Shakespeare wrote thirty-seven plays, thirty-eight if you count The Two Noble Kinsmen. Some – Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet – are both popular and well-known. Others – Henry VI part 2, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, All’s Well That Ends Well – not so much.

Of the dozen most “reliable” Shakespeare plays, possibly my least-favorite is The Tempest. This is a play about a magician, and more specifically about a magician showing us how he does his tricks, something we are, for good reason, told that a magician ought never do lest he burst the balloon of wonder that keeps us aloft. And that is why the play is so challenging: because we are asked again and again to believe in magic even as we are shown, again and again, how the tricks are done.

The magic I refer to is not Prospero’s art of conjuring but Shakespeare’s art of drama, and the magician is not Prospero but Shakespeare himself. Inasmuch as it has a plot, The Tempest is about the marooned wizard Prospero taking advantage of the near approach of a shipful of his enemies to maroon them in turn, make a match for his daughter with one of their sons, force them to confront their crimes, and then forgive them. Three “plots” unfold: the romantic comedy between Miranda and Ferdinand; the dark plot of attempted regicide hatched by Sebastian, brother to the King of Naples, and Antonio, Prospero’s own brother; and the comic plot of attempted regicide and revenge invented by Caliban to be carried out by the clowns, Stephano and Trinculo. But none of these plots ever really gets going because Prospero keeps popping in to intervene and remind us that he is completely in control of events. He has brought these characters here, has arranged for them to meet who they meet and learn who they learn, and will frustrate any plotting they may devise that does not suit his design. This, of course, is exactly what a playwright does. All the tricks Shakespeare uses to make the absurdly artificial plot of Othello seem viscerally real to us are precisely that: tricks. In The Tempest, Shakespeare does exactly the opposite, never letting us for a moment get invested in any of the plots before reminding us that they are mere contrivances, completely under their master’s control. And then he dares us to remain involved, to be riveted not by the puppets but by the puppeteer. It’s a tall order and, in my experience, very hard to fill.

I have seen it filled before, at Stratford, when William Hutt played the leading role, in 1999 and again in 2005, directed by Richard Monette. How does this year’s effort, led by Christopher Plummer and directed by Des McAnuff, measure up? In some ways, very well indeed. In others …

Plummer has, I probably don’t need to say, absolute command, of the stage, of the text, and of the audience. His is a virile and potent Prospero, who, when he chooses forgiveness over retribution, does so not because of a recognition of his own mere humanity but of ours, and his enemies’. In the text, Ariel is the spirit and Prospero the mortal, but when Plummer says, “Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling/Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,/One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,/Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?” I do not see compassion in his eyes, but the lordly pity God had for Nineveh or for Sodom. On the other hand, this powerful figure has a rather warmer relationship with his daughter than is typical of Prosperos, and that warmth gives room to Trish Lindstrom’s Miranda for quite a bit more spunk and spine than is typical of the role. The two laugh and joke together, clearly dearly in love, and Plummer really has to push himself to lay any obstacle to trellis her quick-vining romance with Ferdinand, so joyful he is from the first to see her blossom and bloom. This is a beautiful sight to see, but, unfortunately, it also robs the romance itself of any interest at all, as Ferdinand really has nothing to overcome; and Prospero’s own passionate concern that their contract not be consummated before it be solemnized comes off as quixotic, to the lovers and to the audience as well, as it seems ungrounded in anything we’ve seen before in the relationship between father and daughter.

Prospero’s second principal relationship, with the spirit, Ariel, is, if anything, even warmer and more delicious, aided, no doubt, by the casting and costuming of the spirit. Julyana Soelistyo is a perfect pixie dipped head to toe in blue, and consistently adorable, which makes her late scenes – Ariel leading Prospero to forgiveness, and Ariel’s parting – exceptionally lovely, and works generally with one glaring exception: when Ariel must confront the villains with their crimes. Here Ariel must manifest his the terrible power normally held in check, but the addition of a pair of angel’s wings cannot transform this sprite into anything I could be afraid of. And without that pivotal moment, another plot falls away – the King of Naples’ repents, but we barely notice; he was sad about losing his son before, and he’s sad after. Certainly being scolded by this sweet winged smurf can’t have effected any deep change.

