As Shakespeare & Co. bids farewell to the Mount, its original Lenox, Mass., home for 24 years, with a final outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” it also is celebrating its first season as the owner of a magnificent new 53-acre campus, also in Lenox. It’s doing so primarily by presenting a series of productions in a new theater on its new grounds, the first real theater it’s ever had and technically a highly successful, spacious, air-conditioned one. S&Co. opened this 428-seat Founders’ Theater, which can be used in many different configurations, with a return of its potent “Coriolanus” from last season, following it with Donald Margulies’ two-character “Collected Stories.” It’s now offering a new production of “The Tempest,” which makes all too clear that S&Co. must raise the overall quality of its productions and acting to a level befitting its handsome new venue, let alone the replica of Shakespeare’s Rose Playhouse it plans to build.
The painful fact is that this is a “Tempest” without a Prospero, which is no “Tempest” at all. Michael Hammond is totally out of his depth in this all-important role of the magician who plays God and “directs” everything that happens in the play. His line readings, pauses and timing are so odd that he renders Prospero’s words virtually meaningless and often seems to be struggling to remember them, particular when he holds a pause too long. As for the autumnal poetry in the play, it simply isn’t there.
To make matters worse, director Eleanor Holdridge has padded the roles of foolish jester Trinculo (John Beale) and drunken butler Stephano (Dan McCleary) to the point where she completely unbalances the play and renders Prospero even less visible. Hardworking Beale and McCleary clamber all over the theater’s scaffolding and among the audience, drink martinis from cocktail glasses and, along with Caliban (Jonathan Croy), carry on boisterously as if Shakespeare’s last, perhaps loveliest play were a Three Stooges vehicle. The Founders’ Theater itself upstages this production completely.
The one perf that suggests how much better this production could have been is that of Lucia Brawley as Miranda. She plays the role suffused with wide-eyed wonder at the brave new world opening before her, completely unsullied by “civilization.” Her hurtling, tomboyish eagerness may not be to everyone’s taste, but her characterization is all of a piece and completely assured.
As Caliban, Croy is a towering, bald, fish-man who, in the overwrought comedy scene in which he and Trinculo hide under a cloth to suggest a four-legged monster, comes on dragging a bathtub, into which the two tumble in fright.
Kristin Wold’s Ariel is too much like Peter Pan, and when the three sprites that serve her are called upon to play goddesses Ceres, Juno and Iris in Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding masque, they, too, are way out of their depth.
As for the main scene concerning the King of Naples and his courtiers, it’s eye-glazingly dull.
The gleaming set has a floor painted to resemble the heavens with gold replicas of the planets strewn about it. Overhead is a golden sun and stars, and at one point a machine floods the stage with rainbow soap bubbles.
The costumes range from off-white Sea Island cotton togs for Prospero and Mirando to black-and-gold courtier grandeur suggestive of the Italian Renaissance.
In this production, Prospero is clearly meant to be God, which makes matters even tougher for Hammond. He’s the first person seen, prior to the opening storm he conjures, writing away in his book-strewn room high above the rear of the stage. But when he disappears from the stage, often for long stretches, this Prospero is immediately forgotten, which he never should be. Why not, as in some productions, at least have Prospero visibly evident on the stage overseeing events more often than happens here? After all, where is “The Tempest” without a Prospero?