Clearly, the chance to witness Olympia Dukakis play Prospera (an increasingly popular female variant on Prospero) is the big commercial draw driving The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company. Yet company stalwarts provide most of the pleasure: winsome Merritt Janson and Ryan Winkles as the gob-smacked young couple Miranda and Ferdinand, Kristin Wold and Rocco Sisto as the antipodal Ariel and Caliban, and Jonathan Epstein as the bibulous steward Stephano.
Though she makes little effort to modulate her Boston accent (the welcome she bids the royal party appears more “haughty” than “hearty”), Dukakis does possess the requisite duende to portray an all-powerful magus. In the second half, however, she makes a self-centered choice to draaaaag out her pronouncements, with the result that momentum is critically compromised as the play draws to its end. The intrusion of an especially silly-looking masque – a superfluous invocation of goddesses, which Shakespeare allegedly tacked on to please his patrons – does not help.
Stage decoration is minimal, costuming not a strong point (without program notes, one would be hard pressed to notice that director Tony Simotes was going for a 40s look). And yet Caliban’s get-up alone is so novel, it’s difficult to tear one’s eyes off Sisto.
An actor of once-heroic build and classical features, Sisto has been slathered Calomine-pale – in contrast to the character’s usual depiction as “thing of darkness” – and treated to a frightful platinum perm. Add to the visuals a stentorian voice and subtle gestural variations – a servile tremor in the limbs, fingers ever so slightly contorted even at rest – and you have a picture of power subverted, sent underground.
Once the sole inhabitant (thus master) of the island, Caliban has been trained in the postures of slavery, to the point that he can’t shake them. Sisto’s embodiment evokes an atypical degree of empathy. This one performance alone – abetted by strong contributions by other repertory members – is what makes this rendering a must-see.