There are all sorts of ways to test an actor's mettle; one of the most hazardous of those ways is to note how adroitly he can control his costume. In The Tempest, this year's offering from the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis, William Metzo as Prospero is saddled with the mother of all capes, a "magic garment" almost long enough to stretch from Art Hill to the zoo. This patchwork tapestry, apparently constructed from parachute silk, has a billowy life all its own; the slightest breeze can send it dancing in a dozen different directions. A lesser actor would get tripped up by (and in) such an all-enveloping cape, yet Metzo dominates this serpentine scarf in the same effortless way that he dominates the evening. No mere line reading, this. His Prospero is a mosaic of conflicting moods. At the same time, Metzo delivers the text with exquisite simplicity.
What an intriguing play this is. Written at the end of Shakespeare's career, The Tempest is a summation of the playwright's entire canon. The revenge of Hamlet, the ambition of Macbeth, the jealousy of Othello -- all these emotions are to be found in this one mystical tale about an exiled duke who has been waiting impatiently for twelve years to wreak vengeance on his crown-usurping brother. Now living on a remote Mediterranean island, the scholarly yet embittered Prospero is about to learn -- not, as he expects, about the satisfaction of revenge, but rather about its futility. He will employ his supernatural powers to extract repentance rather than vengeance. Then, ever so reluctantly, he will bestow upon his enemies that most elusive of all attributes: happiness.
Metzo's mesmerizing Prospero is delightfully complemented by Magan Wiles as his daughter Miranda. Usually Mirandas are delicate and refined; here she is a plucky, pigtailed tomboy who only needs one of Huck Finn's fishing poles to complete the package. A third pleasing performance is delivered by Grace Hsu as the sleekly animated Ariel, the Tinkerbell-like spirit who does Prospero's bidding. There is a true poignance when, at the play's close, their relationship comes to an end, reminding us that although The Tempest is concerned with reconciliation, it also addresses the pain of separation.
Alas, the most excruciating separation in this production occurs when the audience is separated from Prospero. As rich as his story is, it's not the play's only story. Director Russell Treyz deserves great credit for having cut the text by about one-third. But Treyz also has shuffled the scene order, with the unhappy result that Prospero disappears midway through Act One and is not seen again till after the intermission. His absence is sorely missed.
We're left with a host of cul-de-sac plot lines that take much too long to convey much too little. The clown scenes drag on forever, heavy-handed when a deft touch is what's required. Even more problematic is the way Caliban has been inserted into the comedy. Caliban is a hellishly complicated role. He is a beast who lives on the island, sired by a witch and now slave to Prospero. But he also once tried to assault Miranda: "Thou didst seek to violate the honour of my child." We're talking attempted child molestation here. So to dress him like a Chippendales dancer and then make him the third of the Three Stooges gives one pause.
On a brighter note, the production features beguiling island creatures that might have been plucked from Star Trek by way of Jim Henson. And, as we've come to expect from the Shakespeare Festival, there is a wonderfully evocative scenic design from Christopher Pickart that not only conveys the arid, rocky island landscape but also enhances the story.
Best of all, there is Prospero himself. When he and his clan are onstage, The Tempest is a mature, thoughtful, even charming meditation that delivers moments of sublime satisfaction. "We are such stuff as dreams are made on," Prospero reminds the audience in the play's most famous passage, "and our little life is rounded with a sleep." There won't be much sleeping when Metzo is onstage. His performance stirs the imagination and helps a viewer to understand why, all these centuries later, Shakespeare remains the consummate theatrical dream-maker.