Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
September 19, 2014
Prospero is a maker of magic. He conjures storms, uses sorcery to stun people into silence or sleep. So it makes perfect sense that a bona fide magician would direct his actions. Teller, of Penn and Teller fame, has co-adapted and co-directed, with Aaron Posner, a magical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” produced by South Coast Repertory, in association with the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University and The Smith Center in Las Vegas.
This pared-down version maintains all the plot-points. A storm brings Italian courtiers to an enchanted island where Prospero and his daughter have lived since his dukedom was stolen by his brother. Now fortune and wizardry have brought friends and foes to Prospero’s isle of exile. He seeks revenge, but instead offers forgiveness – and his daughter’s hand in marriage.
In this meta-theatrical conception, a traveling company relentlessly tries to entertain the crowd. The spirit Ariel, a magnificent, albino-looking Nate Dendy , does nimble, if excessive, card tricks that enlist the audience. Prospero makes his daughter, Miranda, levitate. Heads are apparently lopped off, or spun 360 degrees.
It’s thrilling to look at – and well-spoken by a generally effective ensemble. Complementing the action is the haunting music of Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, performed by the wildly versatile 4-piece ‘spirit band,’ Rough Magic.
Amid the amazement, there are missteps. Casting a woman as the Neapolitan courtier Gonzalo adds nothing. Tom Nelis ’ Prospero is compelling but not commanding. The monstrous Caliban is acrobatically played by two intertwined performers, choreographed by Matt Kent, of Pilobolus dance company , with sometimes creepy contortionist moves. Miranda’s love interest, Prince Ferdinand, is played as a dolt. The comic duo, Stephano and Trinculo , rank among the least comical I’ve seen.
The sum of the parts is entrancing. Some of the parts themselves don’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s not quite the magic of theater; more like the theater of magic. But for a feather-light incarnation of Shakespeare’s final play, that may just work fine.
“The Tempest” runs through September 28 at the South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
©2014 PAT LAUNER