ASHLAND -- A lovely, light-pooled production of "The Tempest" raised the curtain on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 79th season in Ashland last weekend, drawing an almost full house to the Angus Bowmer Theatre to watch Prospero and Ariel spin their magic in Shakespeare's powerful, late romance.
The early season continues with three other plays: "The Comedy of Errors," Lorraine Hansberry's rarely produced "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window" and the Marx Brothers' madcap musical "Cocoanuts." We'll have reviews of each one this week.
This "Tempest" reflects many of the values the festival holds dear: trusting veteran actors in key roles; emphasizing clarity of text; adding bold elements to freshen a masterpiece.
Appropriately, light plays a starring role in Shakespeare's almost-final play, as defined as any character. Alexander V. Nichols creates moon-pools of white light, looming shadows and a curtain of hanging lights that dims or brightens when Prospero waves his arms.
Last done here in 2007, "The Tempest" is about power and magic, sleeping and waking, revenge and forgiveness. Prospero, banished for 12 years to a remote island with his daughter, Miranda, seizes revenge on his enemies by throwing a storm at their approaching ship. Ariel, a captive island spirit, is the magician's ally as the near-drowned men stumble upon their island.
Shakespeare sets us up for a tale of dark score-settling, but "The Tempest" is not a revenge play and the plot pivots quickly when Ariel intervenes on the side of mercy. When the great magician softens and recovers his humanity, his lines echo down the centuries:
"Our revels now are ended...we are such stuff as dreams are made on..."
Denis Arndt, whose credits go back to playing Lear at the festival 38 years ago, gives us a wise, mellow Prospero, a master comfortable with power, noble in forgiveness. When he speaks, we hear his meaning through inflection and emphasis.
I only wish he could have used his voice more powerfully, more musically. It's a mellow, conversational voice and I missed the more muscular shades of anger Prospero carries with him.
By contrast, Wayne T. Carr's muscled Caliban -- he delivered his lines on his haunches almost the entire time -- was a marvel of vocal range and color, an orally articulate mooncalf, for all his spitting curses and raw desire.
As Ariel, Kate Hurster was a marvel of flaming red hair, flowing moves and urgent obedience. Ariel is the playmaker and, compared to Miranda, Prospero's submissive daughter; she embodies the island's magical qualities through airy singing, dancing and an "Angels in America" descent from the sky. Hurster was riveting.
Four mute spirits made a striking addition as a mute Greek Chorus in Japanese Butoh style. Shirtless, with shaved heads, they mimicked and reacted to the action, served as props and danced, rolled and posed. Magic.
Check back for more reviews of opening weekend.
"The Tempest" continues through Nov. 2.