Susan Shunk and Kenneth Albers in American Players Theatre's The Tempest.
We left Madison in a raging downpour Saturday night, but by the time we got to Spring Green, the only storm in evidence was the product of sound effects. And good thing, too, because The Tempest is a comic romance, and to have been deprived of the latest outdoor take on Shakespeare's play by American Players Theatre would have been a tragedy.
The show opens with the titular bout of fantastically bad weather, conjured up by the magician Prospero, deposed duke of Milan. The hallmark of APT's production is how clear things are from the outset. Takeshi Kata's sparse set -- a few bowed walls of wooden planks, a simple terrace, a dark passage leading backstage -- ably serves first as the ship carrying Prospero's usurper brother and other old enemies and friends, and later as, alternately, the tropical island they're stranded on and the sorcerer's humble home there.
On opening night, all the actors did a superb job of conveying the plot (Prospero wants to regain his position, and better his maiden daughter Miranda's fortunes by marrying her to Ferdinand, the marooned prince of Naples) and subplots (his savage servant Caliban enlists the aid of a drunk butler and jester to overthrow the magician; his treacherous brother encourages another noble to seize power by violence), perfectly augmenting their lines with the gestures and intonation necessary if you really want a modern audience to appreciate the Bard's blank verse. Laughs were numerous and frequent.
Production-wise, APT has kept it minimal, but quite obviously put maximum craft into what details they highlight. The nobles' period costumes, by Fabio Toblini, are of beautiful quality, neatly color-coded to clarify who the bad guys are. Prospero's enchanted spirits come clad in Asian dress, which is subtly, appropriately otherworldly, and their music (by Josh Schmidt) is as haunting as it ought to be, and no more.
The result of keeping the fundamentals so straightforward is that the play's more sensational elements are that much more marvelous. A table that hovers in midair and shackles that unfasten themselves at a word feel like real magic, and when the sprite Ariel (played by Deborah Staples, channeling sort of a very smart cat robot -- it's hard to put into words, but I liked it) suddenly appears before the villains as a vengeful harpy, it is wicked scary.
As Miranda and Ferdinand, Susan Shunk and Travis A. Knight generate real heat. John Pribyl seems especially comfortable as the windy but honorable councilor Gonzalo. And Kenneth Albers' Prospero struck me as a bit too thunderous at first, but I'd changed my mind by the time he broke his magic staff. He transmits a sense of urgency that builds and builds, till it feel like a storm on the horizon, and then it passes, and the world is untroubled again. A very few minor, easily reparable cloudy spots aside -- a couple lines spoken too early, a snapped drumstick during a celebratory dance -- The Tempest is quite a charm.