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Los Vegas takes over Shakespeare's Tempest at the A.R.T.

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The Tempest at the American Repertory Theatre, Harvard U

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If you are looking for an airy-fairy classical version of The Tempest delivered in a sonorous British accent, with nymphs dancing ballet to the lute and harpsichord, Ariel reclining in a cowslip’s bell, minuet music, and the niceties of British theatre, don’t go to the A.R.T.’s production adapted by Aaron Posner and Teller! Las Vegas has raucously colonized the Bard and with a sleight-of-hand brought him to Cambridge featuring Shakespeare as a charlatan illusionist full of card tricks, circus freaks, disappearing and levitation acts, with plenty of shell games; add in a bit of Showboat with an African American Lotte Lenya rasping the blues with a Kurt Weill irony, some memories of Liza Minnelli’s Cabaret, Bob Fosse characters lithely climbing the ropes and ballast of a stunning set, - all this as backdrop against a rewritten script, and you have the brilliant playwright’s farewell to arms. Oh yes, there’s a bit of the old morality play that birthed the theatre from the loins of the church, with good and evil clearly demarked and sermons on a pinnacle of tongues. So if this appeals to you, read on.

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Even before the curtain rises, (oh wait, there is no curtain because illusion is a character in this presentation) the set designed by Daniel Conway is a statement of the theme. It’s a slice of riverboat entertainment with the top deck for boatswains and captains, the under top deck is a cabin, stage center, holding the musicians and singers who also become an audience for the show, and below that is the stage within the stage, much like the stages in the bowels of a cruise ship. Here is where the characters, like the seven deadly sins in teaching dramas, are introduced and where the heart of illusion lies, and where our willing suspension of disbelief turns to surprise and awe mingled with pity and terror.

The prologue is music by a newly formed group called Rough Magic, after a quote from the Tempest, and ushers in new songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan reminding us of everyone’s grim and ultimate fate: We’re all going to be “just dirt in the ground.” This forecasts the finale with Prospero giving up his magic. Even though he regains his dukedom formerly absconded by his treacherous brother, the ending is much more melancholic with Teller’s signature silence creeping into the intervals between speech and action and extending the unraveling. This mood prevails and makes the promised act by Prospero to break his wand, hide his magic book, and have every third thought ponder on the grave, more darkly suicidal than an act of acclimatizing to a more normal life of elderly wisdom. The slow build of mood made Ariel’s last act of dressing his master much more poignant, omitting Ariel’s freedom song. In spite of all, this the play is still a treat for the eyes and a surprise in every magic trick.

Prospero’s early entrance as a shabby handsome Houdini is elegant and poised, but occasionally individual mikes for each actor would have enhanced the subtle language. When Ariel asks: “Do you love me master?” Tom Nels response should have been felt in the back row to magnify Prospero’s growing affection for the deus ex machina of his unfolding plot. Nels brings a majesty to his presence as he dispenses justice to the cast of characters he has assembled to teach them a lesson and regain his former title.

Nate Dendy is no winged sprite but a white face version of Teller himself, walking intently with a focused gaze, his elbows glued to his hips like a straight man in a two man routine. His magic is in the illusion of cards, a very deft and eye-catching device, as were his many feats of magic.

Caliban, his lowly counterpart, played with one voice by the faux Siamese twins Zahcary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, was full of acrobatics and horseplay. This emphasis on freakishness took some getting used to and ranged from distracting to riveting, but was a reminder of the circus this production encompassed. This invention called for some script rewriting, especially when Stephano a drunken musician from Alonso’s court was describing how many legs he saw under a cover hiding with Trinculo his buddy. Shakespeare wrote there were four legs and the directors made them six. This “Mutt and Jeff” coupling of friends was an ingenious bit of casting and quite entertaining.

Miranda has the stance of innocent nobility except when she pleads too much; the romantic scenes are a hoot in cooperation with Joby Earle as Ferdinand whose voice skillfully pitches into the high octaves of a choirboy when he is anxious and afraid. Together they enact the comedy of errors in two unschooled lovers, the klutz and the naïf.

Feminists will be even more pleased since the casting of Helen Mirren as Prospera at the selection of a woman to council the king of Naples now named Gonzala, the faithful friend to Prospero whose tears would touch of the heart of Ariel, were he human.

Would Shakespeare have objected to the many rewrites, that some consider updates? Everyone knows that theatre is a collaborative process as ancient plays are dressed in contemporary robes. We could well imagine Will, like Steven Colbert at his writer’s meetings, conjuring up the punch lines and themes of his last presentation. Both Will and Steven always question how to play to the gut and emotion of the theatre goers in the pit. Both Colbert and Shakespeare specialize in pratfalls, jokes about farts and penises, which rifle through their brilliant turnabout dialogue. However, in the Teller and Posner version flying airy spirits of Iris, Ceres, Juno, Nymphs and Reapers have been replaced by dark anonymous stagehands in tuxedos with crows’ heads with their feet heavily on the ground and reminiscent of the birds’ head Jewish characters of the 12th century Passover Haggadahs. Darkness always does get the attention of the audience. These rewrites and impresario stage directions do illuminate the text when the magic fits and dramatizes, but sometimes a levitation or disappearing act really just illustrates Teller’s love of magic (and his skill). Either way the tricks work because the text describes Shakespeare’s view of the theatre as the stuff of dreams and make belief, which has the power to soften us, and change even evil into the need for forgiveness. Ariel does empower compassion in the raging Prospero dwelling on the treachery of his brother. Teller has dreamt of being Propero and many of the characters including the Rough Magic singers talk about their dreams. Many folk may have dreamt (innocent as the singers claim) that Teller would one day speak. A silent magician is a twirk on the abracadabra mantra of magicians, whose original Hebrew read: “aber c’adaber,” which means I will create with words. Here in this version of the Tempest, Teller finally speaks and at length with much meaning.

Don’t miss this one-of-a-kind statement about the nature of drama as life changing.

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