If past is prologue, then we might expect Sam Waterston, in his second go-round as the rightful, righteous Duke of Milan in "The Tempest" -- he played Prospero about 40 years ago -- to deliver a victory-lap performance.
But Waterston, now 74, at first projects a pitiable weariness in the Public Theater's latest Bard revival in Central Park. But who wouldn't be weary of a 12-year exile on an island populated by spirits and demi-devils? Waterston's Job-like interpretation makes it totally plausible that his brother, Antonio, would usurp Prospero's title and enlist the King of Naples in tossing him and his daughter into a leaky boat, fully expecting them to die.
Seizing his chance for revenge, Prospero conjures a tempest that runs a ship bearing his enemies aground, deploying magical powers he book-studied and Ariel (nimble Chris Perfetti), a spirit he promises to free. All aboard are spared but scattered in their scrambling to shore. They think the others have drowned, including the king, played with authoritarian bearing by Charles Parnell, and his heir, Ferdinand. The son's grief is immediately allayed when he lays eyes on Prospero's daughter, Miranda (winsome Francesca Carpanini). As Ferdinand, Rodney Richardson swoons athletically, nailing a back-flip.
Compared to the only male figure besides her father inhabiting the island -- spirits are androgynous -- Ferdinand is a prince. Literally. Caliban, son of a witch who ruled the isle before Prospero landed, is played with such visceral, wild-eyed presence by Louis Cancelmi, you'd think language itself is not his first language. Caliban beseeches jester Trinculo (Jessie Tyler Ferguson) and a drunken butler (Danny Mastrogiorgio) to murder Prospero in his sleep. A parallel plot has Antonio (Cotter Smith) recruiting the king's brother (Frank Harts) to slay his sibling and counselor Gonzalo (Bernard White) in their sleep. Waterston's Prospero rallies with palpable rage toward his enemies and tenderness for his beloved.
Enhancing the magical mischief of "The Tempest" (late Shakespeare, circa 1610) are Riccardo Hernandez's seascape, Jason Crystal and David Lander's thunder-and-lightning fireworks, and Michael Friedman's enchanting music.
Director Michael Greif's episodic approach at times feels as choppy as the seas, while other scenes are seamlessly harmonious. Artful soloists help Prospero express his joy at finding love for his daughter -- his tempest tamed.