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Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre

Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre

The stunning adaptation has announced an extended run through January 15th, 2023

One thing I've always found to be fascinating is how a good adaptation of Shakespeare not only makes the piece feel relevant and fresh, but can make one feel as though the new interpretation is how the play was always meant to be performed. The ability to so wholly own a known, classic work shows remarkable skill and creativity, and that - and so much more - is clearly on display in Aaron Posner and famed magician Teller's riveting collaboration, The Tempest.

Posner and Teller have worked on this adaptation over the last decade, following a previous collaboration on a magical version of Macbeth. Taking the classic tale and adding magic as a driving element seems especially fitting for The Tempest, where the protagonist, Prospero, is a magician who puts the story's actions into motion through his use of magic. As Posner notes in the playbill, magic in this play is often seen as a metaphor, but Posner and Teller decided to go with a more explicit - and risky - take in which the magic is, well, magic. By utilizing both creative's storytelling abilities and, of course, Teller's well-earned reputation for magical performances, this production of The Tempest pulls off something rather enchanting in its own right.

Quite frankly, the pedigree behind this show (and particularly this production) would be reason enough to see it - with theatrical powerhouses both on and off the stage, it feels guaranteed that this would be an enjoyable performance. But, even with the expectation that names like Posner, Teller Associate Director Holly Twyford, Tom Waits (whose music is featured throughout the show), choreographer Pilobolus, and the all-star cast invoke, this production - the result of another impressive collaboration, between Round House Theatre and Folger Theatre - is an impressive, delightful experience.

Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre
Kevin Mambo (Sebastian), Cody Nickell (Antonio), KenYatta Rogers (Alonso), and Naomi Jacobson (Gonzala) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre.

The Tempest opens with a storm, brought on by Prospero, who was deposed from his dukedom and cast out of Italy with his young daughter Miranda to an abandoned island twelve years before the story takes place. The shipwreck caused by the storm has deposited the King of Naples, Alonso, his son, Ferdinand, and Prospero's brother, Antonio, on the island, and it's clear Prospero has orchestrated this marooning as a means of enacting revenge. With the help of the air spirit, Ariel, Prospero separates Ferdinand from the group; Ferdinand meets and falls in love with Miranda, and, after testing the younger man's character, Prospero accedes to their betrothal. Elsewhere on the island, Caliban, a being enslaved by Prospero, plots against him with the help of the king's drunken baker, Stephano, and cook, Trinculo, with the promise to establish Stephano as the new ruler of the island in exchange for Prospero's removal. Meanwhile, Antonio persuades the king's brother, Sebastian, to kill Alonso for the crown, along with the king's loyal advisor, Gonzala (this character is gender-flipped in this production), citing his own removal of Prospero as a model. Ariel prevents the plot from succeeding, and eventually leads the group to Prospero so he can confront them and enact his revenge. However, when everything comes to a head, and while Prospero punishes those who intended him direct harm, he opts for forgiveness over the vengeance he longed for over the years, telling Ariel, "The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," before reuniting everyone and setting Ariel free.

Such a complicated play, with so many threads and such an abrupt turn from a revenge play to something far more complex, could easily become convoluted, especially when balancing music, choreography, and - of course - the showmanship of magic. But the years Posner and Teller have spent refining this adaptation have paid off, and the result is a tight, entrancing play where magic and music enhance the story and characters rather than compete with them.

Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre
Nate Dendy (Ariel), Megan Graves (Miranda), and Eric Hissom (Prospero) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre.

