Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Tempest: A.R.T.’s Magic Show

Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis, and Charlotte Graham in The Tempest  (Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey)

The American Repertory Theater’s new mounting of The Tempest is part nineteenth-century-style theatrical spectacle, part magic show – overlapping entities). The adaptors and co-directors are Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn and Teller), and the magic, which includes card tricks, cheeky bits of business like a kinetic hankie with a will of its own, and real stage sorcery (Prospero levitates a sleeping Miranda in act two), is witty, ticklish and occasionally dazzling. The idea of Teller working on a production of this particular Shakespearean romance, with its sorcerer protagonist, struck me as irresistible, and I was high on him after seeing his documentary Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor deconstructs and then reproduces the Dutch master’s particular brand of magic – his process for developing his distinctive approach to realism. So I had high hopes going in. But this Tempest is more than I could have wished for.

Daniel Conway’s cunning set is a three-tiered structure that manages to suggest, simultaneously, a ship, a carnival and a Victorian playhouse. It’s strung with lights all along the top and around a horizontal wagon wheel stage left that sits atop a pole tipped at a precarious angle. The middle level, which houses four musicians (they’re known as Rough Magic, a phrase culled from the text, and listed in the program as “a spirit band”), leads down to the first level with a rickety, twisted staircase on one side and a ladder on the other, and there are more steps stage left and a ramp stage right that occasionally lower actors into the house. Suspended above the ladder is a gargoyle in the shape of a dragon; it escaped my notice until late in the first act, when Ariel (Nate Dendy) sat there watching his master Prospero (Tom Nelis) observe the courtship of his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham) and Ferdinand (Joby Earle), the crown prince of Naples, separated from his grieving father Alonso (Christopher Donahue) during the shipwreck engineered by Prospero and Ariel at the play’s outset. On the bottom tier, a curtain hangs from a long rod extending across the stage; Ariel manipulates it to shift scenes, and when it’s open it usually reveals a painted backdrop of the ocean painted in German Romantic style.

Posner and Teller have reduced the storm to just a handful of lines of dialogue, reasoning that its major impact is visual; Shakespeare didn’t waste his poetry on these opening scenes, which served the main purpose of arresting the attention of garrulous, mixed-class midday audiences. Here Prospero conjures the tempest with a paper boat and a fishbowl filled with water, tearing the boat in two as we hear the Boatswain yell, “We split!” Then Ariel tugs Ferdinand away from the horrified Alonso and waterboards him in the bowl, apparently drowning him; he pulls the curtain so we don’t see the method by which he revives him before he makes his next entrance, on the island. In productions that hew closer to the text, Ferdinand disappears into the deep out of view of the audience, so we assume that, like Sebastian in Twelfth Night or the shipwrecked family in The Comedy of Errors, his death is a mere misperception to be corrected later on. But The Tempest is about magic, especially in this production, and in the romances (as opposed to the comedies) the happy endings are improbable, reversals of reality that the explanations proffered by the plot can’t answer satisfactorily – like the resurrection of Hermione at the end of The Winter’s Tale. So it’s an inspired idea to have us (and presumably Alonso) see Ferdinand drown so that Ariel can bring him back to life – rough magic indeed. Ariel deceives our very eyes, in the words of The Winter’s Tale’s sorceress Paulina.

Zach Eisenstat, Manelich Minniefee, & Tom Nelis (Photo: Geri Kodey)
The collaborators on this Tempest are a grab-bag of gifted artists that includes Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, who wrote the terrific songs, and Pilobolus’s Matt Kent, who choreographed Caliban, played by two actors (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) in what you might call acrobatic relationship to each other. The band – Michael Brun, Nate Tucker, Shaina Taub and Miche Braden – consists of a bassist, a percussionist commandeering a broad arsenal of instruments, a white female vocalist who plays the accordion, and a black female vocalist with a bluesy contralto. Delightfully, the clowns, Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim) and Stephano (Eric Hissom), are also musicians; they play fiddle and banjo respectively. Kim and Hissom are charming, and the costume designer, Paloma Young, does her best work with these two characters, the drunken fools who are seduced by Caliban into helping him plan Prospero’s overthrow and whose punishment for their hubris and stupidity is no worse than humiliation. But in fact I loved all of Young’s costumes. She’s made mustachioed, sideburn-sporting Prospero – Nelis is considerably younger-looking than most actors who attempt this role – look like a southern gentleman, sort of like John Carradine as the gambler Hatfield in John Ford’s Stagecoach, while boyish Ariel, in whiteface, with silvery-white hair, wears a vest and checked pants.

The Tempest is a beautiful play but notoriously difficult to pull off; the lovers’ scenes, the clowns’ hijinks and the interaction of the courtiers – Alonso and his faithful old counselor Gonzalo, Prospero’s brother Antonio (Louis Butelli), who usurped his dukedom, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Edmund Lewis), whom Antonio encourages to murder the king – provide different kinds of challenges, and in many productions none of them is successful. At A.R.T. only the courtiers’ scenes fall flat, despite Donahue’s affecting reading of Alonso. Gonzalo has been cross-gendered and renamed Gonzala, which would be perfectly fine if Dawn Didawick gave a more convincing performance.

The first half of the show is light – pretty much pure entertainment; after intermission the tone shifts to poignant. When Ariel, reporting back to Prospero about the way he’s executed his commands, begs his approval – “Do you love me, master? No?” – Dendy reads the line as if he expected Prospero, who is sometimes harsh and sometimes distracted, to answer in the negative; it’s a surprising touch. But Prospero assures Ariel that he does indeed love him, and perhaps it’s that affirmation that emboldens the fairy sprite to suggest, in their next scene together, that if Prospero could see the anguished tangle in which Ariel has ensnared his enemies, his spirit might be stirred to compassion for them. “Mine would, sir, were I human,” Ariel assures him; “And mine shall,” Prospero decides. This brief exchange, in which a human is prompted by an immortal to behave humanely, is one of the high points in the canon, and Dendy and Nelis render it flawlessly. Posner and Teller do their best interpretive work with the actors in this final section of the play, including the graceful reconciliation of Prospero and Caliban, Prospero’s attempt to forgive his brother (who, as Butelli plays the moment – it’s his finest – appears to be so ashamed of his own actions that he can’t look at Prospero or accept his embrace), and the tossing of Prospero’s conjuring book into the ocean (a task in which, in this version, he’s assisted by his daughter). This is the best Tempest I’ve ever seen.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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