SALT LAKE CITY — It’s his favorite Shakespeare play and the first of the Bard’s works he directed for Pioneer Theatre, bringing Charles Morey full circle.
In “The Tempest,” the masterful playwright shows he knew just how good he was. Not unlike the confidence PTC’s departing artistic director displays in his powerful staging.
Drawing on its theatrical metaphor and spiritual allegory, “The Tempest” is a triumph, with visual invention and superb acting.
Since the players quickly wash onto the island’s shores, a Cliff Notes character summary is necessary. The sorcerer Prospero (Craig Wroe) has been exiled to a forlorn island with his daughter Miranda (Emily Trask). Prospero is served by two slaves: the brutish Caliban (Paul Kiernan) and the wind sprite Ariel (Julia Motyka).
Shipwrecked after attending a wedding are Prospero’s enemies: Antonio (John Leonard Thompson), the usurping Duke of Milan and Prospero’s brother; and Alonso (David McCann), king of Naples, who collaborated with Antonio in deposing his brother. They are joined by Alonso’s son, Ferdinand (Andy Rindlisbach), a love match for Miranda, and an array of other nobles and servants. What follows is redemption — along with tricks and spells, thwarted plots and united lovers.
Three performances stand out in the exceptional cast. Jeff Brooks as butler Stephano, Kiernan as Caliban and John Plumpis as chef-capped Trinculo expertly mine the play’s humor while illuminating their characters. Plumpis is a marvelous goof, Kiernan a delightful schemer and Brooks captivating and completely hysterical.
Though his plea for forgiveness — and the audience applause in order to free him — at the play’s end is touching, Wroe generates more ambivalence than insight into Prospero. There’s glee in Motyka’s mischief-making but her sprite is an odd cross between a Disney-animated flamingo and Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons.”
The “Tempest” creative team imaginatively uses steampunk, the subgenre of speculative fiction set in quasi-Victorian England, for its costuming and set design inspiration. (But don’t confuse steampunk with “punk”; think H.G. Wells meets Jules Verne, as in “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.”)
Ariel has a sparkling, gold-spiked headdress and the whalebone of her pannier is exposed; Caliban is a dreadlocked, glowing green-yellow goblin; and Prospero’s flowing brown-dungaree prairie coat is elaborately studded. The other characters are more grounded in reality, with a wide variety of handsome British suit coat styles for the men and a heavy-muslin, empire-waist gown, with pantaloons in view, for Miranda.
The stage resembles an abandoned parking structure, and much of the stagecraft is laid bare. An on-set bicycle powers windmill blades for the opening storm while a rotating barrel and suspended wind chimes provide sound effects. Ariel sprints between the side platforms on a weighted rope contraption.
While thankfully not considering Derek Jarman’s film-adaptation selection of “Stormy Weather,” the music of “The Tempest” is of the new age, mystical variety. It would have more completely matched the director’s vision with a more inspired accompaniment. But Morey makes the singing sound wholly unique by only amplifying Ariel’s voice while she sings in contrast to the other actors, who speak clearly and confidently without body mics.
“The Tempest” is dreamy, elegant and, like the vision conjured up by Prospero, “harmonious charmingly.”