Finally, Prospero’s third companion on the island, the monster Caliban. Here, I’m afraid, the production simply fails. Caliban is a touchy one to tackle, given the obvious echoes of colonialism in the setting, the situation, in the very name (Caliban being a near-anagram of Cannibal). In this production, Caliban’s fishy origins are taken quite literally. He is not the only islander – we see other fish-men scurrying about, providing the short-lived banquet for the shipwrecked nobles and doing other business, but they are more pleasingly formed and more thoroughly alien, never speaking and lacking recognizable faces. Caliban appears to be the mongrel product of a union between Sycorax and an islander, half-human witch and half finned and scaled biped. With yellow eyes, visible musculature, a protruding spine and ragged tufts of hair, he is certainly strikingly ugly. But what does he meant to represent? I really have no idea. Making him so thoroughly alien is a way of sidestepping the racial overtones of the role, but if they are sidestepped successfully then Caliban becomes utterly unresonant – and if they are not sidestepped successfully, then we’re left with a Caliban who is monstrous, physically and psychologically, not because he is an islander but because he is half islander, and half European. Does McAnuff really want to go there?

In any event, it hardly matters, because this Caliban is neither compellingly appalling in his behavior (I remember with particular fondness Peter Hutt’s leer, his grossly prominent male organ waggling as he recounted his attempted rape of Miranda) nor powerful in his indignation. His one great moment is his speech, “the isle is full of noises” which is delivered with a truly childlike guilelessness. Indeed, his Caliban is something of a child, his rages petulant and rather moving us to smiles than to either hotter or colder feelings. When Prospero says acknowledges Caliban as his “thing of darkness” it ought to be a big moment, something like Ged embracing his shadow. But this Caliban, while he may be a thing, is hardly a thing of darkness. That’s really too bad. I’m beginning to feel that Dion Johnstone, who I enjoy as an actor (and he’s certainly lithe enough to be a creditable sea monster) is being consistently miscast, or at least misdirected. If you’re going to cast him as Caliban, or as Edmund, you have to help him find his own heart of darkness.

The rest of the cast I also found a bit lackluster, but I’m not sure how much blame accrues to them and how much to the larger problems articulated above. Bruce Dow and Geraint Wyn Davies certainly get the laughs as a very gay Trinculo and a very Celtic Stephano, respectively, but there is no hint of danger in their new relationship with Caliban, nothing to make us truly fear what unexpected terrors their plot may unleash, and so there is no deeper undercurrent to their foolery. Peter Hutt is singularly impotent as Alonso, King of Naples – it is impossible for me to imagine him actively conspiring against Prospero twelve years prior; moreover, he comes off as  older than Christopher Plummer, despite being an entire generation his junior. Neither John Vickery nor Timothy Stickney compels our attention as the villainous brothers to Prospero and Alonso, nor does James Blendick as the good counselor, Gonzalo. They all seem to be just going through the motions.

So I fear that, on the whole, the production fails precisely where any _Tempest_ is most likely to do so. With Prospero in full command, the characters of the various plots – Ferdinand, Caliban and the clowns, and the shipwrecked noblemen – quite wither away. Which leaves us with Prospero himself, and the magic of the stage itself to keep us in thrall. Plummer delivers the goods. McAnuff? Well, The Tempest is one show where you should leave the theatre humming the set – it’s supposed to be a special effects extravaganza. And there are two big set-pieces designed to show off the power of theatrical effects as such: the title storm at the outset, and the masque presented to Ferdinand and Miranda as a wedding present. And I was underwhelmed by both. The storm and shipwreck neither scared me nor astounded me, nor, most important, caught me up; I was distinctly aware that I was watching a stage. The whole scene wasn’t a patch on the shipwreck they put on for Pericles the last time that play was presented on the Festival stage. The one effect I recall fondly from the storm was the billowing of black cloth clouds – that was nice. But the very fact that I can pick that detail out suggests the degree to which I was not blow away. And the masque was, if anything, even more disappointing. No dance. No magic. Just three women on stilts in feathered gowns doing synchronized hand motions. And when the revels end, they don’t vanish into air – they retreat! That’s not showing us how the trick is done – it’s not doing the trick at all. There are other, smaller effects that were quite lovely – Caliban rowing his new masters around the stage in a dugout canoe; Prospero controlling Ferdinand’s sword, or being followed by a ball of light – but they are not enough to make up for these two major whiffs.

I’d still say this Tempest is worth seeing – for Plummer himself, and for the way he plays off Soelistyo and Lindstrom as Ariel and Miranda. That’s a good bit of the play right there. And the production is visually very clear, something that wasn’t always true of McAnuff’s Macbeth from last year, or of this year’s As You Like It – which, I hasten to say, I did like, very much. But if you want to see real magic, I’d go first to Peter Pan.