BROOKLINE — It’s coincidental but fitting that “The Tempest,’’ long seen as Shakespeare’s adieu to the stage — farewells don’t come much more definitive than Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended’’ — is Allyn Burrows’s valedictory production at Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
In many ways, the multitalented actor-director has been the face of the company. One of its cofounders in 2004, Burrows has served as artistic director for seven years and delivered many indelible performances on ASP’s stages. Now he is taking a significant step up, career-wise, though his future endeavors will be shaped by the same immortal playwright: Burrows is assuming the post of artistic director of the Lenox-based Shakespeare & Company, a troupe with a national reputation that was founded by Tina Packer nearly four decades ago.
As he prepares to turn over the reins at ASP, Burrows is directing a production of “The Tempest’’ that offers a worthy, if imperfect, coda to his tenure there. (It was scheduled before he accepted the job at Shakespeare & Company.) He has cast actresses in several roles traditionally played by men, including Prospero, the scepter-wielding island sorcerer, portrayed by Marya Lowry with steady authority, gravitas, and the requisite flashes of ruthlessness as Prospero sets out to settle scores stemming from a long-ago betrayal. To achieve this, Prospero relies on the island sprite Ariel, another role originally written as male (though often played by women), portrayed with athletic abandon by Samantha Richert.
Believed to be the final play Shakespeare wrote solo, “The Tempest’’ often tempts directors to go big. The play offers obvious justification for that approach, from its title to its opening, when Prospero whips up gusts that buffet the ship her enemies are on and strand them on her island. But overall Burrows conjures a “Tempest’’ that is more elegiac than stormy, largely eschewing spectacle in favor of simplicity. Perhaps the director was inspired (or limited?) by the venue, Willet Hall at Brookline’s United Parish, a spare space that could not be more different from the Church of the Covenant in the Back Bay, the ornate setting of ASP’s recent “Hamlet.’’ Emphasizing the nautical underpinnings of “The Tempest,’’ Tyler Kinney’s set design employs ropes, sails, and a curved gangplank; Chris Bocchiaro’s lighting design is marked by the play of shadows.
In general, this “Tempest’’ is most effective in its dark or wistful moments rather than in the comic scenes, which are overdone and threaten to tip the production’s balance. Burrows sets the play in the early 1900s, a period when getting rescued from a distant island was a chancy proposition at best. Here, Prospero is an exiled duchess of Milan rather than a duke, a mother rather than a father to Miranda. The daughter is portrayed by Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, who conveys Miranda’s eagerness to explore the marvels contained in the “Brave new world’’ that reveals itself to her, especially a shipwrecked chap named Ferdinand (Kai Tshikosi).
Also washed ashore are Prospero’s treacherous brother Antonio (Thomas Grenon, excellent), who had deposed Prospero a dozen years earlier and cruelly set her adrift on the sea with a very young Miranda. Antonio is accompanied by Alonso (Mara Sidmore), the Queen (in this production) of Naples and mother of Ferdinand. Alonso, too, had a hand in Prospero’s overthrow all those years ago. Rounding out the group is Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Michael Forden Walker).
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the island, Caliban (Jesse Hinson), the son of a witch who resents his servitude at Prospero’s hands, carouses with the drunkards Stephano (Walker) and Trinculo (Sidmore). The trio plots a coup against Prospero, but the sorceress proves more than a match for her foes — and a merciful victor willing to renounce her magical powers and extend forgiveness and freedom to all.
Switching Prospero’s gender is nothing new, even something of a vogue. Helen Mirren played the sorcerer, renamed Prospera, in Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation, and Olympia Dukakis tackled the role, also dubbed Prospera, in Shakespeare & Company’s 2012 production of “The Tempest.’’ So casting Lowry as Prospero doesn’t come across as a Statement about anything but her considerable acting abilities. Still, one line reverberates a bit more than usual at this particular political and cultural moment.
It’s in the scene when Prospero tells Ariel to go fetch “the trumpery in my house.’’ Shakespeare used the word to describe something that is showy and ostentatious but worthless. To which we can only say: Ahem.
Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Allyn Burrows. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Willet Hall, United Parish, Brookline, through Jan. 8. Tickets: $30-$50, 866-811-4111, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.