Chicago Theater Review: THE TEMPEST (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 18, 2015

in Theater-Chicago

A TRAGICOMEDY WITH TRICKS

Well, why not do The Tempest as a magic show? It comes with Shakespeare’s territory. During the Duke of Milan’s unhappy exile, deposed by his nefarious brother, with only his daughter and two supernatural beings as companions, Prospero has become a sorcerer on an empty island. He’s able to cast spells, stir up storms, inflict curses and blessings, and manipulate an air spirit and a monstrous reptile. So it should be easy for this leveler of mountains and instigator of earthquakes, aided by the deft and swift Ariel (a relative of Puck) and a contortionist Caliban, to invisibly lift and transport objects, make cards and people instantly disappear and reappear, divide bodies into boxes, and switch people and things with impunity. Right?

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That’s the literally tricky premise of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s showy and spectacular take on Shakespeare’s late romance. Normally, The Tempest is the redemptive tale of how Prospero’s desire for vengeance defeats him as much as his enemies: His rage is calmed by the gentle love between his daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, son of his former enemy. Forgiveness seems the best excuse to end his powers and return to the life he was forced to flee. (He only needs to snap his staff and bury his book.) Add a ton of sleight-of-hand, prestidigitation, levitation, and other illusions (many far from irrelevant to the slapstick and shtick built into Shakespeare’s clown scenes)–and this revival mixes up pizzazz with poetry and stunts with sentiment.

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And mostly this Navy Pier staging (there actually was a tempest on opening night!), by award-winning Aaron Posner and famed trickster Teller (of Penn &…), charms without excess gimmickry. Especially in the second half, it honors the Bard’s lyricism as much as it goes for the laughs. Add to the directors’ sure touch some comically convoluted choreography by the dance troupe Pilobolus and several serviceably soulful, country-fried songs by Tom Wait and Kathleen Brennan (played by the four-person “Spirit Band”) and you’ve got 150 family-friendly minutes with something for everyone.

CST_TEMPEST_05_LizLaurenAs always, C.S.T. gives us grand stuff to see (sometimes at the cost of what we should hear): Daniel Conway’s carnival-gaudy set, a cross between a Kurt Weill cabaret and a travelling tent show, teems with playful props, busy curtains, clever trap doors and wizard lighting effects by Thom Weaver. Paloma Young’s vaguely 1930’s costumes, Johnny Thompson’s shocking-and-awesome magic design, and Ray Nardelli’s all-purpose sound design create a fun-house theme park it’s easy to get lost in.

So it’s all the more crucial that commanding thespian Larry Yando anchors Prospero in a magisterial rage that only reluctantly gives way to humanity. (Normally a serene soliloquy, here the “Our revels now are ended” speech seethes with latent rage over the treacherous mutability of human lives and dwellings.) His stern implacability, a force to reckon with, makes the other personages define themselves for and against him. His tempest hardly abates until the end.

CST_TEMPEST_02_LizLaurenFocused if not inspired work comes from Eva Louise Balistrieri as dutiful and devoted Miranda, especially to Luigi Sottile’s dashing and chastened Ferdinand. As the bad guys, Lawrence Grimm and Michael Aaron Lindner writhe with petty ambition, while, klutzy buffoons, Ron E. Rains and Adam Wesley Brown defeat themselves as much as Prospero thwarts their clumsy malice. Barbara Robertson, enjoying the now-female role of “Gonzala,” brings warmth to the kind old socialist courtier who alone remains faithful to his master.

Then we get a debased creature and a spiritual sprite, embodiments of human extremes manifested by Prospero’s casual conjuring. Here it takes two muscular acrobats (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) to enact Caliban, their combined, Siamese twin-like torsos in constant revolution. An astonishingly accomplished illusionist, Nate Dendy’s mercurial, almost miraculous Ariel is a juggling, swirling marvel to watch throughout: His showbiz skills dazzle and delight as much as the Bard could ever dream. Maybe it’s just the old razzle dazzle, smoke and mirrors, son et lumiere–but, clearly, what happens on Prospero’s island stays on Prospero’s island.

CST_TEMPEST_03_LizLaurenphotos by Liz Lauren

The Tempest
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
ends on November 8, 2015
for tickets, call 312.595.5600
or visit ChicagoShakes.com

for more Chicago Theater info,
visit TheatreinChicago.com

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