Raw power and rich emotion make ‘Tempest’ a magical must see
|Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents|
Review by Oliver Sava
Trust The Tempest to be a stirring reminder of the magic of theater. This adaptation by Stupid Fucking Bird’s Aaron Posner and Teller of the magician duo Penn & Teller has been mounted across the country, and this fall, Chicago audiences have the opportunity to discover why their interpretation is such a rousing success. Seize the opportunity while it’s here, because a production like this doesn’t come around very often.
Inspired by the real-world story of “Willard The Wizard,” Posner and Teller reimagine Prospero (Larry Yando) as a Depression-era Dust Bowl magician rather than a supernatural sorcerer, and while he still has the mystical ability to conjure a turbulent storm, the new context grounds Prospero and makes his character arc exceptionally clear. He’s a father that has coped with a major tragedy—the attempted murder of him and his three-year-old daughter—by escaping into his work, committing to his magic as he waits for the right time to exact his revenge.
In this time, his daughter Miranda (Eva Louise Balistrieri) has grown into a young woman, and Prospero has created a new family for himself by adopting the spirit Ariel (Nate Dendy) and the monstrous Caliban (Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, bound together by the contorting choreography of Matt Kent and Pilobolus) as his servants. Over the course of the play, Prospero experiences a significant change of heart by witnessing these three characters interact with the shipwrecked victims of his magical storm. He sees the love that blossoms between Miranda and Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile), the prince of Naples, and their courtship warms his soul despite the mask of wrathful disdain he puts on to test Ferdinand’s affection.
Ariel’s undying dedication also moves Prospero, and the spirit’s use of playing card tricks binds the two characters through magic. Ariel is a magician’s apprentice learning his craft from a master, and considering how the name of “Willard The Wizard” was passed from father to son, this role forms a familial relationship between Ariel and Prospero. Dendy’s slightly cold but gentle characterization is a wonderful contrast to the passionate rage of Eisenstat and Minniefee’s Caliban, and the two men accentuate the creature’s alien nature through dynamic acrobatics that give the monster a mercurial form. With untarnished lily white skin and perfect posture, Ariel is the personification of order, but Caliban is pure chaos, from his speckled skin to his constantly shifting body shape. Caliban shares Prospero’s burning need for vengeance against the person that ruined his life, but Caliban’s anger is directed at his magician master. As Prospero witnesses the monstrosity of Caliban’s quest for revenge, he becomes less engaged in his own.
The definition of these core relationships makes for an incredibly moving personal journey for Prospero, and Yando’s performance modulates masterfully from righteous anger to tender compassion. When he ultimately chooses to gives up his magic and the vindictive feelings tied into his life’s work, an overwhelming sense of relief radiates from Yando and fills the theater with uplifting energy. Just as a thunderstorm cleans the air, this Tempest is a purifying theater ritual, washing away negativity in a wave of rich Shakespearean language, enchanting stage magic, and atmospheric music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.
The music is far more than just accompaniment; it’s an invaluable component of the production’s emotional depth, and reinforces the major themes of the script with a sound that perfectly fits the “Dust Bowl tent show” concept. The “spirit band” Rough Magic is on stage for the entire show, and they’re largely responsible for pulling the viewer into the mystical island environment with ethereal vocals and an eclectic assortment of instruments. It’s fascinating to hear the gravelly timbre of Waits’ vocals replaced by the clean, soulful sound of Bethany Thomas and band leader Liz Filios, and their voices bring out the elegance and grace of Waits and Brennan’s songwriting.
This is exemplified during the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand, which features Prospero performing a levitation trick with his daughter as the band plays Waits and Brennan’s “Shiny Things,” a haunting tune about the temporary allure of material things and the eternal value of love. The levitation trick is a brilliant way of visualizing Prospero letting go of his daughter, and when he moves a hoop across her body to show that there are no strings, he cuts the tether that has kept Miranda firmly by his side all these years.
The wedding is a beautiful moment that blends the visual poetry of Johnny Thompson’s stage magic with the musical poetry of Waits and Brennan to heighten the emotional impact of Shakespeare’s script, and throughout the production, Posner and Teller integrate different modes of storytelling to clarify and intensify Shakespeare’s work. There’s specifically a very heavy vaudeville influence: the foolish duo of Stephano (Ron E. Rains) and Trinculo (Adam Wesley Brown) is modeled after Abbott and Costello, and the use of pantomime, shadow puppets, and stage magic all make this production feel like a long-lost vaudevillian Tempest.
Featuring a team of designers all making their Chicago Shakespeare debut, The Tempest has a fresh aesthetic that is more reminiscent of smaller Chicago theaters like The Hypocrites and The Neo-Futurists, off-kilter and slightly unsettling but with a level of polish viewers can expect from Chicago Shakespeare. The cast is a combination of newcomers to the theater (many of whom have performed in previous iterations of this Tempest) and veterans like John Lister, Michael Aaron Lindner, and Barbara Robertson, whose portrayal of the benevolent Gonzala is one of the most moving parts of the entire show. Her monologue about the paradise she would turn the island into if she were its ruler is far-fetched and idealistic, but Robertson’s mastery of the language and commitment to Gonzala’s perspective makes the audience believe that this utopia is possible. The play makes phenomenal use of the city’s talent, and even though it’s a visiting production, it’s full of the raw power and rich emotion that defines the best of Chicago theater.
The Tempest continues through November 8th at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map), with performances Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursday/Fridays 7:30pm, Saturdays 3pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $48-$88, and are available by phone (312-595-5600) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at ChicagoShakes.com. (Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes, includes an intermission)
Photos by Liz Lauren
Eva Louise Balistrieri (Miranda), Adam Wesley Brown (Trinculo), Nate Dendy (Ariel), Ethan Deppe (Jove, Rough Magic), Zach Eisenstat (Caliban), Liz Filios (Iris, Rough Magic), Lawrence Grimm (Antonio), Michael Aaron Lindner (Sebastian), John Lister (Alonso), Manelich Minniefee (Caliban), Ron Rains (Stephano), Barbara Robertson (Gonzala), Christopher Rose (Minion), Jake Saleh (Mars, Rough Magic), Luigi Sottile (Ferdinand), Bethany Thomas (Juno, Rough Magic), Larry Yando (Prospero)
behind the scenes
Aaron Posner (adapter, director), Teller (adapter, director) Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan (original music), Matt Kent (choreographer), Ethan Deppe (music director), Liz Filios (music director), Dan Conway (scenic design), Paloma Young (costume design), Rachel Laritz (additional costume design), Thom Weaver (lighting designer), Johnny Thompson (magic designer), Ray Nardelli (sound design), Melissa Veal (wig and make-up design), Kevin Gudahl (verse coach), Magdalene Spanuello (associate director), Christopher Rose (assistant magic design, minion), Thom Rubino (magic engineering and construction), Kenny Wollesen (instrument design and wollesonics), Liz Lauren (photos)