From successful productions that update The Tempest to the techno 21st century to postcolonial scholarship that probes the text’s relationship to empire making, Shakespeare’s final work feels impervious to—even rejuvenated by—deep contemporary inquiry. Sadly, BoHo’s update—set in a 1940s mental asylum—shows how deconstruction can suck a classic dry.
BoHo certainly has the ingredients for greatness, including dynamic actors and an astutely confining set by John Zuiker. But this production rests entirely on the question, What if mighty Prospero only imagined his magical powers? The prospect briefly compels: We accept asylum-inmate Prospero’s opening monologue to Miranda—here a nurse whom Prospero fancies his daughter—as a delusional recollection of an imaginary dukedom. But the construct quickly unravels as subplots form: Why would nurse Miranda fall for hot-mess inmate Ferdinand?
Robel counters such questions with his biggest caveat of all, gradually revealed: Prospero doesn’t just imagine his own powers, he invents The Tempest’s every detail. Framing the entire Tempest as a paranoid fantasy eradicates its vital force. The decision to make Prospero’s slave, Caliban, an upstanding shrink whose weakness for whiskey drags him down, for instance, requires serious textual justification. Yet the fact that Dr. Caliban is Prospero’s mental figment means Robel doesn’t even bother to rationalize his implausible trajectory—it simply, ham-fistedly occurs. Devoid of all its magic, BoHo’s Tempest feels remarkably far-fetched.