The seemingly unlikely pairing of Classical Monarch Christopher Plummer and King of Glitz Des McAnuff proves to be a magical combination in their new production of “The Tempest.” The sparks they struck off each other in their hit 2008 version of “Caesar and Cleopatra” were more than mere chance. In fact, Plummer and McAnuff bring out the best from each other and, in doing so, help the oft-beleaguered Stratford company to look better than it has in over a decade, with an increased bench strength and a new confidence of playing.

Plummer’s intellectual rigor has also rubbed off on McAnuff, whose textual readings this year (both in “The Tempest” and “As You Like It”) are not only crystal clear but full of fascinating twists and turns. This doesn’t mean that the master showman has abandoned his capacity to fill us with awe and wonder, but all of his tricks of light and music and legerdemain now build to a thematic point. And Plummer, while showing us that even at the age of 80 he can rage as well as any grand old stager, still reveals he can command the stage with stillness and a profoundly felt reality.

This may very well be the funniest production of “The Tempest,” and not just because of the outrageous antics of Bruce Dow’s Trinculo (a Jacobean Harvey Fierstein) and Geraint Wyn Davies’ Stephano(a Craig Ferguson before his recovery), but because Plummer loves to find the jokes in Shakespeare’s text. Passages that have previously seemed dull now turn sparkling, and Plummer’s personality rubs off on his daughter, Miranda, who, in Trish Lindstrom’s unique reading, is not some doughy virgin, but a home-schooled tomboy of rare vivacity.

The spirits of the island, Caliban and Ariel, are also given new interpretations, with the handsome Dion Johnstone’s own good looks breaking through his grotesque makeup just as his innate sensitivity triumphs over his acquired brutishness.

Diminutive, blue, inscrutable and adorable as Ariel, Julyana Soelistyo truly looks like an other-worldly sprite, her sad childlike smile infusing every scene with a bittersweet melancholy.

The villainous lords are hard to animate, as always, although John Vickery does well as a sneering Antonio and James Blendick makes the gentle Gonzalo a creature of admirable reason instead of a loathsome bore.

But in the end, it all comes down to Plummer. He guides us superbly through hurt and revenge into forgiveness, turning his act-five speeches into arias of rare complexity and making the play’s final message delicately elegiac rather than sentimentally funereal.

Unlike many older actors who play the role, Plummer has announced this will not be his final role on stage.

The Tempest

Festival Theater, Stratford, Ontario;1,800 seats; C$120 $116 top

  • Production: A Stratford Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Des McAnuff.
  • Crew: Set, Robert Brill; costumes, Paul Tazewell; lighting, Michael Walton; composer, Michael Roth. Opened, reviewed June 24, 2010. Runs through Sept. 12. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.
  • Cast: Prospero - Christopher Plummer Miranda - Trish Lindstrom Ariel - Julyana Soelistyo Caliban - Dion Johnstone Alonso - Peter Hutt Sebastian - Timothy D. Stickney Antonio - John Vickery Gonzalo - James Blendick Trinculo - Bruce Dow Stephano - Geraint Wyn Davies With: Robert Persichini, Wayne Best, Amanda Lisman, Claire Lautier, Sophia Walker, Andrew Gillies, Luke Humphrey, Chris Karczmar.