The Tempest, thought to be one of the last plays written by William Shakespeare, is one of his most often reinterpreted. A new adaptation by wordsmith Aaron Posner and slight-of-hand master Teller (of Penn and Teller), who also co-direct, brings the themes of perception, manipulation, and illusion to the forefront. It is the magic of theater fully visualized.
The story swirls around Prospero whose evil brother, Antonio, has usurped his position as Duke of Milan. Now living on an enchanted island with his teenage daughter, Miranda, Prospero has become a powerful magician served by an able spirit, Ariel. The only other inhabitant of the island is Caliban, the vengeful misshapen son of a witch who feels the island is rightfully his. Fate has brought Antonio’s ship close by, and Prospero whips up a storm. With Ariel’s help, Prospero grounds the vessel and scatters those aboard onto the shore. This proves to be the first step in his plan to regain his position and give his child the life she deserves. If Ariel performs his tasks well, Prospero promises to free him and bury the book of spells forever.
Playwright Posner has done a skillful job of trimming the sprawling plot and making visible some aspects of the text that are more often just implied. In the beginning, he illustrates long narrative passages by bringing the relevant people on stage to act out the descriptions. This technique not only makes the play even more engaging, it helps newcomers keep straight the myriad characters and their interconnections.
The circus-like atmosphere of the island — complete with grotesques of all sorts— is also made bolder by the first-rate cast. Prospero (Eric Hissom in tumbling waves of anger, love, and self-awareness) is presented as a cross between a magician and a carnival ringmaster, with a wand rather than his customary staff. Several traditional magic tricks are woven into the production, with the most gasp-inducing being a transformation of Prospero’s own costume. Teller’s influence is most notable in the rendering of Ariel (a uniquely suited Nate Dendy) as soft of tone and palette, with quick hands and a mischievous nature. Caliban’s twisted essence is portrayed by two intertwined muscular actors (the awesome pair of Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers) whose menacing limbs and animistic movement were choreographed by Matt Kent and Renée Jaworsk of the revolutionary dance company Pilobolus. Two roles — the compassionate counselor Gonzalo (a stately Naomi Jacobson) and the delusional drunkard Stephano (a winking Kate Eastwood Norris) — have been gender flipped which deepens certain aspects of their characters.
Posner and Teller have surrounded themselves with a creative team that brilliantly supports their special take on this classic. The scenic design by Daniel Conway inventively blends painted backdrops framed in old-fashioned footlights with elements of a ship’s rigging. The bluesy music of Tom Waits has been substituted for the songs from Shakespeare’s time, supplying a moody soundtrack that is vibrantly interpreted by Kanysha Williams and Lizzie Hagstedt as “goddesses” Juno and Iris. (A third god, Saturn, usually played by Ian Riggs, was absent from the performance I saw.) Andre Pluess’s sound design also incorporates critical musical effects that emphasize the action. In addition to the men’s dapper suits, costume designer Sarah Cubbage has given Miranda (an exuberant Megan Graves) practical loose fitting overalls and outfitted the crooning Iris with an eye popping red bustier.
It’s thrilling to see the dreamy and poetic aspects of The Tempest translated into spellbinding visual imagery. The live production at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre (4545 East-West Highway) is sold out, but streaming tickets are still available making the play accessible to a wider audience. The simple three camera production can only be streamed from the Round House site, but the Vimeo platform is stable on most browsers and the sound quality is high even on a laptop. (Nice size captions are also available.) Runtime of the recording is 2 hours and 10 minutes, which makes for clean storytelling. Tickets must be purchased no later than January 29 by calling 240.644.1100, ordering online at RoundHouseTheatre.org, or visiting the Round House box office. On Demand access will be available until February 12.