First Nighter: Harriet Walter's Prospero in Phyllida Lloyd's Blazing "The Tempest"

01/19/2017 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2018

The formidable Harriet Walter, as directed by the equally formidable Phyllida Lloyd, is delivering the most astonishing reinterpretation of a famous William Shakespeare speech you might ever hope to witness.

It's the poem that begins "Our revels now are ended," normally rendered as a magisterial pronouncement by the exiled and tyrannical Prospero in The Tempest. Not so magisterial this time. Walters, head resting on folded arms, recites the enchanting lines as a deeply emotional release, an expression of long pent-up stress.

Walters and Lloyd evidently conclude that having established a kingdom on the island to which he's condemned himself and daughter Miranda (Leah Harvey, in Mohawk coiffeur gone wild), Prospero has placed a previously unacknowledged strain on his powers.

Once he's married Miranda off to Ferdinand (Shiloh Coke), he realizes he can give in to the wearying leverage he's placed on himself and those surrounding him. These include those who drove him from his home and whom the tempest has now shipwrecked--Alonso (Martina Laird) and Antonio (Carolina Valdés) and others--on this far-flung shelter.

Walter is giving her devastating performance in the third of the all-women Bard trilogy Lloyd has put together--the previous entries also imported from London's Donmar Warehouse to St. Ann's Warehouse. The other two are Julius Caesar, in which Walters played Brutus, and , in which Walters played Henry IV and pulled off a nonpareil deathbed scene.

There is so much clever in the Lloyd approach that it's hard to know where to start, but perhaps the best place is in the overarching conceit. The quick-thinking director couches these cross-gendered versions as plays-within-a-play. Each is supposedly being performed by prison inmates. It's a smart tactic that gets away from the actors merely taking on male roles. Here they're women taking on Shakespeare and, given their incarceration conditions, forced to play male roles. (They're not Prospera types as, for instance, played by Vanessa Redgrave at London's Globe or by Helen Mirren in the recent Tempest film.)

Lloyd is so thorough about her plan that patrons waiting in the lobby before the auditorium doors open are able to witness the ensemble arrive wearing prison uniforms and chained to each other in single file.

The set-up is further enforced by Walters's introducing the supposed jailhouse performance (Chloe Lamford and Bunny Christie responsible for the institutional look) by informing the audience she's Hannah, convicted to a life sentence as a result of driving the getaway car in what she labels a political protest.

This dramatic layer undoubtedly contributes to the intense feelings Walters projects during the "revels now are ending" outpouring. Yessirree, Walters Is no slouch when it comes to probing a role's (double-role's?) possibilities. You could say there is nothing like this dame.

Lloyd is full of additional surprises, too, and she salts-and-peppers this Tempest with them. Foremost are the delightful performances she plucks from the cast. A reviewer is allowed to have a favorite, and this time it's Karen Dunbar, who's a Scottish Trinculo of boastful attitudes. Stealing scenes left and right, once in white-stripped minipants, she appears to be having the time of her life.

Jade Anouka's Ariel, who gets to sing every once in a while, is another focus-puller. Notice the gyrations she goes through whenever summoned and either praised or chastised by Prospero. Jackie Clune's Stefano is fun, too, and that she and Dunbar could almost pass for twins is a big plus.

Among the other tricks Lloyd has up her sleeve is the strung-together detritus (many empty plastic bottles and other junk) flotsammed and jetsommed around. The coup de theatre that gets audience members laughing ooh-and-aah-ily is the one where, during the wedding celebration, white balloons grounded by bottles tied to them sport amusing projections of contemporary memes.

The abundance of music has in large part to do with Joan Armatrading's contributions. Some of it gives the impression of being blended into Lloyd's take on London's annual Notting Hill Festival with its gleeful Caribbean overtones.

Playing the oppressed Caliban in Lloyd's version is Sophie Stanton. (She also strums guitar during the proceedings; Walters tweaks the drums.) Stanton was the commanding Sir John Falstaff in the Henry melding. She's less commanding here, which may have nothing to do with her but everything to do with the character.

This gets to a personal reaction. Watching Lloyd's playful, critical take on The Tempest, I had an unexpected epiphany. Yes, maybe it does have to do with Lloyd and Walters and the revelation about Prospero. He's a bully, and so, despite the great Shakespeare's poetry laced throughout it, I've decided--maybe just for the time being--that The Tempest is one of the man's 37 plays that I like less than many of the others.

This, of course, is no reason for anyone to pass up the enormous pleasures Lloyd, Walters and company bring to it.

(N. B.: This reviewer will interview Harriet Walter at Manhattan's Drama Book Shop on February 6.)