BWW REVIEW: MAGICAL BUT MILD 'TEMPEST' AT A.R.T.
Written 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; costume design, Paloma Young; lighting design, Christopher Akerlind; sound design, Darron L. West; magic design, Johnny Thompson; magic engineering and construction, Thom Rubino; music direction and arrangements, Shaina Taub; instrument design, Kenny Wollesen; stage manager, Katie Ailinger
Cast in order of appearance:
Prospero, Tom Nelis; Miranda, Charlotte Graham; Ariel, Nate Dendy; Caliban, Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee; Antonio, Louis Butelli; Gonzala, Dawn Didawick; Alonso, Christopher Donahue; Ferdinand, Joby Earle; Sebastian, Edmund Lewis; Stephano, Eric Hissom; Trinculo, Jonathan M. Kim; Rough Magic, a spirit band, Miche Braden, Michael Brun, Shaina Taub, Nate Tucker; Minon, Christopher Rose
Performances and Tickets:
Now through June 15, American Repertory Theater, Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle Street, Cambridge, Mass. The rest of the run is sold out. However, a very limited number of standing room only tickets will be sold for select shows on the day of the show. One ticket per person when purchased in person from the Ticket Office. The Ticket Office opens at 12:00 noon.
Theater companies are forever trying to find new ways to make Shakespeare "accessible" to modern-day audiences. The most recent example is the highly entertaining and inventive, but emotionally benign, adaptation of THE TEMPEST now enjoying a sold-out run at the A.R.T. in Cambridge, Mass.
Featuring a trimmed-down script by Aaron Posner, the magic of Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, and the movement of Matt Kent (Pilobolus), this carnival-inspired take on Shakespeare's tale of vengeance, love and redemption offers many pleasures. Tom Nelis as the exiled Duke Prospero and Nate Dendy as his spirit servant Ariel perform mind-boggling parlor tricks and feats of prestidigitation that earn their own rounds of applause. A four-piece band led by the bluesy vocals of Miche Braden and Shaina Taub bring new, wry airiness to nearly a dozen of Waits' gritty, melancholy songs. The genius of Pilobolus' gravity-defying acrobatics transforms the ambiguous man-monster-slave Caliban (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) into a rough and tumble pair of seemingly conjoined twins whose staccato-styled stereophonic speech conjures spirits from another world.
In fact, everything about this version of THE TEMPEST looks, sounds, and feels otherworldly, from Daniel Conway's eerie shipwreck/slash/circus-tent set to Paloma Young's weather-beaten, character-driven costumes. The effect is Lost meets Coney Island, combining the enchantment of a remote isle with the honky-tonk theatrics of a traveling sideshow.
So why does the swirling storm of power, betrayal and revenge at the center of this beautifully staged production never seem to reach its emotional crescendo? Perhaps because the stakes just don't seem high enough for Nelis's Prospero, an omnipotent wizard and master of ceremonies who holds the fate of the play and all of its players in his threatening hands.
Set adrift at sea with his then three-year-old daughter Miranda by his brother Antonio and King Alonso of Naples, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, has spent the past 12 years plotting his retribution, surviving on a desert island with only his daughter, servant Ariel and slave Caliban for company. When at last the royal ship carrying Antonio, King Alonso, the king's son Ferdinand and brother Sebastian sails nearby, Prospero conjures a violent tempest, shipwrecking all aboard upon his shore.
With Alonso and Ferdinand each thinking the other is dead, Prospero uses fantastical spells and eerie illusions to set a complicated chain of events in motion. Ferdinand and Miranda fall madly in love, Antonio and Sebastian scheme against Alonso, and two court musicians, Stephano and Trinculo, conspire with an inebriated Caliban to kill Prospero and take over the island themselves. Power is all that any of these miscreants want, and in the end Prospero uses his ultimate supremacy to thwart and, finally, forgive - thus setting everyone, including himself, free.
As Prospero, Nelis has the necessary mystical air about him, but he seems weary from the outset instead of hungry for blood. His sudden decision then to choose mercy over vengeance seems hollow as a result. Dendy as his faithful servant Ariel fares much better. His desire for freedom burns from the inside out and gives his gossamer obedience a taut, unspoken resistance. He also executes Teller and magic designer Johnny Thompson's remarkable sleights of hand with grace and supernatural ease. His timing is also impeccable, never disrupting a scene's flow and always enhancing Shakespeare's prose.
There are several other standouts in this cast, too, who illuminate THE TEMPEST in ways this reviewer has never seen before. The Caliban of Eisenstat and Minniefee, working in animated tandem with Eric Hissom and Jonathan M. Kim as Stephano and Trinculo, demonstrate with great physicality the symbiotic relationship between one's inner good and evil. Similarly, they illustrate through parallel staging how one's thoughtless actions can turn a man into a monster and one's penitent deeds can turn a monster into a man. Directors Aaron Posner and Teller and choreographer Matt Kent are at their very best here. They mine the subtle complexities lurking beneath the surface of Shakespeare's patented villain and fools.
Joby Earle and Charlotte Graham are also delightful surprises as the innocent lovers Ferdinand and Miranda. Choosing fresh-faced naïveté over passionate sincerity, they wring unexpected laughs out of their spirited encounters. They create a jubilant mix of guilelessness and pheromones that give their whirlwind love-at-first-sight courtship genuine hope for the future.
With haunting music, logic-defying magic tricks, and stunning visuals that linger long after the final curtain, the A.R.T.'s TEMPEST is a pleasure - for novice and seasoned theater goers alike. It may not offer sufficient fear and danger, or the most penetrating emotional insights into Shakespeare's final bow, but it does entertain. Borrowing from the title of one of Tom Waits' most successfully re-arranged songs, this TEMPEST is full of "Shiny Things."
PHOTOS: Tom Nelis as Prospero and Nate Dendy as Ariel; Zachary Eistenstat and Manelich Minniefee as Caliban; Tom Nelis, Nate Dendy, and Charlotte Graham as Miranda; Jonathan M. Kim as Trinculo, Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, and Edmund Lewis as Stephano; Joby Earle as Ferdinand and Charlotte Graham; the band Rough Magic featuring Shaina Taub and Miche Braden