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BWW Reviews: South Coast Rep Triumphs with Enchanting New Vision of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST

Something completely enchanting is happening right now on a stage in Costa Mesa---and to miss it would be such a shame.

To help kick-off the Tony Award-winning regional theater's 51st season in the grandest of style (yet still overabundant in substance), South Coast Repertory is currently staging a remarkable, re-envisioned new take on William Shakespeare's classic play THE TEMPEST, which continues its Southern California premiere performances on the main stage through September 28.

A mesmerizing triumph of creative stagecraft, dazzling visuals, and inventive storytelling, this new take on what many scholars believe to be the final play Shakespeare solely wrote is the high-concept brainchild of co-directors Aaron Posner and superstar magician Teller (the mute half of Penn and Teller, the infamous magician duo). In their version of THE TEMPEST, the play is now incased within the context and moods that recall a Dust Bowl-era traveling magic show, heightening the magical, eye-tricking elements and the vaudevillian silliness synonymous with big-top entertainment.

In addition, this well-received adaptation---a co-production between the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University and the Smith Center in Las Vegas---also weaves in a few haunting songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, magic tricks designed by Johnny Thompson, plus the modern movements and choreography by Matt Kent of the critically-acclaimed dance collective Pilobolus. All combined, this brilliant revisionist's take is a phenomenal theatrical work that adds color and richness to Shakespeare's multi-layered story and dense language (even those normally intimidated by the complexities of Shakespeare's works will find this adaptation absolutely marvelous).

Nate Dendy

And the timing for Posner and Teller's new version of THE TEMPEST couldn't have been more fortuitous. Perhaps it's just me, but I get the sense that there's an ongoing current fashionable trend of magic-izing or circus-izing projects. This new-found appreciation for these antiquated, curiosity-bating showcases of illusion and wizardry have permeated many entertainment properties lately, everything from the recent Tony-winning revival of PIPPIN to the incredible upcoming revival of SIDE SHOW, and, yes, even the upcoming fourth season of American Horror Story (heck, even SCR's own recent production of THE FANTASTICKS was touched).

For THE TEMPEST specifically, Posner and Teller have fashioned a clever backdrop to tell Shakespeare's story of exacting ultimate revenge amidst a blossoming romance: by melding steampunk visuals with Depression-era vaudeville and side show theatrics, all of which are puppeteered under the magical sorcery of its manipulative ringmaster. Despite the play's new (yet still beautifully retro) cosmetic and contextual facelift, this TEMPEST sticks to Shakespeare's sacred text, save for some improvised bits with the audience and, of course, the thought-provoking inclusion of Tom Waits' surprisingly integrated songs performed by the play's "spirit band" called, appropriately enough, Rough Magic.

The tone is set early: even before the play begins, the audience arrives to find a stunning multi-story set designed by Daniel Conway (only slightly downsized from A.R.T.'s), a cross between a long cleaned-up shipwreck and a pieced-together wagon tent-show stage (the traveling "professor" in the sepia-toned Kansas of The Wizard of Oz would feel right at home here, methinks).

Ariel (a fascinating Nate Dendy), Prospero's albino-bright spirit servant, wordlessly reclines atop one end of the stage, shuffling a deck of cards. He then begins to taunt and play with random audience members by tossing a few cards, reacting blankly to the audience's snickers. This guy means business when it comes to his (and his master's) magic.

Liz Filios, Joel Davel, Matt Spencer and Miche Braden.

Slowly, the band Rough Magic---led by gorgeous-sounding vocalists Miche Braden and Liz Filios---appear on the top-most tier of the stage looking down on the action as though they were deities (or, perhaps, muses) providing running musical commentary on the proceedings. They are pitch-perfect folksy, gritty, and bluesy throughout---and I seriously want to buy their album, like, right now.

We are soon introduced to Prospero (Tom Nellis), an authoritative practitioner of the Magical Arts who, with the assistance of his indentured servant Ariel, magically conjures up a turbulent real-life storm via an interesting proxy: placing a folded paper boat in a bowl brimming with violently churned water. (Ariel's servitude, by the way, is predicated with the promise of eventual freedom; hence, Ariel's seemingly immovable loyalty).

