At the time of his death Mozart was contemplating an opera based on The Tempest. Shakespeare's valedictory play vibrates with its own music. It's an amazing work, a poetic and theatrical kaleidoscope that seems to hold all the permutations of the playwright's career. Staging his first Shakespeare, George C. Wolfe brings it to Broadway (after its summer hit in Central Park) with great brio and delight in all the play's varied magics.
There's the white magic that lets Prospero (Patrick Stewart), the deposed Duke of Milan, rule his island through his attendant spirit Ariel (Aunjanue Ellis). There's the black magic of the witch Sycorax, whose "bestial" son Caliban (Teagle E Bougere) Prospero has enslaved. There's the magic of spirit by which human frailties are transcended in the form of reconciliation as Prospero forgives his enemies, whom he's caused to be shipwrecked on the island. There's the magic of love, which brings together Prospero's daughter Miranda (Cartie Preston) and Ferdinand (Paul Whitthorne), the son of Prospero's usurping brother Antonio (Nestor Serrano). There's the magic of art, which transforms reality into an ideal vision, if only for a flaming moment.
Wolfe catches all these magics in a scintillating stream of images and sounds: Caribbean stilt dancers, Bunraku puppets, an onstage band driven by a sweet thunder of percussion. All this evokes the brave new worlds of Shakespeare's vision, including the New World just beginning to come under colonial rule. "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine," says Prospero of Caliban, auguring the complex consequences of imperialism with its Conradian heart of darkness. Wolfe's cast brings a buoyant freshness to the play: Preston's innocent, tomboyish Miranda; Ellis's balletically beautiful Ariel, Bougere's feral poignancy. If Stewart's "rough magic" is at times too rough for the play's supernal poetry, his Prospero is a man, not a mystic. At the end, when he gives up his magic, accepting his humanity, he implies that we humans have magic within us.