The distressed walls at BAM's Harvey Theater form a perfect backdrop for the deconstructed world of this excellent production of "The Tempest," performed in a well-paced, intermission-less two hours and 15 minutes, in repertoire with "As You Like It."
According to the BAM notes, director Sam Mendes paired these plays for the Bridge Project's second season, conceiving of them as "a single journey." If in the earlier play, characters retreat from unsettling politics to the forest, here they land shipwrecked on a distant shore.
As we first see Prospero (the ever intelligent Stephen Dillane), he dons a torn waistcoat and feather belt, an outfit befitting a homeless man as well as an exiled king, and struts and frets about a circle of sand, the center of the play's action.
The slave Caliban (Ron Cephas Jones with long curled claws) emerges from that brilliantly conceived sand pit, as the ethereal Ariel (Christian Camargo) comes forth through the light, the first a man-animal, the latter a man-spirit, each subject to Prospero's command. In some of his incarnations-in a suit, evening gown, and wearing steel wings worthy of creatures in "Avatar"-Ariel carries the play's spectacle allowing Prospero's sorcery, the storm that forces others to this mini-kingdom: a fine ensemble including Prospero's usurping brother Antonio (Michael Thomas) and his posse, the comic pair Trinculo and Stephano (Anthony O'Donnell channeling W.C. Fields and Thomas Sadoski), and Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples (Edward Bennett), a proper suitor for Prospero's daughter Miranda (Juliet Rylance).
As one of Shakespeare's "problem" plays, "The Tempest" challenges the usual categories: it is not really funny, although one bit where Caliban hides under a tarp already occupied by the suited Trinculo making a two-backed, four-legged beast--all sexual innuendo invited--is hilarious. Yet it does end happily as "As You Like It" does, with those who would wed together, and a ruler in place, more wise than vengeful.