Illusions so mystifying that you’ll give up even trying to figure out “how they did that.” Original songs by a Rock-&-Roll Hall of Famer performed by a live R&B/Alternative Pop band. Direction that makes adjectives like “imaginative” or “ingenious” or “inspired” seem tame. Performances and production design to match. All of these combine to make Aaron Posner and Teller’s touring adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest a must-see even for those might never wish to sit through another The Tempest again.
Following sold-out runs in Boston and Las Vegas, the American Repertory Theater/Smith Center-created production now arrives at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory for its only Southern California engagement, one likely to dazzle Shakespeare lovers and haters alike.
Posner, the playwright whose My Name Is Asher Lev and Stupid Fucking Bird have recently concluded smash L.A. runs, and Teller, half of the genius illusionist team of Penn & Teller, have streamlined Shakespeare’s text (the whole thing runs about two hours plus an intermission) the better to make room for all the extras that set this Tempest apart from any others.
The plot remains the same, and when characters start conversing in iambic pentameter, the language can still whoosh over heads more accustomed to contemporary vernacular (particularly in a draggy, dimly lit mid-Act One sequence, but Shakespeare’s tale of a betrayed Duke-turned-sorcerer (Tom Nelis as Prospero), his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham), and a fairy servant (Nate Dendy as Ariel) stranded on an otherwise deserted island remains as audiences have known it for the past four hundred or so years.
The live tableaux that illustrate Prospero’s soliloquy on how he and his companions ended up islanded together are just one of directors Posner and Teller’s imaginative touches. So is an opening sequence that includes the apparent drowning of Prince Ferdinand (Joby Earle), head forcibly submerged so long in a bowl of water that you’d think a new actor would be needed each day to take the place of his deceased predecessor.
Songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (vocalized by voluptuous soul diva Miche Braden and platinum blonde songstress Liz Filios) are another reason audiences have cheered The Tempest’s Boston and Vegas runs.
So is the production’s striking choreography by Matt Kent and Pilobolus, a breathtakingly original dual performance by the pretzel-entwined Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee as the villainous Caliban, and the cleverly mismatched duo of Eric Hissom and half-his-size Jonathan M. Kim as comic-relief musicians Stephano and Trinculo.
Still, if audiences who’d never set foot in London’s Globe Theatre (or attend a summer Shakespeare-In-The-Park even free of charge) are flocking to see this Tempest, it is first and foremost for its magic (designed by Johnny Thompson), myriad feats of illusion defying any attempts at logical explanation.
The nifty trick of seeing playing cards appear quite literally out of nowhere, there being no sleeves up which Dendy’s Ariel can hide them, will likely have you as stumped as it did this reviewer. Even more astounding is seeing Dendy’s head make 360-degree turns that could teach The Exorcist’s Regan a thing or two, and as for his torso getting all twisted up like a towel being wrung dry, well your guess as to how it’s done is as good as mine.
Finally, it wouldn’t be an evening of illusions without a levitation, and The Tempest has a veritable pièce de résistance lined up when a hoop is passed from head to toe down the entire length of Miranda’s body making it clear that nothing whatsoever is holding her supine form feet above the ground.
Performances are uniformly stellar, with special snaps to Graham for making Shakespeare sound downright conversational. Nelis, Louis Butelli (Antonio), Edmund Lewis (Sebastian), and Antaeus Company members Dawn Didawick (Gonzala) and Mike McShane (Alonso) all speak their speeches quite trippingly on the tongue, and if handsome romantic lead Earle plays Ferdinand as one-half of Dumb And Dumber, it’s most likely just a curious directorial choice.
Hissom and Kim could easily give the best stage-and-screen comic duos a run for their money, and as for the lean-muscled-&-loin-clothed Eisenstat and Minniefee, their extraordinary Caliban is not only joined at the hip (and prone to an endless variety of interwoven contortions), the pair’s mostly simultaneous line delivery is in pitch-perfect sync.
Last but not least is the charismatic Dendy, seen previously at SCR as The Fantasticks’ boyishly cute, magically gifted Wall, his feats of prestidigitation every bit as stunning as his acting chops are finely honed.
Perched above the action throughout the show are “spirit band” Rough Magic (Braden, Joel Davel, Filios, and Matt Spencer), who bring the production’s distinctively Waits-ian tunes to vibrant life, with Ariel understudy Christopher Rose completing the cast as Minion.
The Tempest’s carnival-like setting is brought to vivid life by a crème-de-la-crème New York production design team made up of scenic designer Daniel Conway, costume designer Paloma Young, lighting designer Christopher Akerlined, and sound designers Charles Coes and Darron L West.
Also receiving deserved program credits are Thom Rubino (magic engineering and construction), Kenny Wollesen (instrument design and “Wollesonics”), and Braden (music direction). Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Katie Ailinger is stage manager.
If ever there was a reason for Angelinos to make the drive down Costa Mesa way, it is The Tempest, though with Scenie winners Graham Hamilton and Jaimi Paige lined up to reignite their Tender Napalm fireworks in the upcoming Venus In Fur, a season subscription to Southern California’s finest regional theater might well be de rigueur.
In the meantime, there is The Tempest.
Trust me. You will not see its like again.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
September 9, 2014
Photos: Debora Robinson/SCR, The Smith Center/Geri Kodey