`Tempest' Tries an Attractive Restoration Setting - and it Works

THE TEMPEST Play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Jude Kelly. Starring Frank Langella and B.D. Wong. At the Roundabout Theatre through Dec. 17. THE Roundabout Theatre Company has launched its 24th season with an exemplary production of ``The Tempest.'' Staged (in her New York debut) by Jude Kelly, artistic director of Britain's West Yorkshire Playhouse, this revival of Shakespeare's valedictory play triumphs above all else in the performances of Frank Langella as the scholar-magician Prospero and B.D. Wong as a gracefully airborne Ariel.

Miss Kelly has placed ``The Tempest'' in a Restoration context, a serviceable and even attractive approach. It means that the bewigged intruders into Prospero's magic island display a foppishness that becomes downright nasty in the case of those with treachery on their minds. In a larger sense, ``The Tempest'' itself is, among other things, about restoration - about wrongs righted, forgiveness, and reconciliation. For the fleet Ariel, restoration means his cherished freedom. Even the savage Caliban promises to be wise and ``seek for grace.''

A statuesque, gray-bearded Mr. Langella presides with immense authority over the enchantments of the fabulous comedy. His is a Prospero of many moods - imposing of presence, gently paternal, bitter in remembrance, generous of spirit, and always magnificently eloquent. Mr. Wong is the airiest of Ariels; bare-chested and raven-haired, he is all nimbleness of movement and subtlety of gesture. His singing of Michael Ward's incidental songs enhances those ``sounds and sweet airs that give delight.''

IN a recent New York Times interview, Miss Kelly stated that Ariel and Caliban ``represent the light and dark side of the human condition. ... Only when Prospero has come to terms with himself can he free Ariel. It's a very complex relationship.'' Whether or not the spectator grasps the relationship in all its complexities, he can scarcely help being moved by its psychological and emotional probings. Although slightly trimmed, this ``Tempest'' is fathoms deep.

The revival also underscores the parallels between treachery in high and low places. Among those cast adrift on Prospero's island are Antonio (Rocco Sisto), the brother who stole Prospero's Milanese dukedom, and Alonso, King of Naples (Jack Ryland), who conspired in the crime. In the course of the action, Antonio and Sebastian (Gabriel Barre, the king's brother, plot to murder Alonso. Meanwhile, Caliban (Jay Patterson), enthralls himself to the king's drunken butler Stephano (Michaeljohn McCann) and the jester Trinculo (Michael Countryman), whom he urges to take Prospero's life. The separate conspiracies form a kind of upstairs-downstairs equivalence.

Angela Sherrill is an enchanting teen-aged Miranda, who falls immediately in love with Ferdinand (John Whittenbauer), and who waxes rapturous over the ``brave new world'' represented by Prospero's high-born guests. ``The Tempest'' is particularly well served by Robert Stattel's Gonzalo, that gentlest of counsellors.

Franco Collavecchia's stony, two-level setting has been magically lighted by Dennis Parichy. The windstorm and thunder effects are nothing less than tempestuous. The Lindsay W. Davis costumes range from Restoration frills and furbelows to feathery outfits for Ariel.

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