The Tempest is usually categorized as one of Shakespeare's "late comedies," which possess the comic label only in the most limited definition of a comedy as a play with a happy ending. The other one in that category that immediately comes to mind is The Winter's Tale, and everything in that except for the usually unconvincing ending is far from happy.
When done well, however, I find The Tempest to be among the most wonderful of Shakespeare's plays. It contains a wistfulness that makes you think he was truly beginning to see the end of his road and wanted to resolve a whole lot of themes. Yesterday's matinee at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in D.C., which we attended, was done very well. Patrick Page, the Prospero, had a strong, deep voice that exuded the authority Prospero must exercise. Sara Topham moved across the proscenium on harness as a more playful Ariel than usual, adding to the spirited atmosphere as a more feminine Ariel--sometimes I think the part was Shakespeare's venture into creating a unisex role.
Veterans Ted van Griethuysen as Gonzalo and Edward Gero as Alonso were both authoritative, and Rachel Mewbron a delightful Miranda who seemed to use the stage as her climbing wall. Liam Craig and Dave Quay rendered the clowns--Trinculo and Stephano--far more effectively than others I've seen, succeeding in maintaining the delicate balance these fairly large but challenging roles demand.
There was a large ensemble of players who were ostensibly islanders--I found some of their processioning somewhat superfluous but not at all diminishing to the play. Clifton Duncan did as much as can be done with the role that makes The Tempest a "problem play" of the Merchant of Venice or Taming of the Shrew variety. His role as a supposedly undeserving native who is oppressed into servitude by the otherwise beneficent Prospero who forgives all the nobles who deprived the latter of his dukedom and presumably does the same for Caliban--although he never actually says so. Caliban of course is given that great line: "You taught me language; and my profit on't/ Is, I know how to curse./ The red plague rid you/ For learning me your language!" So once again Shakespeare puts in just enough to make one feel that he has not imagined Caliban as nothing but a stereotyped "native" (i.e., black) villain.
But the overall spirit of forgiveness that Prospero applies to all the characters--deserving and mostly undeserving, while slowly encouraging the instant lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda, does envelop the play and convey that glimpse of what the playwright was feeling as he finished one of his last plays. "O brave new world" indeed and yes, it was a superb few hours in the theater before "Our revels now have ended".