By Colin Douglas
Spinning an irresistible, spellbinding tale of revenge and romance, nestled inside a world of surprise and spectacle, co-directors Aaron Posner and Teller (of the famed magic duo of Penn & Teller) have created a Shakespearean production of The Tempest unlike any other.
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre opens its new season, not just with a bang, but with fireworks a-blazing. It’s a jaw-dropping hybrid of classical drama and Cirque du Soleil, infused with gymnastic choreography, live musical accompaniment and saturated with magic, supernatural creatures and fairy tale enchantment.
Throughout the hocus pocus and abracadabra, however, there lurks in the shadows, rancor, ruthlessness and retribution. Despite all of these elements this production beats with a heart filled with love.
Thought to have been written somewhere around 1610, this romantic comedy is believed to be Shakespeare’s final work, certainly the last play he wrote by himself. Celebrating the Bard’s 400th anniversary, Chicago’s world-renowned theatre company once again surpasses itself with a production that will be talked about for years to come.
Set on an enchanted island in the middle of the ocean dwells Prospero, once the Duke of Milan, now an exiled wizard and the fearsome ruler of this magical archipelago. Twelve years ago he was betrayed by Antonio, his jealous, power-hungry brother, and driven away. Thrown aboard a ship, with only his baby daughter and his magic manuscripts for companionship, Prospero survived the journey. Now he and his 16-year-old daughter Miranda live far from civilization on this tiny cay. Throughout the years Prospero has had but one all-consuming thought: revenge.
Using his magical powers, Prospero commands all the spirits and supernatural creatures on the island. One of Prospero’s most devoted subjects is Ariel, a gentle spirit, capable of performing his own special brand of magic. Ariel devoutly serves his master with the hope that he will someday gain his freedom. Another of Prospero’s slaves is the monster, Caliban, the deformed son of a witch. Caliban hates Prospero and seeks his own revenge.
After Prospero magically causes a tempest to wreck his brother’s ship along the shores of his island kingdom, Ariel rescues one of the drowning youths, Prince Ferdinand, the teenaged son of Alonso, the King of Naples. When Miranda, who has never seen another human being other than her father, discovers the handsome young man, the two instantly fall in love. As King Alonso, his power-hungry brother Sebastian, his counselor Gonzala and Prospero’s brother Antonio wander the island searching for Ferdinand, the sorcerer works his magic on them.
Meanwhile, two other shipwreck survivors, court musicians Stephano and Trinculo, form an alliance with Calaban to overthrow Prospero and take over the island. With Ariel’s influence, Prospero comes to recognize how revenge has soured his view of mankind. He reunites with King Alonso and his court, offering forgiveness to his brother and to Caliban even though they overstepped certain boundaries. The play ends happily, with Miranda and Ferdinand marrying, forgiveness and freedom replacing revenge and enslavement, and Prospero choosing to give up his magical powers.
As a play that’s concerned with its own dramatic nature, the cohesion between Prospero’s art and theatrical illusion is integrated perfectly. It’s also one of the only plays by the Bard that adheres to the dramatic unities of time, space and action, unfolding in real time. The collaborative contributions to this production by Teller, Magic Design artist Johnny Thompson and Magic Engineering expert Thom Rubino can’t be underestimated. Combined with Teller and Posner’s superb adaptation and direction, with their flair for some exciting staging of spectacle and an ability to guide a talented cast toward discovery, this production sizzles with subtle character development and eye-popping brilliance.
The cast is impeccable. Larry Yando, one of Chicago’s master Thespians, is commanding and in full control as Prospero. He’s impressed Chicago audiences before in roles like King Lear, Scar and Ebenezer Scrooge, but his ease with both the magical demands of this production and his portrayal of a bitter, revengeful man journeying toward kindness and redemption is, in this production, stellar. Making his CST debut, Nate Dendy, whose resume is as impressive as his performance, brings an other world quality to Ariel that’s ghostly and quite moving. In one of his subtler, more quiet moments he asks Prospero if his master ever loved him. When he receives no answer audiences will hear empathetic hearts breaking for him all over the theatre. The man’s physical dexterity and slight of hand artistry will make any skeptic believe that this actor is an authentic sorcerer.
Equally impressive for their effortless athletic finesse, as well as their combined emotional portrayal of a Caliban with deep feelings, are Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat. Continually fused together in all kinds of physical manifestations, these two fine actors pull off the impossible, making one being out of two people. It’s an astounding feat, created and choreographed by Matt Kent of the world famous, avante-garde Pilobolus Dance Company.
Also making their CST debut, Eva Louise Balistrieri is winsome, charmingly honest and believable as Miranda, and Luigi Sottile is a funny, charismatic adolescent Ferdinand. The couple’s innocent, but passionate love for each other is the stuff of idealistic romances.
The royal visitors are all strong. Comprised of John Lister,
as King Alonso, Michael Aaron Lindner, as his power-hungry brother, Sebastian, Lawrence Grimm, as Prospero’s villainous brother Antonio, who learns to forgive and forget, and the always delightful Barbara Robertson, as a sympathetic, sweet-natured Gonzala, this quartet provide the necessary antagonism for this adventurous tale.
They’re matched by Ron Rains and Adam Wesley Brown as two bumbling, hilarious court musicians. As the production’s real musicians, the enchantingly talented Bethany Thomas and Liz Filios are joined by Ethan Deppe and Jake Saleh as Juno, Iris, Jove and Mars, collectively called “Rough Magic.” From high above on their balcony stage, these wonderful musicians provide a live musical soundtrack for this mystical, mythical, magical production, drawn from the songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.
From an entrancing, captivating cast, directed with intuition, spirit and flair by co-directors Posner and Teller, to an all-encompassing scenic and lighting design by Daniel Conway and Thom Weaver, this magical production evokes a traveling, Depression era magical medicine show. It dazzles and delights, instructs and moves its audience with this timeless tale of romance, revenge and redemption.
Bedecked with gorgeous costumes by Paloma Young and Rachel Laritz, with wig and makeup design by Melissa Veal, this is a must-see production for every theatergoer, especially those who have decided that Shakespeare is too erudite for their tastes. This is a presentation that delights all the senses with much more than the usual magic to do.
“The Tempest” is presented through November 8 by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, on the Courtyard Stage on Navy Pier. Tickets are available online here or by phone at (312) 595-5600.