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StageStruck: King and Goddess

Shakespeare & Company reinterprets two pillars of the canon.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012
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Olympia Dukakis (center) and cast of The Tempest

These days there's more "company" than Shakespeare at Shakespeare & Company. The season's eight-play roster of plays includes only two by the troupe's eponym. Those, however, are twin pillars of the canon: the towering tragedy King Lear and the master's valedictory, The Tempest. They share the same thrust stage in the newly renamed Tina Packer Playhouse, the sets outdoing each other in bleak austerity, and mirror each other's themes of power and loss, vengeance and forgiveness, parents and children. And both plays, of course, have transformative storms at their core.

Neither production is entirely successful, their moments of terror and wonder, respectively, sometimes undercut by ponderous pacing and stylistic inconsistencies. Lear in particular, which director Rebecca Holderness has set in pre-revolutionary Russia, seems fragmented and unfocused. Both scripts have been trimmed and tightened, especially The Tempest, where director Tony Simotes' deft rearrangement of the opening scenes gets that plot moving more quickly and clearly. Simotes also finds veins of humor, often ironic, outside the slapstick clown scenes.

The two productions share quite a few cast members as well. These include Jonathan Epstein, who plays Lear's Kent as a beady-eyed Russian revolutionary and Stephano, the tipsy butler in Tempest, with a frayed dignity and a W.C. Fields swagger; Kristin Wold, who is a tensely arrogant Regan, one of Lear's poisonous daughters, and an oddly generic Ariel, The Tempest's indentured sprite; and Ryan Winkles, a spirited, mercurial Edgar/Mad Tom and the most charmingly human Prince Ferdinand I've ever seen. The Tempest also features guest appearances by Apollo Dukakis, quietly powerful as wise old Gonzalo, and Rocco Sisto, whose Caliban is not the usual grotesque monster but—in a neat twist on the play's theme of usurpation of sovereignty—a once-proud indigenous aristocrat whose island domain has been usurped by a titled intruder.

But it's the female star in the traditionally male lead who brings special impact to The Tempest, and it's the starring role in King Lear on which that play must fly—or in this case, fall. Dennis Krausnick makes a querulous, fumbling king—fumbling for his lines as often as not on the night I saw him, his performance fading in and out of focus. He achieves a few moments of poignancy and power in the later scenes when madness overtakes the proud monarch, but he never quite becomes, as the character proclaims, "every inch a king."

Olympia Dukakis' performance in The Tempest is woven from a skein of goddess myths that recall prehistory before women's voices were quieted by patriarchal injunction. Prospero becomes Prospera, imbued not only with magical powers but with volcanic anger at the political treachery that robbed her—and her daughter Miranda—of their birthright and cast them ashore on an isolated but enchanted island. The sex change poignantly shifts the parent/child relationship, even as it sharpens Prospera's bitterness toward the male usurpers she shipwrecks on her shore in the titular storm. Most intriguingly and movingly, that long-suppressed feminine rage makes her ultimate pardon of the wrongdoers more hard-won, wrung agonizingly out of her resentful heart, but an act which rescues her own humanity.

King Lear and The Tempest run in repertory through Aug. 19 at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.


Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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