I'd describe myself as a casual fan of Shakespeare -- make that very casual -- but I was transfixed by the presentation. As with any of his plays, the language, replete with "methinks," "haths," "thous," and a steady barrage of other baroque, archaic words, can be a bit dense and off-putting, But thanks to an overlay of magical illusions, music from the songbook of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, some astonishing choreography, and other welcome additions, The Tempest is accessible while remaining true to the Bard's spirit.
By depicting some very strange events occurring on the magical isle he conjured and presenting the wizardly magician Prospero as his central character, Shakespeare certainly focused on magic for his final play. It's unlikely, however, that there has ever been a production of The Tempest so steeped in the peculiar and wonderful entertainment form. Familiar (but nonetheless astounding) stage magic tropes such as a levitating woman, an assistant's head seemingly detached and reattached to his body, and one character instantly disappearing and transforming into another, are seamlessly woven into the presentation.
The illusions are not presented in the style of contemporary, slick Vegas magic shows, such as Penn and Teller's own longstanding Sin City residency, nor do they hark back to the Bard's era. Instead, they appear to have been appropriated from a Depression-era sideshow. The stage, with its old-timey scrims, strings of lights, and carousel horse reinforces the carnival vibe as do the Tom Waits tunes performed by the talented "Rough Magic" combo. The Dust Bowl interpretation of Shakespeare, with its logic-defying magic strewn throughout, comes off as a glorious fever dream -- perhaps the very dream, now come true, that Teller had many years ago.
Speaking of fever dreams and defying logic, two actors/dancers who appear to be conjoined depict the monster Caliban. Choreographed by the dance troupe, Pilobolus, they tumble together across the stage, balance precariously on one another, and perform other scene-stealing, surprising feats. Nate Dendy, the actor who portrays the spirit/servant Ariel is also otherworldly and steals his share of scenes. A trained sleight-of-hand magician, he does amazing things with playing cards, and moves with a lithe sense of grace.
The A.R.T. has been remarkably successful recently bringing its productions, such as the revivals of Pippin and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, to Broadway and Tony acclaim. There is plenty of buzz, rightfully so, that The Tempest could be Broadway-bound as well. I'm glad that I got a chance to see it during its Cambridge run -- and you would too. Get thee to the Harvard University theater for a wildly entertaining, wholly satisfying, and thought-provoking evening of theater before the play magically disappears.
Photo: American Repertory Theater