Two years ago, Alvin Epstein played King Lear for the young Beantown theater ensemble the Actors’ Shakespeare Project. The production transferred to Gotham’s LaMama. Now the esteemed thesp, who turns 83 in May, takes on Prospero in “The Tempest,” and, playing the aging conjurer, the old pro proves he still has a few tricks up his sleeves. It’s a wizened perf — as touching as it is powerful — and one not only to respect but to savor. Epstein seasons the autumnal sorcerer in this late work from the Bard with a lifetime of experience playing the classics.
There was a time or two during the opening-night perf when a few of the words failed to immediately come trippingly off Epstein’s tongue. But, come they did, in a voice that commanded the stage with dignity, wonder and sheer will.
Helmed smartly and inventively by Patrick Swanson (who directed the troupe’s lively “Lear”), “The Tempest” begins as a Victorian-era magician’s bare-bones traveling stage presentation. The concept is a good fit for the roving theater company’s ad hoc space in a handsome old arts center hall.
Around its circular thrust stage, the ensemble provides sound effects and musical cues, a nice touch for this isle of noises. The magical focus in this low-tech production is on the theatrical imagination, an approach that befits Shakespeare’s wild and experimental work.
Epstein arrives with splendid flourish dressed in red-lined cape and top hat and begins weaving his spells. He conjures up a storm, crashing a ship and all its passengers onto Prospero’s enchanted isle, where he escaped with his daughter Miranda (Mara Sidmore) after his brother usurped his reign. This sets the limited plot in motion.
Enhancing the show-within-a show concept is Ariel (Marianna Bassham), played as Epstein’s pretty and efficient assistant. Befitting her beholding spirit, she is forced to grin and bear it as she obediently follows her master’s instructions. But clearly, and slyly, she is eager to be off on her own.
Benjamin Evett’s Caliban has moments of rough magic but doesn’t come to grips with the conflicted character’s deep darkness. Young lovers Ferdinand (Jason Bowen) and Sidmore’s plucky, self-possessed Miranda make a charming pair, giving the show its sweetness and playful grace.
But the play and production bog down in the less-than-gripping — and long — subplots of the shipwreck’s survivors as they flounder about the isle.
What most distinguishes this staging is Epstein’s Prospero — warmer and richer than the character is often portrayed. His single-parent affection for his daughter, his tender farewell to Ariel and his end address to the audience have a subtext that speaks decades. It’s a perf that casts its own spell.