The Tempest, European Repertory Company, at the Viaduct Theater. During intermission the teenage boy in front of me turned to his college-age sister and asked, “OK, so who’s the guy with the stick?” It’s a magic staff, she explained, wielded by Prospero, the usurped duke of Milan who learned sorcery while stranded on a desert island. “And the naked guy, the fairy or whatever, is that his brother? And who’s the guy in the sunglasses? And where did all the other people come from?” The only thing he knew for certain was that a ship had sunk.

It was easy to sympathize with the kid. In this production, Shakespeare’s fantastic romance is not merely dense–it’s nearly opaque. Director Dale Goulding has a firm grasp of the play’s deep cynicism–even when people are stuck in the middle of nowhere, they turn into minityrants–and he keeps the action moving briskly for two and a half hours. But his cast runs roughshod over the intricate text, forcing every line into a casual contemporary cadence. Shakespeare’s poetic precision is blurred, and characters are left to pursue only vaguely articulated objectives.

As Prospero, Gary Houston sets the tone by delivering the critical opening monologue–which provides the play’s back story–in a slurred flood, and he maintains such a sleepy demeanor throughout that the play never gains much urgency. Turning Prospero’s spirit assistant, Ariel, into a postapocalyptic sex kitten only adds to the confusion.