ART's "Tempest": Such Stuff As Hits Are Made On

Jonathan M. Kim, Manelich Minniefee/Zachary Eisenstat, & Eric Hissom
(photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey)
On the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, it’s surely fitting that the current ART season ends with the playwright’s last work, “The Tempest”. A co-production with the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, this version is part Dust Bowl traveling tent show, part shipwrecked magic show. Unique and enthralling, this is the most unusual theatrical presentation in memory. It’s obviously a labor of love on the part of the dreamers who thought up the original concept, Teller (of Penn and Teller) and Aaron Posner. As another recent ART production put it, “There is magic to do”.

The production begins with a mimed bit of card play by Ariel (Nate Dendy), the spirit servant of Prospero (Tom Nelis), who had been betrayed by his brother Antonio (Louis Butelli) and sent to die at sea with his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham). Instead, Prospero lands on a magical island, becoming a sorcerer and ruling over the populace, including the monster Caliban (the amazingly conjoined Manelich Minniefee and Zachary Eisenstat who speak and move as one). It is twelve years after his banishment, and Prospero has created a storm to drive Antonio and his shipmates King Alonso of Naples (Christopher Donahue), his son Ferdinand (Joby Earle), the King’s brother Sebastian (Edmund Lewis), and the noblewoman Gonzala (Dawn Didawick) to the island. Also shipwrecked are two court musicians, Stephano (Eric Hissom), and Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim). In no time, Miranda and Ferdinand are rapturously in love, complicating a plot by the shipwrecked villains to kill Prospero. In the end, they are forgiven by Prospero who, to return to civilization, does what Teller says is the hardest thing of all for a magician to do: give up magic.

As Teller has said elsewhere, “both magic and live theater are about reinvention…the play is about using your ability to create illusions as a weapon…Prospero fights (people)…by creating illusions that act on them psychologically”. And so they do. It’s likely that there were some magic tricks even in Shakespeare’s production, since surviving stage directions speak of such things as a feast that vanishes by a “quaint device”. While there are countless amazing feats of prestidigitation, the true magic of this production lies in how the various creative artists coordinated their expertise to produce a wondrous show. From the adaptation and direction of Teller and Aaron Posner to the movement by Matt Kent of the dance troupe Pilobolus to the magic design by Johnny Thompson, it’s visually and orally spectacular. It’s enhanced by the music by husband-and-wife team Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, as played by Rough Magic, a four piece band including vocalists Shaina Taub (who triples as music director and arranger) and Miche Braden, as well as Michael Brun and Nate Tucker. The amusing costumes by Paloma Young are, well, seamless. The lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind and the sound effects designed by Darron L. West contribute their own illusions, as of course do Johnny Thompson (designer of the magic) and Thom Rubino (responsible for magic engineering and construction). The set by Daniel Conway is stunning, glorious and functional all at the same time, a three-tiered wonder with a Coney Island carnival feel, featuring a spiral staircase, a crow’s nest, a carousel horse, a half-chewed seashell, and twinkling lights that draw us in immediately to a world of many wonders.

Shakespeare’s tale of a father and daughter, the spirit servant Ariel and the monstrous Caliban (almost an anagram for “cannibal”) is one of a small dysfunctional family, and requires acting complexity of a very high order. This cast delivers, from Nelis’ commanding presence to the slightly zany, perfectly matched, intoxicated Graham and Earle, to the astoundingly athletic Minniefee and Eisenstat (the latter fondly recalled from his former performance as part of a less conjoined trio in Lyric Stage’s “On the Town”), to the (intentionally) hammy Hissom and Kim (diminutive but with a large presence). This is one talented troupe. Special mention must be made of Dendy’s dandy sprite; thrice declared by his master to be “delicate”, he’s anything but. His fluid agility and grace, his sincerity in character, and his mastery of legerdemain add up to a performance that’s unmatched, unforgettable, and unmissable.

Unless thou art a purist (and there are major cuts to the text), you’ll find yourself mesmerized (literally) and transported (figuratively) to that most magical of islands, the legitimate stage. This is no “Tempest” in a teapot; it’s hugely entertaining. One would be wise to secure a ticket with much haste, or you’ll be in need of a conjuror of your own.

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