Friday, May 16, 2014

A Breathtaking Production of "The Tempest" at The A.R.T. - How Much Higher Can They Raise The Bar?

Nate Dendy as Ariel
Tom Nelis as Prospero
Charlotte Graham as Miranda
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Magic is happening yet again on the stage at A.R.T.  I am not just talking about the mystical illusions that are part of the fabric of the current groundbreaking production of Shakespeare's "The Tempest"  I am talking about the magical worm hole that seems to open every few months that transports fabulous A.R.T. productions directly from the Loeb Drama Center to one of the Broadway houses.  This "Tempest," adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, seems destined for a future that will see Prospero's island transported to the island of Manhattan.

But for now, those of us who live in striking distance of Harvard Square have a rare opportunity to see live theater that pushes the boundaries of what is possible technically and aesthetically on stage.  The Bard is alive and well on Brattle Street, and he speaks fluent Teller and sings in the voice of Tom Waits!

One of the definitions of a tempest is "Furious agitation, commotion, or tumult; an uproar."  That definition easily fits the tenor of the audience in attendance at last night's performance of this "Tempest."  As soon as Prospero had spoken his final lines, we were on our feet applauding:

But release me from my bands 
With the help of your good hands: 
Gentle breath of yours my sails 
Must fill, or else my project fails, 
Which was to please. 
Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant, 
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer, 
Which pierces so that it assaults 
Mercy itself and frees all faults. 
As you from crimes would pardon'd be, 
Let your indulgence set me free. 

As Prospero had requested, our hands were busy clapping enthusiastically to tell the artists and all of the creative forces behind this amazing show that Prospero's project had indeed succeeded beyond what anyone could have expected.  We will never know how all of the theatrical "magicians" pulled off the trick of enchanting us throughout a remarkable evening of theater, but I can describe some of what happened in plain sight.

First of all, the success of this show can be attributed to a unique and signal collaboration that transcends five centuries.  Shakespeare, who was born 450 years ago, wrote "The Tempest" as the capstone of his career.  He was at the height of his powers.  The fertile imagination of playwright Aaron Posner coalesced and collided with the creative genius of Teller to conceive of an adaptation of "The Tempest" that would use 21st century technologies to realize the magical effects that Shakespeare describes in the text of the play and in the staging notes.

"The Tempest," according to Posner and Teller, is a story about family and about Prospero using his magical powers to put on a show to enchant and manipulate those against whom he wanted to seek revenge.  At the end of the day, the most magical phenomenon of all is that Prospero himself is transformed and is able to forgive those who have wronged him.  The illusions that are meant to enchant characters in the play, also mesmerize the audience and advance the telling of Shakespeare's complex story.  The magic is not about gimmickry; it is endemic to the telling of the tale.  Into this rich admixture, throw in the haunting music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan performed by a live band and you have the kind of performance that has theater lovers lining up to snatch the few remaining tickets to this show that will be acclaimed as a landmark in the history of the American stage.

The Set by Daniel Conway
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey

Daniel Conway's set is described as suggesting "the end of a pier at Coney Island."  It is dark, mysterious, multi-leveled, flexible and a visual delight.  Paloma Young has created costumes that are part of the magic of this show.  The challenge of lighting a production such as this one was handled with consummate skill by Christopher Akerline, and the task of balancing a variety of sounds was given to Darron L. West.  The literal magic - the illusions - were the result of collaboration among Teller, Johnny Thompson and Thom Rubino.  Musical direction and arrangements are done beautifully by Shaina Taub who leads the "Rough Magic" band of Miche Braden, Michael Brun and Nate Tucker.  Matt Kent of Pilobulus provides creative choreography.

As you might imagine, the cast is flawless in making the Elizabethan language of Shakespeare live and breathe and seem like ordinary speech.

The Cast:

Tom Nelis as Prospero
Louis Butelli as Antonio
Nate Dendy as Ariel
Dawn Didawick as Gonzala
Christopher Donohue as Alonso
Joby Earle as Ferdinand
Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee as Caliban
Charlotte Graham as Miranda
Eric Hissom as Stephano
Jonathan M. Kim as Trinculo
Edmund Lewis as Sebastian.
Jonathan M. Kim, as Trinculo
Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee as Caliban
Eric Hissom as Stephano
Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey

They are all excellent.  Special attention must be drawn to Mr. Nelis as Prospero.  He commands the stage and the language as his character commands the elements with mastery and with magic.  The chemistry between Joby Earle as Ferdinand and Charlotte Graham as Miranda is a highlight of this production.  The role of Caliban is always difficult to stage well, but the conjoined efforts of Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee provide a brilliant solution to that problem.  Their acting and athleticism speak loudly.  Nate Dendy as Ariel is the first character the audience sees - even before the curtain rises.  From the moment when he flips playing cards into the audience to set the stage for the magic to come until the instant when he vanishes, it is hard to take one's eyes off of him and his ghostly presence.

There is so much more I could say about this show, but I do not want to spoil any of the anticipation and wonder and the magic that you will experience at the hands of the illusionists and artists.  I can guarantee a banquet of delights even more sumptuous than the magic table shown in this picture.

The Magic Banquet Table
Christopher Donahue as Alonso
Dawn Didawick as Gonzala
Louis Butelli as Antonio
Edmund Lewis as Sebastian
Photo: The Smith Center/ Geri Kodey
I trust that you will enjoy this banquet as much as I did.  I have used a lost of superlatives in my description.  Be assured that none of them are hyperbole.  The show is that good!



"The Tempest" will run through June 15.

American Repertory Theater Website

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