The Tempest

May 15, 2014

in Plays

Play (1611)
by William Shakespeare

Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller

Songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan
Choreographer: Matt Kent, Pilobolus

Scenic Design: Daniel Conway; Magic Design: Johnny Thompson; Magic Engineering and Construction: Thom Rubino; Music Direction and Arrangements: Shaina Taub

American Repertory Theatre
Cambridge, MA

May 11 – June 15, 2014

With Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda), Nate Dendy (Ariel), Zachary Eisenstadt (Caliban), Manelich Minniefee (Caliban), Louis Butelli (Antonio), Dawn Didawick (Gonzala), Christopher Donahue (Alonso), Joby Earle (Ferdinand), Edmund Lewis (Sebastian), Eric Hissom (Stephano), Jonathan M. Kim (Trinculo), Christopher Rose (Minon), and Rough Magic, a spirit band: Miche Braden, Michael Brun, Shaina Taub, Nate Tucker.

Nate Dendy as Ariel, Tom Nelis as Prospero, Charlotte Graham as Miranda in 'The Tempest'

Nate Dendy as Ariel
Tom Nelis as Prospero
Charlotte Graham as Miranda
in “The Tempest”
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

An extremely entertaining version of the late, great romance, with real magic and real Shakespeare.

Prospero, the aged, exiled Duke of Milan, is master of his island in the sea, and a wizard to boot. His sidekick, Ariel, helps keeps things interesting by carrying out his master’s conjuring. At the same time, Prospero is father to the lovely Miranda, and when Ferdinand, the young prince of Naples, gets shipwrecked on the island (along with his father, Alonso, and his friend, Prospero’s usurper brother, Antonio) at the magical behest of Prospero, romantic things begin to happen between the young people. Meanwhile, those of the elder generation who mistreated Prospero in the days of yore have other lessons to learn as they make their ways on the enchanted isle.

There is much magic already built into the story of this play and the innovation of the current production is to turn it into a melding of Shakespearean theatre and magic show. The combination works really brilliantly. The show is full-tilt Shakespeare with lots of additional fun. The acting is very good, but so are the stunts and there are plenty of them.

Joby Earle as Ferdinand, Charlotte Graham as Miranda in 'The Tempest'

Joby Earle as Ferdinand
Charlotte Graham as Miranda
in “The Tempest”
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

At first I had my doubts, but I was soon won over. The flat, vertical set, with a band stationed on the upstairs floor, seemed too static for the action of the play. As the actors began to parade around in front of it, I thought that it was all going to be too confined. That turned out not to be true at all.

In fact, the set – resembling a kind of theatrical road-show truck of the nineteenth century – opened up its charms in all sorts of ways, as did the show itself.

At first, I thought Tom Nelis’ Prospero seemed too much like a prestidigitator in the Wild West, and Charlotte Graham’s Miranda a bit too cocksure. As the show evolved, they too totally won me over, gradually impressing me with the dimension and appeal of their characters.

Teller – of the famed magic duo Penn and Teller – offered his magical guidance to this show, adding breathtaking enchantment to an already beguiling landscape. The illusions are mesmerizing on their own but do not distract from the words or action. That, in itself, is quite a trick, and the directors – Aaron Posner and Teller – are to be commended for making that work so well.

Calibans

Manelich Minifee (top) and Zach Eisenstadt as Caliban
in “The Tempest”
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

As if Teller’s magic were not enough, in addition, the great, gymnastically adept dance troupe, Pilobolus, has weighed in to help craft the most amazing Caliban one could hope to see. Instead of being just a singular grotesque of the sort he traditionally is, the Pilobolus revisioning has made two out of one: Caliban is now a dual character with long-time Pilobolus dancer Manelich Minniefee and talented and versatile Boston-based actor Zachary Eisenstadt filling out the mirrored halves of the beast. The result is an amazingly graceful, lumbering demonstration of physical wizardry, turning Caliban into a seesawing marvel. That too is a magically distinctive touch.

Nate Dendy as Ariel, Joby Earle as Ferdinand, Tom Nelis as Prospero, Charlotte Graham as Miranda in 'The Tempest'

Nate Dendy as Ariel
Joby Earle as Ferdinand
Tom Nelis as Prospero
Charlotte Graham as Miranda
in “The Tempest”
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

In the recent ART re-production of Pippin, the rather basic, but catchy, Stephen Schwartz musical from the 1970s, Diane Paulus, artistic director of the ART made an extremely wise choice – to add the genius of acrobats from a small but brilliant Montreal circus – Les Sept Doigts de la Main – to the action. The result was fabulous, turning Pippin from a simplistic template for rudimentary show tunes to a three-dimensional entertainment, just the sort of thing it needed.

Jonathan Kim as Trinculo, Eric Hissom as Stephano, Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat as Caliban in 'The Tempest'

Jonathan Kim as Trinculo

Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat as Caliban
Eric Hissom as Stephano
in “The Tempest”
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

Though The Tempest does not need such bolstering, the addition of Teller’s magic and Pilobolus’ graceful gymnastics enlivens an already great play in unexpectedly stimulating ways.

In 2009, during her first season as artistic director at the ART, Paulus included three Shakespearean efforts that were entertaining, but mostly theatrical takes on the Bard rather than complete enhancements of his work. Sleep No More (2009), set in an abandoned school in Brookline, was kind of fun-house based loosely on Macbeth. The Best of Both Worlds was a bluesy musical based on The Winter’s Tale. The Donkey Show was a cabaret version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Each was innovative and appealing in its own way, but none of them had very much Shakespeare in it.

This production of The Tempest is very much Shakespeare and demonstrates Paulus’ serious interest in supporting productions that build innovations into, as well as those which more liberally improvise upon, traditional dramatic foundations.

The acting here is good all around.

Nate Dendy’s Ariel has a good deal of the gentle Harpoesque poetry of Teller in his stage persona as Penn and Teller‘s silent partner, and also demonstrates amazing capacity as a sleight of hand magician.

Eric Hissom, as the buffoonish Stephano, has fabulous timing, offering a gently humorous leadership to his crew of Shakespearean clowns. Among those, Jonathan M. Kim as Trinculo, his master assistant, provides an energetic source of humor in a small package.

Joby Earle, as Ferdinand, has enough goofiness, in addition to warmth and good looks, to create an interesting romantic counterpart to Charlotte Graham’s Miranda, helping to create a slightly offbeat and engaging romantic duo.

Shaina Taub, Miche Braden, and Michael Brun as Rough Magic, a spirit band in 'The Tempest'

Shaina Taub, Miche Braden, and Michael Brun
as Rough Magic, a spirit band
in “The Tempest”
Photo: Bill Hughes
Courtesy of American Repertory Theatre

The band, led by Shaina Taub, is lyrical and suggestive throughout. Taub and Miche Braden offer smokily dark vocals, and the instrumentals, including Taub on the accordion, are continuous but not at all obtrusive. There is even a pair of guys playing an array of spinning wine glasses – a home-brewed glass harmonica – which adds a lovely, other-world, sense.

This is another great turn for the ART, capturing in one fell swoop the magic of the Shakespearean original, of directors Aaron Posner’s and Teller’s tantaliziing illusions, and of choreographers Matt Kent’s and Pilobolus’ poetic gymnastics. It is a unique amalgamation, captivating in its theatrical alchemy, and a cleverly engaging homage to Shakespeare’s own capacity to charm words into wonders.

– BADMan

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