Peter Greenaway's "Prospero's Books," now at the Rotunda, straddles the thin line between the highbrow and the really highbrow.
It is not, to dispel one rumor, in any way a production of Shakespeare's "Tempest," at least not in any normal usage of that word. It is rather a visualization, a distillation, a conceptualization of the Bard's work. As the 1956 sci-fi classic "Forbidden Planet" opened the play for access by the masses, "Prospero's Books" closes access down to exclude the masses: It's a forbidden planet for no one but the most recondite of tastes. It's visually and technically mind-blowing -- for about 10 seconds. Then it becomes an overdose of sleeping pills. Its true inspiration must be "Hamlet": to sleep, perchance to dream, forsooth to snore, of natural course to toss, turn, tumble, where, besmirched with slumber's heavy crust of dew and becalmed 'pon a waveless sea, we sink toward that undiscovered country of total zonk-out. Or something like that.
Anyway . . . working with the brilliant but possibly quite batty British genius Sir John Gielgud, Greenaway has fashioned a document like no other. (Thank God.) The story of the Duke of Milan exiled to an island in the Mediterranean where he becomes a magician and eventually effects his revenge and in return becomes an examination of the 24 books that he took with him into exile. We are talking an illustrated card catalog: Each book is introduced numerically, described lovingly, displayed exhaustively, and then spins out to make contact, however tentative, with the materials of the play.