LENOX — In the vivid opening scene of Shakespeare & Company’s “The Tempest,’’ when Olympia Dukakis’s Prospera demonstrates the full scope of her might by conjuring a storm that delivers her enemies into her hands, Dukakis wears an expression not of vengeful wrath but of sorrow and dismay.
Even as Prospera wields her magical powers, she seems ready to surrender them — or at least resigned to their loss. Or perhaps she is troubled by the capacity for destruction that goes hand in hand with her command of the dark arts. In any case, although it will not be until much later in the play that Prospera proclaims, “Our revels now are ended,’’ it already appears that, for this exiled duchess turned island sorceress, the party’s over.
Director Tony Simotes, working with his onetime teacher, Dukakis, sustains a mournful undertone and a sense of loss in “The Tempest,’’ often seen as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, in which Prospero (renamed Prospera for this production) serves as a kind of stand-in for the playwright. The elegiac aura enveloping the performance by the 81-year-old Dukakis underscores the sense of “The Tempest’’ as a long leavetaking and a meditation on the solitary burden of power.
Scott Killian’s lyrical music and sound effects help create a dreamlike, otherworldly atmosphere, which Simotes punctuates with episodes of broad physical comedy, a knack for which he also demonstrated last summer in “As You Like It.’’
For reasons that are never made clear, Simotes has set his “Tempest’’ in 1939. No meaningful connections to either the turmoil or the tyrants of World War II are developed. More effective is the director’s exploration of gender and power, communicated most forcefully in a confrontation between the female forces of the enchanted island and the male forces of civilization. In a visually arresting tableau, Dukakis’s Prospera, attired in a flowing black dress, stands on a catwalk above the stage of the Tina Packer Playhouse, observing and controlling, while Ariel (the excellent Kristin Wold) and several other female island spirits cow a group of men, forcing them to positions of submissive prostration.
The men delivered to the island by the storm include Prospera’s own treacherous brother, Antonio (James Read), who, 12 years earlier, had usurped Prospera’s position as the ruler of Milan and established an alliance with Alonso, the king of Naples (Thomas L. Rindge). The duo conspired to set Prospera adrift at sea with her young daughter, Miranda. But mother and child managed to survive and eventually washed up on an island in the Mediterranean.
Now, having used her magical powers to create a storm that wrecked the ship on which Antonio, Alonso, et al. were traveling, forcing them to shore, Prospera has to decide whether to wreak vengeance on them or find it in her heart to forgive them. (Those washed ashore also include Gonzalo, a good-hearted adviser to the king, well played by Apollo Dukakis, Olympia’s brother.)
The choice is complicated by the fact that Miranda (Merritt Janson) has fallen madly in love with the king’s son, Ferdinand (Ryan Winkles). Janson, so wonderful as Rosalind in “As You Like It,’’ is very nearly as good in “The Tempest,’’ bringing an amusing edge of sexual avidity to a young maiden who is getting her first gander at a man and very much liking what she sees. (Brave new world, indeed.)
But most of the comic relief comes from Rocco Sisto, who delivers a bolt of rambunctious energy as the rebellious, loincloth-clad servant Caliban. Ghostly pale, with chains and fishing net around his neck, Sisto’s Caliban tries to enlist the king’s drunken jester, Trinculo (Timothy Douglas) and his equally inebriated butler, Stephano (a very good Jonathan Epstein), in a plot to depose Prospera and claim dominion over the island.
The woman they seek to overthrow could tell them that that kind of power is a mixed blessing. By the end, Dukakis’s Prospera has come down decisively on one side of the vengeance-or-forgiveness dilemma, and she seems finally at peace, the storm within quieted at last.