The Tempest, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. In this efficient, relatively unadorned production of one of Shakespeare's messiest plays, director Barbara Gaines showcases what her company does best: comedy, music, and spectacle. The clown routines in which shipwrecked buffoons Trinculo (Scott Parkinson) and Stephano (Greg Vinkler) wrangle with good-hearted ogre Caliban (Scott Jaeck) are as crisp, hilarious, and human as theater gets. When the invisible spirits of Shakespeare's enchanted isle coo Alaric Jans's a cappella five-part harmonies, clearly any wayward seafarer would be mesmerized. And the potential of Chicago Shakespeare's cavernous stage is fully realized when those singing nymphs magically grow 30 feet tall and trail icy white trains.
But however successful these elements, the central story never catches fire. It's not for lack of clarity; as the island's vengeful wizard Prospero, orchestrating the downfall of his enemies, the marriage of his daughter, and almost every other aspect of the action, Larry Yando handles Shakespeare's text with care. But he gives most scenes the same emotional pitch, which makes his intellect opaque and his speech into a string of indistinguishable proclamations. Surrounded by pleasant but featureless young lovers, an incomprehensible band of usurpatious Neapolitans, and airy spirits costumed like moth-eaten Vegas showgirls, Prospero's journey toward forgiveness ranges from impersonal to silly. Overwhelmed by its comic elements, this Tempest becomes a light diversion rather than the cynical parable Shakespeare intended.