We gave it an A-
Given last year’s sublime production of The Winter’s Tale and his absolutely magical mounting The Tempest — now playing through March 13 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in repertory with As You Like It — it’s clear that Sam Mendes needs to devote more time to directing Shakespeare’s late-career plays. Perhaps the underappreciated Pericles or the fiercely political Coriolanus. Or what about Measure for Measure starring his Oscar-winning wife, Kate Winslet as the novice nun Isabella? Anyone who saw her guest spot on HBO’s Extras knows she can carry off a wimple.
Mendes’ specialty as a stage director is his uncanny ability to strike the right tone with these twisty, genre-jumping works. Scholars classify The Tempest as a comedy, but there are some dark and dirty dealings at its core. The supernaturally blessed Prospero (Stephen Dillane) — a.k.a. the rightful Duke of Milan, banished to a barren Mediterranean island some 12 years ago — stirs up the titular tempest to take revenge on his usurpring brother (Michael Thomas), the King of Naples (Jonathan Lincoln Fried), and the royal family. ”Not a hair perished,” sure, but he then proceeds to scatter all the shipmates across the isle and screw with their heads: Luscious banquets appear before their eyes, then vanish in a cloud of thunder; hypnotic music lulls them into strangely heavy states of sleep. He leads the King’s son Ferdinand (Edward Bennett) — hey, everyone thinks he was lost in the storm anyway — directly to his own daughter, Miranda (the peerless Juliet Rylance), knowing the two will instantly fall in love, then makes him do manual labor to earn Miranda. The boy spends his days piling up logs and praising Miranda (”O you, so perfect and so peerless, are created of every creatures best”). And Prospero’s only other associates, save Miranda, are also pretty much his slaves: the half-human/half-witch ”monster” Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones), who lost his freedom when he tried to rape Miranda; and Prospero’s trusty sidekick spirit Ariel (Christian Camargo), for whom we have more sympathy, even though the fairy does tend to be quite testy.
Mendes has toned down the raucousness in the drunken-revelry scenes with Caliban and a couple of the castaways (Thomas Sadoski, Anthony O’Donnell). The comedy here is less broad, more charming (each swig of the bottle is accompanied by the harmonious glissando of a rainstick). And he’s brought Prospero down to earth: Yes, the character is still a magician, but this Prospero is more human. He’s a disheveled fellow with his baggy pants, raggedy tank top, and crazy-old-man hair; if you saw him on the subway you’d walk to the other end of the car. He’s tired. He needs Ariel to perform his bidding because he’s too worn-out to do them himself. (”I am vexed,” he tells Ferdinand. ”My old brain is troubled.”) This stunning production possesses the requisite on-stage effects: bursts of fire, sinister harpies, evaporating goddesses. But the most enchanting moment comes in the epilogue: Dillane’s Prospero stands and asks for our applause. His charms may be ”all o’erthrown,” but we’ve experienced something truly magical. A-
(Tickets: BAM.org or 718-636-4100)