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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE TEMPEST
at American Repertory Theater

TRICKED-OUT SHAKESPEARE
By SANDY MACDONALD

  Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis and Charlotte Graham/ Ph: The Smith Center, Geri Kodey

Is Shakespeare’s text so pallid that The Tempest requires a helping of actual Vegas-style magic to hold our interest? That seems to be the message implicit in the version now showcased at the ART, co-adapted and directed by playwright Aaron Posner and the magician Teller (billed as “the smaller, quieter half of Penn & Teller”).

The production packs feats aplenty to marvel at, starting with a prestidigitative albino Ariel (Nate Dendy) fanning cards out of thin air and flicking them into the audience. The apogee occurs when Prospero (striking but aloof Tom Nelis) levitates the newly betrothed Miranda (soulful Charlotte Graham) atop a discomfitingly funereal bier of flowers. Exactly what the latter ritual is meant to denote remains murky. Supplanting the blessings heaped by three goddesses (a bit of Elizabethan pageantry which can admittedly be tiresome), this spectacle follows close upon the vow made to Prospero by the marooned Prince Ferdinand (appealingly nerdy Joby Earle) not to breach Miranda’s maidenhood before marriage. Could this raising of the virgin represent the desert island version of a Purity Ball?

The most novel directorial gambit is the choice to have Caliban portrayed not by a pitiable, misshapen “monster,” but by two pretzeling lookalikes (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minnefee) who speak in unison and, as choreographed by Matt Kent of Pilobolus, gambol about in tandem. Their Siamese-bro antics are great fun to watch but represent an opportunity missed, in terms of emotional impact. Calliban, that loneliest of creatures, should get under our skin, since his pain is one we’re all prey to.

And surely part of the magic Shakespeare had in mind was the power of nature itself – not just the quotidian miracles it offers up, but the way in which it can upend class differences. Daniel Conway’s drab set – a scuttled ship turned music hall, the better to frame dirgelike refrains by Tom Waits – is more a study of nature morte. The penumbral lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind no doubt helps to camouflage the mechanics behind the various visual tricks (every time Prospero extends his magisterial cape, you can count on someone materializing or vanishing), but, like the grim setting, it misserves the play’s essentially life-affirming bent.

“So why did Prospero forgive those people?” I overheard a college student asking as we exited. In the hands of a visionary director and a gifted actor, that “why” is exactly where the real magic lies.

 


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