The “rough magic” of which Prospero speaks in “The Tempest” is eloquently conjured by Sam Mendes and his design team in the second production of the Bridge Project’s sophomore year. Paul Pyant’s elemental lighting evokes water, fire, air and earth in descending order, alternately scorching and caressing the stone and sand of Tom Piper’s set. But such visual sorcery would be nothing without a commanding presence in the key role of Prospero. Stephen Dillane delivers a measured yet haunting assessment of the banished duke of Milan, whose vengefulness is eclipsed by the unsuspected depths of his compassion.
This is a more rewarding use of the same company that performed in the season’s companion piece, “As You Like It.” The lesser players are relegated to minor roles and the stronger actors employed in parts better suited to them. Mendes’ work also is more incisive, achieving a clarity and coherence that eluded him in the earlier presentation.
Despite the inherent theatricality of its events, the play is more poetic than dramatic. The choice to concentrate the action into one uninterrupted stretch of a little over two hours perhaps makes it seem even heavier on exposition. But the production persuasively sustains an atmosphere suspended between reality and the illusion that is an essential part of Prospero’s bag of tricks.
Opening images are among the most striking. Clad in a ragged wizard’s coat, Prospero obsessively paces around the large circle of sand centerstage. He splashes water from a bucket on the ground to lure his usurpers to the island where he has spent 12 years in exile with daughter Miranda (luminous Juliet Rylance). With a wave of Prospero’s staff, his spirit-servant Ariel (Christian Camargo) sets the storm churning, and Pyant unfurls a violent shadow play across the rear wall as onstage musicians pound out primal rhythms on drums.
The anguish of Rylance’s Miranda when she believes the poor souls aboard the storm-tossed ship to have perished establishes her as an impassioned creature whose feelings run deep. But what impresses most is her independence. She’s respectful of her father and shocked to learn of the injustices that brought them to the island. However, despite her inexperience of civilization, she knows her own heart well enough to stand her ground.
That strength of character gives a subtle charge to the romantic scenes in which Miranda — wide-eyed with wonder at the unimagined beauty of humanity — and Ferdinand (Edward Bennett) fall in love against her father’s wishes. It also permits a note of admiration in Prospero’s anger at being so defied, foreshadowing the softening of his rage into forgiveness.
While Dillane seems somewhat subdued in the role, the exacting intelligence of his performance underscores that Prospero’s forgiveness is rarely unconditional. That flintiness colors his testy relationship with Ariel, played with beguiling inscrutability and a touch of archness by Camargo. Prospero balances affection with authority as the spirit grows increasingly impatient to be set free; his reluctance to let Ariel go seems dictated by clashing forces of love and control.
Prospero’s feelings are less ambiguous with the island’s other longtime resident, Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones), the monstrous son of a witch who aches for revenge. Sinewy verging on skeletal and dusted with a ghostly coating of sand, Jones makes a creepy entrance, one arm shooting up as if from a grave as he crawls through an invisible seam in the ground.
Mendes favors the play’s somber side while nourishing its comedy and romance with a judicious hand. Laughs come notably from Anthony O’Donnell (looking like a jolly “Guys and Dolls” stooge in his checked suit) and Thomas Sadoski as the boozing crew members enlisted by Caliban to help him kill Prospero.
The wedding masque, when Prospero summons the goddesses to bless the union between Miranda and Ferdinand, is a pretty musical interlude. Dillane’s glowering mid-ceremony realization that he has momentarily forgotten the murderous plot against him suggests the addled mind of a man too long in solitude. However, other quicksilver shifts reveal his slyness, such as the stipulation that his dukedom be returned, announced almost as a distracted afterthought while pardoning his traitorous brother Sebastian (Richard Hansell).
Focusing the action in the center ring can make the production feel static. But Mendes effectively places characters not directly involved in the scene on chairs in a shallow pool of water at the rear of the stage, delicately caught in Pyant’s lights. This further underlines the sense of the whole scenario as a theatrical vision orchestrated by Prospero.
In addition to the principals, there’s sturdy work from Alvin Epstein as a counselor whose loyalty to Prospero predates his exile, and from Jonathan Lincoln Fried as the King of Naples, a political animal whose self-serving instincts give way to grief when he believes his son Ferdinand is dead, and joy when he finds him alive.
Invaluable contributions in the lighting, set and underscoring are matched by Catherine Zuber’s time-warping costumes, particularly Ariel’s disguises. These range from a slinky Veronica Lake evening gown to a harness and dangerous wings made of row upon row of glittering steel blades.
This is a beautifully spoken production, every word clear as a bell. And nowhere is the lyrical language more tenderly served than in Dillane’s effortless yet piercing delivery of the final speech, in which Prospero renounces magic and embraces his mortality. Capping off what is believed to be Shakespeare’s last play written without a collaborator, the parallel between writer and character closes “The Tempest” with a poignant farewell.