The show: “The Tempest” at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass. in the Berkshires, starring Olympia Dukakis.
Didn’t we just see “The Tempest?”: Several times, if you count Hartford Stage’s stylish production and Julie Taymor’s less-than-enchanting film and another much better film version of a Stratford, Canada production starring Christopher Plummer.
And this production?: Like Helen Mirren in the Taymor film, Olympia Dukakis does a gender switch, turning the leading character, Propero, into Prospera.
Doesn’t that muddy the paternal point of view?: Ah, but other perspectives are gained -- one of a strong, maternal monarch , for example -- and Dukakis is magnificent in the role.
At 81, she continues to be a force of nature -- and in particular for this role which calls for anger, a thirst for revenge, fearlessness and majesty. She has all these qualities -- and more. You mess with this island sorcerer at your own risk.
Dukakis looks terrific, her silver hair brushed back from her handsome head. She brings her characteristic wry humor to the role, fitting for this world-wounded character. No one can give a wary look better than this actress, her eyebrows forming two great diagonals of doubt as her eyes bore into another character’s falseness.
Her voice is strong when it needs be, whether she is intimidating Caliban, warning frisky lovers or demanding that Miranda “shake it off,” with the same earthy, straight-talking tones that have been hallmark of many of her performances. (Her Oscar-winning role in the film “Moonstruck,” most easily comes to mind.)
But what she also does especially well here -- and what many productions lack -- is making sense of Prospera’s switch from the vengeful wronged noble to a person of forgiveness. There’s not a lot in the text to make this narrative turn work smoothly but Dukakis makes it completely believable and natural with her silences, her looks and her humanity.
And the rest of the cast?: Overall OK, with some quite good with a few standout performances to make one feel that this is not simply a star vehicle.
As written, the large comic roles of Stephano and Trinculo can get wearisome after a while but Timothy Douglas (who Connecticut audiences may recall as the director of the world premiere of August Wilson's “Radio Golf” at Yale Rep several years back) is hysterical -- in more ways than one -- as Trunculo. Jonathan Epstein, last seen at TheaterWorks in Hartford in “Red,” creates such a well-seasoned, detailed comic character of permanent inebriation you’d swear it stepped off the vaudeville stage or the silent screen after years of mastery.
Dukakis’ real-life brother, Apollo Dukakis, is suitably touching as the loyal Gonzalo and his reunion with the exiled Prospera is lovely. Merritt Janson as Miranda grows in the performance as she discovers love, passion and wonder when she meet Ryan Winkles’ earnest and sweet Ferdinand.
Though the looks of the spirits are either bizarre or tacky (the design elements are a weakness in Shakespeare & Company productions) Kristin Wold makes us believe in her Ariel’s magic and Rocco Sisto, his platinum “do” not withstanding, makes for a fierce but also sympathetic Caliban.
Though the production’s elements don’t come together for a particularly strong point of view -- other than to give a great actress and opportunity to take on a great role, Tony Simotes’ staging is smart, speedy and has a deft comic touch. Best of all, he and Dukakis navigate the play’s conclusion through some murky dramaturgical waters, emerging with an ending that is wondrously heartfelt, human and satisfying.
Who will like it?: Most Shakespeare fans will find this a well-done and fulfilling experience. Dukakis fans, of course.
Who won’t?: Those purists who just won’t accept gender switching roles -- but they will miss a great performance from one of the country’s finest actors.
For the kids?: Thanks to the comic interludes (a huge middle section of the play) this is not a bad choice for the more clever junior and high schoolers.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: A lively, loving production filled with Olympia spirit; Ms. Dukakis giving a powerful, poignant and memorable performance
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot?: Much as she mesmerized audiences in Hartford Stage’s production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” Dukakis tackles another troublesome role. That she emerges triumphant should not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed her career on stage or screen, but in a role that juggles many contradictory feelings -- hatred and love, vengeance and forgiveness, a sense of renewal and fatalism -- she is especially right. Age has given her a lifetime of experience, perspective and wisdom that in inherent in every line she speaks.
The basics: The show plays through Aug. 19 at the Tina Packer Playhouse (formerly the Founders Theater), 70 Kemble St., Lenox, Mass. Running time of the show is 2 hours and 20 minutes. Information: www.shakespeare.org and 413-637-3353. .
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