In Emily Mann’s production of William Shakespeare’s final glory, “The Tempest,” at Princeton’s McCarter Theater Center, a metamorphosis has taken place. Prospero, the former duke of Milan, scholar and student of magic arts, has become the Duchess Prospera. The concept is a fresh idea, and Blair Brown acquits herself formidably, with a firm hold on regal imagery. Despite a novel gender change, Mann’s accessible production lacks sweep and splendor. It is an artfully abridged and well-articulated presentation, but it falls far short of theatrical magic.
The Bard’s comedy of reconciliation and forgiveness finds the deposed and shipwrecked duchess conjuring up a storm at sea to bring her enemies to shore. The survivors of a storm-tossed vessel run amok in the theater aisles in the production’s effective and theatrically vivid opening.
As the evening proceeds, Brown creates a Prospera who is a formidable island empress, magisterial and graceful. If her Prospera appears to be short on thunder, she glows with comforting maternal wisdom. A pert Julyana Soelistyo is much too formal as Ariel, more like a parlor maid than a sprightly forest nymph and restive spirit. Her line delivery is uncomfortably static, but a brief Asian-flavored dance is a nice diverting touch.
Rachel Matthews Black, as Prospera’s wide-eyed daughter, Miranda, is a fetching barefooted redhead and an enchanting innocent teen. She is especially winning in Miranda’s “brave new world” discovery of the male species.
The Ferdinand of Lorenzo Pisoni is an ardent if somewhat bland suitor. Ian Kahn’s Caliban lacks the terror and tension of a witch’s son, more functional than frightening. John Keating, as tipsy butler Stephano, brings some inspired clowning to the proceedings. In another gender change, Caroline Stefanie Clay is effectively repentant as Alonsa, the conniving queen of Naples.
Mann’s staging is clean, unfussy and coldly formal. This was more the calm that follows a storm rather than the tempest itself. Richard Hoover’s spare, functional design is dominated by a sprawling, seldom-used staircase and an ornate thronelike chair, providing a cleansing sense of open space. Credit Mimi Jordan Sherin’s sharply styled lighting for adding atmospheric designs, and Jess Goldstein’s beautiful Elizabethan costumes provide a lavish period sense.