Helsinger's slow pacing during the early scenes illuminates the treachery that follows. Antonio (Carl N. Wallnau) and Sebastian (Steven Dennis) conspire to kill the King of Naples (an imposing Alan Coates), while Prospero employs his enslaved creatures, Ariel (Dameka L. Hayes) and Caliban (Richard B. Watson) in his quest for vengeance. Both Ariel and Caliban, in turn, seek liberation through submission and cunning. Brad DePlanche and Eric Hissom (as Trinculo and Stephano, respectively) soften these dark threads with bumbling interludes of Abbott and Costello-inspired antics.
The capable and at times captivating cast carries the plot, but PSF's design team fills Bob Phillips' simple set of rocks with imagery, light, sound, and dance that outshine their performances. Costumer Sam Fleming encased Caliban in a green bodysuit capped with claws and webbed feet and layered with a lizard's scales. He clothed Ariel and her six spirits in wildly colored bodysuits topped with Martha Ruskai's paper-ribbon dreadlocks and face paint. Ruskai transformed Wood into a menacing sorcerer by shaving his head and tattooing it with symbols. (To be fair, Wood deserves much of the credit for still looking like a bad-ass as he ages.)
In Hayes' original choreography, the six spirits dart and flit about the stage, enact mesmerizing dances to Daniel Levy's thunderous original score, and appear in terrifying African masks or carry aloft a ferocious 20-foot-tall puppet that seems to breathe fire through Thom Weaver's lighting. The stage and backdrop glow in hues that match each scene's mood; stormy blues when Prospero casts a spell, or dancing beams of light when Ariel takes flight.
Sure, in Shakespeare, the play's always the thing. But at PSF, the crew's six designers create the unforgettable, wondrous universe in which the Bard's universal theme of forgiveness finds its resonance.
Through July 15 at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival, 2755 Station Ave., Center Valley. Tickets: $34-$52. www.pashakespeare.org or 610-282-9455.