In Tennessee Shakespeare Company's earthy new production of "The Tempest," running through Sunday at the Wooden O Amphitheater in Shelby Farms, a central character of the play emerges in the scenery itself -- a magical island upon which the great playwright strands his Italian castaways.
Artistic director Dan McCleary and scenic designer Roger Hanna place the production on a craggy outcropping adorned with glowing crystal balls that shift colors like mood rings. Around the perimeter, illuminated trees have a nocturnal alertness. When you add to the general ambiance a nice evening breeze that rustles the leaves in rhythm to the iambic pentameter, this show has a certain natural poignancy.
TSC proclaims a Renaissance aesthetic, but with some arbitrary modern enhancements. We can't have amplified voices because that's not how it was in Shakespeare's day, but we can have music and sound effects piped in over a PA system.
The costumes (by Sona Amroyan) look specific to the early 1600s and are made of materials that could be bought in a leathershop or plucked from a bird's nest, but the stage lighting (by Eric Haugen and Dave Upton) is definitely post-Edison.
Like "A Midsummer Night's Dream," the magical, pastoral landscape of "The Tempest" is a place of dreams, "full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." But the plot, while brimming with buffoonery, has a darker edge that scholars often attribute to Shakespeare making his farewell from the London stage (though it's not the last play he wrote).
Johnny Lee Davenport, a thunder-voiced actor who has portrayed Othello and Oberon for the company, takes on another big, temperamental character. His raging Prospero conjures the tempest that brings his enemies to the island where he's lived since his exile from Milan. As always, Davenport has terrific command of the language and a fiery intensity, though one aspect of his performance, or perhaps the direction, leaves an odd impression. Prospero carries a book from which he recites spells and tells the story of his past. He peeks in it so often that one can't help but wonder if some lines are stashed away in it as well.
McCleary keeps the action boldly physical and makes interesting choices with the characters. Caliban, played by Quinton Guyton, is not so much the frightening devil as is often played, but a simpering man-child who is the slapstick third stooge to Wolfe Coleman as the jester Trinculo and Shawn Knight as the red-nosed drunkard Stephano. McCleary cleverly incorporates the amphitheater into the direction, having characters dissolve into the woods and then suddenly pop out of them again.
Caley Milliken, as the sprite Ariel, runs through the audience to do her master's bidding. As Prospero's old friend and councilor Gonzalo, Michael Khanlarian weaves a thread of kindness and magnanimity through the play.
Ultimately, the theme of "The Tempest" makes a strong final impression as Prospero reluctantly forgives those who have wronged him -- a moment that Davenport renders with great sensitivity.
While this production is straightforward and traditional, it is not, as Prospero humbly puts it, "insubstantial." Tennessee Shakespeare's humane and funny production sends its message out to a broad audience.
'The Tempest,' by Tennessee Shakespeare Company
The production continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday though Sunday at the Wooden O Amphitheater in Shelby Farms. Tickets are $25 advance, $30 day-of-show. Call (901) 759-0604.