director Drew Barr set his “Tempest” on “an island of the mind,” highlighting Shakespeare’s ideas of the nature of consciousness and humanity. Barr blends elements of B-movie science fiction and fantasy — with some cool special effects — with psychology to create this dark, moody and ultimately satisfying “Tempest.”
Prospero (an excellent David Anthony Smith), once the Duke of Milan, now lives on an island with his daughter, Miranda (Katie Willmorth, delightful) after being usurped by his brother. In Milan, he lived more in his library than in the world and didn’t notice the politics at hand. So in some ways he blames himself for what happened. But now his anger turns outward. He seeks revenge against his wrongdoers in order to put his daughter in her rightful place as a queen.
During 12 years on his island his books have taught him magic and he has become a mighty sorcerer with the ability to enslave spirits and cause shipwrecks. He crashes a vessel carrying his enemies onto his shore: His brother Antonio (Jonathan Dyrud), who took his crown; the King of Naples (Dougfred Miller), who allowed it; and his entourage — the king’s brother Sebastian (Nick Steen); his stalwart counselor Gonzalo (Richard Klautsch); and his son Ferdinand (Patrick Riley).
Of course he has plans for all, the least of which is to discover if Ferdinand is worthy of Miranda.
The production hinges on Smith’s powerful performance. For this role, he abandons his usual comic tricks to hone in on this character’s emotional journey. He taps into a rare and deep, centered stillness that serves him and the play well.
Ryan David O’Byrne’s Ariel is powerfully grounded, rather than the typical ethereal sprite. He is a reflection of Prospero’s ego — just as the wild Caliban (J. Todd Adams) reflects Prospero’s id, which he treats with distaste as he journeys toward his superego and the power to forgive.
Willmorth is perfectly cast as Miranda. She is beautifully fragile yet deeply strong, teetering between Prospero’s worlds of magic and reality, discovering herself through the arrival of the ship’s crew and her love for Ferdinand. Riley makes an appealing Ferdinand, captured by Prospero toils willingly to earn Miranda’s hand.
Adams’ Marilyn Manson-inspired Caliban, along with Tom Ford as Stephano and Dustin Tucker as Trinculo provide ample comic relief as they stumble drunkenly through their own hysterical journey.
Russell Metheny’s beautifully spare set presents a magician’s cabinet — a translucent, mirrored rectangle at the center of the stage — from which things appear, disappear and transform.
Kim Krumm Sorenson’s Edwardian costumes for King and company contrast beautifully with the flowing robes for Prospero and Miranda. Matt Tierney’s terrific sound design creates a beautiful storm at the top of the show and drops in thunder, birds and otherworldly music throughout.
Rick Martin’s lighting makes Metheny’s set look part deconstructed nightclub, part magical ramshackle island hut, with purple neon and shimmering mirrored lights.
But all bells and whistles aside, the real magic of this production is in its language. The ensemble wields the words beautifully, clearly communicating what is easily Shakespeare’s most sophisticated text, making this an ultimately engaging night of theater.