It helps that those characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented team of actors. Eric Hisson's Prospero commands the audience's attention, and carefully balances the character's qualities - Prospero can often be read as a hero or a villain, but Hisson's performance shows a full, flawed, engaged human, capable of love, hatred, vengeance, and forgiveness. As Miranda, Megan Graves brings a sweet innocence and strong will, and her influence on her father and Ferdinand as well as her own sense of self is lovely to watch blossom. Ro Boddie's interpretation of Ferdinand carries the love, grief, and promise of the young prince, and his relationship with KenYatta Rogers' Alonso was profoundly conveyed even though the two rarely shared the stage, a testament to both actors. Cody Nickell's interpretation of Antonio allowed the character to border on villainous, especially when persuading Kevin Mambo's Sebastian to partake in particularly heinous plots, but neither actor ever allowed the characters to cross over into cartoonish or unbelievable - their performances kept the characters chillingly grounded, making them more alarming threats. Alongside them, Naomi Jacobson, as Gonzala, made a soothing counterbalance as a more thoughtful, compassionate advisor. Richard R. Henry's take on Trinculo was delightful, and played well against Kate Eastwood Norris' phenomenal comedic timing as Stephano.

But, even amidst a stunningly talented cast, there were notable standout performances. Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers portrayed Caliban as a two-headed creature, performing most of their dialogue in stereo and executing complicated choreography as they maneuvered their joined character around the stage. At one point, Muhammad climbs up Sellers' chest, maintaining an impressive balance during such a risky stunt, and the two later manage a flying, spinning dance around the stage, nimbly navigating both the steps and the stage stairs.

Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre
Ryan Sellers (Caliban) and Hassiem Muhammad (Caliban) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre.

The other standout was Nate Dendy, who portrayed Ariel and serves as Magic Consultant for the production. Dendy has played the role in a number of previous productions, and has advised on the magic tricks performed throughout the show. His deft, almost causal execution of tricks is enchanting, but it's the earnest mix of compassion, sadness, and hope that draws the audience's attention. His heartfelt depiction of the air spirit who longs for freedom even as he cares for his master is complex and skillful, and, enhanced by the magic he performs, it's impossible not to anticipate his return to the stage each time he steps off it.

Waits and Shaina Taub's music - performed by the entrancing quartet of Manny Arciniega, Lizzie Hagstedt, Kanysha Williams, and Ian M. Riggs, and directed by Liz Filios - elevates the whole production to another level, adding a siren-like quality to an already engrossing performance. Indeed, the musical interludes created an ethereal atmosphere to the tale, creating a world in which Prospero and Ariel's magic fit neatly.

Offstage is a team that's as impressive as the one on. Posner's direction is careful, deliberate, and enchanting, showing off the skills that have earned him his impressive list of awards and commendations; alongside his style are also touches from Associate Director Twyford, who, like Posner, has worked with a number of the cast members in the past to great acclaim. Teller's influence is likewise noticeable, not just in the magic (coordinated by himself, Dendy, and Johnny Thompson), but also in the storytelling itself. Dramaturg Naysan Mojgani leans into the adaptation eagerly, helping tease out the lines of vengeance and forgiveness, and helping the audience consider the broader implications of each characters' choices. Daniel Conway's scenic design was immersive and multilayered, reflective of the tale as well as serviceable, and the details (particularly the zodiac painted onto the stage) were impressive and beautiful. Sarah Cubbage's costumes were likewise full of thoughtful, striking details, and fit each characterization perfectly.

Review: THE TEMPEST at Round House Theatre // Folger Theatre
Richard R. Henry (Trinculo) and Kate Eastwood Norris (Stephano) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre.

It would be easy to continue to praise each member of the cast and creative team behind this production. It's clear that a tremendous amount of talent, effort, and care has gone into this telling of The Tempest, and those affiliated certainly deserve the praise. But the summation is this: do yourself a favor and go see this production. Allow yourself to be carried off into this enchanting, beautifully performed and thoughtful tale, especially at a time when we're far too often preoccupied with stilted ideas of right, wrong, and justice. Embrace a story in which the fantastic can help us better understand humanity, and where the idea of past as prologue can fill us with hope for a brighter future.

The Tempest plays at Round House Theatre through January 15th, and is produced in partnership with Folger Theatre. Performance run time is approximately two and a half hours, with one fifteen-minute intermission. Additional information and tickets can be found on the Round House Theatre website.

Photos courtesy of Scott Suchman.

Thumbnail credit: Eric Hissom (Prospero) and Nate Dendy (Ariel) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre.



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