Theater companies cut Shakespeare to reflect casting, to indulge shortened attention spans, or to center the play on a director's artistic vision or insight, among other reasons. Curio Theatre's current production of The Tempest proves that a bit of risk lies in any of these approaches. And, like any gamble, it also hints at large, if quick, rewards.
The Tempest's traditional three-hour run time presents one of Shakespeare's most straightforward plots. Courtly treachery dethroned Duke Prospero (Brian McCann) and imprisoned him and his daughter Miranda (a delightful Isa St. Clair) on a remote island inhabited by the spirit Ariel and a monster, Caliban (Robert DaPonte). Here, Prospero learns magic and enslaves Ariel and Caliban.
Twelve years later, a passing ship carries the traitors within reach of Prospero's power, offering the opportunity for revenge, reconciliation, and forgiveness.
Curio's double-casting of one of these roles (I won't spoil it) gambles on director Dan Hodge's sharp insight, which he applied in slicing an hour out of the text. This choice accentuates the intensely theatrical, magical elements of the production: Jared Reed's stormy lighting, Patrick Lamborn's earthy and elemental sound design, and Paul Kuhn's inventive, multitiered island set of precipices, hidden caves, and massive gulf of ocean.
As Lamborn's illuminating original music wafts up from beneath the stage, DaPonte's Caliban scurries across this realm like a wounded dog; covered in patches of fur and dirt, he bays like a trapped animal, terrifies with his bellowing cadence, and yet appears the most human of all the characters.
Hodge's remaining double-casting choices play to the cast's strengths. Eric Scotolati delivers equally solid depictions of the scheming Sebastian and clownish Trinculo; Aetna Gallagher mirrors Scotolati's smart take as Prospero's traitorous sister Antonia (a brother, Antonio, in the original) and the drunken wench Stephano. McCann's Prospero towers over these performances, both literally from a 10-foot perch and in his depiction of a victim wracked by suffering and twisted in his rationalizations for revenge.
But while we gain in concentrated intensity, we lose in the development of Shakespeare's greater themes. This outstandingly acted, spectacularly designed Tempest (especially from a small-budget company) rushes through each scene, reducing the complexity of its characters and stripping the play of its moral force.
"We are such stuff as dreams are made on," McCann's Prospero intones. This Tempest mesmerizes like a magic act, but leaves a longing for five — if not 50 — more minutes of reverie.
Presented by Curio Theatre Company at 4740 Baltimore Ave. through May 19. Tickets: $10-$20. Information: 215-921-8243 or www.CurioTheatre.org