Prospero's incantations, of course, have an intentional purpose. The storm he creates forces the capsizing of a traveling ship carrying passengers that include Alonso (Mike McShane), the King of Naples; Alonso's son Prince Ferdinand (Joby Earle); Sebastian (Edmund Lewis), Alonso's brother; Gonzala (Dawn Didawick), a noblewoman of Naples; and, most importantly, the villainous Antonio (Louis Butelli), Prospero's own brother---who twelve years earlier, with the help of King Alonso, usurped the rightful title of Duke of Milan from Prospero, then banished the former Duke and his then young daughter Miranda into the wide open sea.

Mike McShane, Dawn Didawick, Louis Butelli, and Edmund Lewis.

Little does Antonio (and company) know that Prospero---whose magical powers have grown exponentially---and her now lovely, grown-up daughter (Charlotte Graham) have been living fairly well on a secluded island all these years. Naturally, still seething with revenge, Prospero has manipulated their ship to crash into this very same island, scattering the survivors in its rugged shores.

Though thought to have perished during the storm, Ferdinand---purposely separated from the other survivors---becomes instantly smitten with Miranda, much to the trepidation of Prospero. Meanwhile, King Alonso (along with Antonio, Gonzala and Sebastian) search frantically for signs of Ferdinand. Wickedness, apparently, doesn't lessen in times of crisis: with the King distracted by his son's absence, Sebastian and Antonio both see the situation as an opportune occasion to now usurp power from the King. Yep, they're plotting to kill Alonso!

And as one may expect from a show set inside the world of a Dust Bowl-era magic circus, THE TEMPEST includes its very own "freak show" element in the form of the animalistic two-headed slave creature Caliban (played with delightful, flexible scenery-chewing by Zachary Eisentat and Manelich Minniefee), who desires to rebel against his master Prospero with the help of two drunken passengers from the same shipwrecked vessel, Stephano (Eric Hissom) and Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim). Often breaking the fourth wall and walking up and down the theater aisles, the inebriated pair provide additional comic moments with their vaudevillian sensibilities.

Overhead, music and magic intertwine to enchant both the characters and the audience.

Granted, while in previous critiques, I have been vehemently turned off with the use of dazzling, overpowering visuals or theatrical trickery to overcompensate or distract from a show's overtly unforgivable flaws and shortcomings, in this case, the magical and musical embellishments that have been weaved fittingly into THE TEMPEST not only enhance the proceedings, but actually improve on them. The setting and the machinations involved help propel the story and adds elements that fits Shakespeare's conceits quite convincingly.

(Left to Right): Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham,
Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick

The different elements that have been mashed together for this production work seamlessly in harmony to bring about one of the most enjoyable, and, frankly, most entertaining iterations of a Shakespeare classic I have seen staged in a very, very long time. Actually, after seeing this TEMPEST, it's almost difficult to ever try to see this play done in any other way.

Aside from the beautifully distressed period-perfect costumes by Paloma Young, the outstanding scenic design by Conway, and the awesome magic tricks conjured by Thompson, much of THE TEMPEST's rousing cheers should also go to the play's wonderful ensemble cast, particularly maestro Nelis and his scene-stealing boy Friday Dendy (in one jaw-dropping magic trick, Dendy is literally twisted inside a mysterious contraption). Dendy is so intriguing to watch, in fact, that he can even draw one's attention just standing off in the sidelines.

The show's imbedded musicians, too---especially elevated by the ethereal modern-meets-throwback stylings of Braden and Filios---ensnare the audience with each spellbinding musical interlude. And speaking of the music, the soundtrack itself feels organically birthed for the show, using a combination of traditional, modern and uniquely avant garde/everyday objects instruments designed by Kenny Wolleson.

Beautifully bold in its staging, Posner and Teller's extraordinary production of THE TEMPEST approaches the classic with a showman's eye and doesn't look back (well, not much). With its delightful touches of whimsy and magic encircling a deeply soulful center, the play cements itself as one of the most imaginative revivals ever to grace SCR's stage.

Ultimately, I feel slightly bad for any other theater troupe attempting to stage its own version of this classic, only because, frankly, this TEMPEST sets the bar so high that you'll wonder if any other production could surpass the creativity that has come together here.

But, hey, break a leg to you, nonetheless.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ

Top Photo by Geri Kodey/The Smith Center, Las Vegas: Ariel (Nate Dendy) assists Prospero (Tom Nelis) levitate his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham). All other photos by Debora Robinson/SCR.

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Performances of the Southern California Premiere of Aaron Posner and Teller's production of William Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST continue at South Coast Repertory through September 28, 2014. Produced in association with the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University and The Smith Center, Las Vegas.

Tickets can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.


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