Perhaps you’ve seen “The Tempest” so many times that you’re not sure you need to see it again. Or perhaps you’ve never seen it.
In either case, let me assure you that John Douglas Thompson is reason enough to hie yourself to Boston Common for Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s “Tempest.”
That’s not to say he’s the only reason. Director Steven Maler has enlisted a topnotch cast for a thoroughly accessible production that reflects both the populist mission underlying the Free Shakespeare on the Common series and the deep talent pool Maler has developed over the years. But Thompson is the vital core of this “Tempest,” originally scheduled for last summer but postponed because of the pandemic.
He portrays Prospero, the deposed and exiled duke turned island sorcerer who is sometimes seen as a kind of self-portrait by Shakespeare. Crucially, Thompson brings a conversational ease to his handling of Shakespeare’s text, giving his performance a clarity that makes this an excellent introduction to the play for first-timers, including kids.
For the rest of us there is the deep satisfaction, even joy, of watching a great actor bring distinctive shadings and a sense of fresh discovery to a much-performed role.
Thompson appeared onstage in Boston three years ago as boxer Emile Griffith, ending his days in a haze of dementia and regret, in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Michael Cristofer’s “Man in the Ring,” and was seen recently on TV as Kate Winslet’s police-chief boss on HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.”
In “The Tempest,” Thompson gives us a Prospero who is less imperious magician than intriguingly vulnerable human. The actor is commanding, yes, and certainly electric in the play’s moments of high drama, but there’s a wounded streak, coupled with a certain wistfulness and gentleness, running through Thompson’s portrayal.
The dramatic literature is filled with characters in need of forgiveness, but this Prospero, while wronged, is the one who needs to do the forgiving, in order to reconnect with the world he lost and also with, you sense, his true self. Thompson and director Maler let us see every subtle step on that inner quest. Although Shakespeare does not call for Prospero to warmly embrace the rebellious Caliban at the end, when Thompson’s Prospero does so, it feels consonant with all that came before, in keeping with the production’s spirit.
At the start, in a wordless tableau, Maler frames our understanding of the play’s connection between humanity’s fallibility and nature’s force — a timely theme, given the current ravages of climate change. The cast faces out at the audience, exhaling for several long moments (on a beautiful night Wednesday, they were accompanied by a light breeze) before an auditory transition into the howling winds of the titular storm.
That storm has been caused by the spirit Ariel, acting at Prospero’s behest, to cause a shipwreck that will deliver Prospero’s enemies to his island, where he plans to take his vengeance. Ariel is played by Boston Ballet principal dancer John Lam, who delivers a very impressive performance in what Commonwealth Shakespeare Company says is his first theater role. Lam is so spectacularly acrobatic that you may wish he was on the US men’s gymnastic team at the Olympics.
Prospero’s chief targets are his traitorous brother Antonio (Remo Airaldi), who usurped his dukedom, and Antonio’s ally, Alonso (Richard Noble), the king of Naples. Along with that treacherous duo, the party washed ashore includes Gonzalo, here called Gonzala (Siobhan Juanita Brown), a councilor loyal to Prospero, as well as the king’s brother Sebastian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), who teams up with Antonio in a short-lived plot on the king’s life.
Back when Antonio seized power from Prospero, the latter had been set out to sea in a leaky boat with his then-3-year-old daughter, Miranda (Nora Eschenheimer). Now grown, Miranda is instantly besotted with one of the ship’s passengers who washes ashore: Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Michael Underhill). Eschenheimer, so vivid two summers ago on the Common as Imogen in “Cymbeline,” shines again as Miranda. This Miranda may be agog at the wonders of the “brave new world” she encounters, but she is more than equal to its challenges.
Some modern readings of “The Tempest” have seen it as an allegory of colonialism, but little of that interpretation is manifested in this production. Maler leans toward the lyrical; an especially evocative touch is the decision to have some passages, including lines from Ariel’s famous song (”Those are pearls that were his eyes”), sung by ensemble members Ekemini Ekpo, Jessica Golden, and Marta Rymer.
His torso and head covered in tattoo-like markings, Nael Nacer plays Caliban, Prospero’s slave, adding a new dimension to Nacer’s large gallery of first-rate performances over the past decade. Still, while Maler has judiciously trimmed the text, resulting in a running time of around 110 minutes, I wish he’d cut a bit more of the drunken hijinks among Caliban, the butler Stephano (Fred Sullivan Jr.), and the jester Trinculo (John Kuntz) as they bumble and stumble through a plot to kill Prospero, complete with a “Three Stooges” gesture or two. Sullivan and Kuntz are enjoyable company as always, and Nacer has some of his best moments in their scenes together, but overall it amounts to too much of a good thing.
As for Thompson’s outstanding performance, it is just enough of a good thing. Whether you’re a newcomer to “The Tempest” or a veteran, this might possibly be the Prospero against which you measure all others you see in the future.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Steven Maler. Presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company through Aug. 8. Performances are free, but it is recommended that attendees register beforehand. Details at www.commshakes.org.