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OSF brings a sparse set alive with its take on 'The Tempest'

When a vengeful sorcerer, an enslaved monster, magical spirits, young lovers, royal bad guys and drunken servants come together on a magical island, things quickly get wild and wonderful in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Tempest."

Prospero, a former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda are stranded on an island after being betrayed and exiled by Prospero's jealous brother Antonio and the complicit Alonso, King of Naples. Prospero exploits magic to take over the island after the death of a witch called Sycorax, and forces her son, the deformed Caliban, to be his slave.

When Antonio's and Alonso's ship passes by the island, Prospero sees the chance to return home and avenge himself on his brother. He has the spirit Ariel conjure a storm that causes the passing ship to wreck on the island.

It's Shakespeare, so there is a lot going on at once.

The wreck is also an opportunity for a love connection between Miranda and King Alonso's good-hearted son, Ferdinand. Meanwhile, Caliban has grown to despise his enslaver, so he, too, plots revenge.

The central figure of Prospero, played by returning company member Denis Arndt, is subdued, leaving the showmanship to supporting cast members. Kate Hurster shines brightly, both powerful and vulnerable, as the shapeshifting sprite Ariel.

Wayne T. Carr's sympathetic Caliban beautifully balances bitter ferocity with the understandable fear and confusion of someone whose home and very life has been co-opted. Alejandra Escalante and Daniel Jose Molina as the young lovers have a sweetly genuine chemistry. The bumbling servants played by Barzin Akhavan and Richard Elmore are gifted with comedic timing and clownish energy.

As audience members enter the Angus Bowmer Theatre for "The Tempest," the show has already started. Ghostly human statues adorn the spare set, subtly shifting position as people take their seats. The single set is plush but spare, a blank slate that transforms from a ship at sea to a swirling abyss, and to the red earth and green jungle of the island, by nothing more than clever tricks of light and sound and a few props.

While these stylized technical effects are spectacular by themselves, the theatrical magic of the play is primarily human-powered. Dancers playing the island's spirits act as set pieces or props. Ariel flies away by leaping into their arms, they are a table on which Miranda and Fernando play chess, the rising wind as Prospero grows agitated. The impact is surreal and lovely, more powerful than any elaborate set could be, serving to connect the characters strongly with both the island and the audience.

According to the "Windows Into" notes in the playbill, director Tony Taccone says he was inspired by the Butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku. Butoh is a Japanese form of dance that uses very slow, tightly controlled movement and is traditionally performed in white body makeup. The effect is somewhat otherworldly and reflects the strange and hypnotic tone of the play.

OSF's "Tempest" is very entertaining and thought-provoking. Taccone leaves a few unresolved emotions at the finish to temper the tidy ending, a subtle parting shot of intrigue. While there are many moments of comic relief, the play is rich with themes of revenge, betrayal, forgiveness, colonialism, nature vs. civilization, grief and parental love, all played out on a hauntingly alive set.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.

Miranda (Alejandra Escalante) helps Ferdinand (Daniel Jose Molina) with his tasks as Prospero (Denis Arndt) and his spirits observe. (Photo: Jenny Graham) - Courtesy Jenny Graham