Theatrical Review: The Tempest by South Coast Repertory

Last Sunday, my wife Lisa and I had the pleasure of catching the South Coast Repertory production of The Tempest in Costa Mesa, CA. Now The Tempest holds a pretty special spot in my heart, as it was the first major Shakespeare I ever saw, a magical production with Anthony Hopkins as Prospero at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles back in 1978; I’ll talk about that show more when we get to that play at the end of this project, but suffice to say it was a seminal moment in my love of Shakespeare.

The Tempest is a tough play to pull off. It deals with magic, and how to convey that on stage? It’s not easy. It often comes off as overly solemn or worse, cheesy. The earlier production began with a piece of stagecraft that set a magical tone (especially to this fifteen year-old) and then used that initial shock to carry the play. This production takes a different tack, however. Prospero is a magician, so why not show magic? Real magic (if that’s not an oxymoron).

And thus, this production is directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn & … ), and presents multiple illusions on stage, presented not only by Prospero, played by Tom Neils, but also by his Ariel, played as a combination of magical assistant, sleight-of-hand carny, and sprite by Nate Dendy. Staged as a kind of carnival side-show, as an audience, we watch not only the play, but also a magic show. When the characters refer to music of the spheres, we hear live music, in this case songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (and performed onstage by Rough Magic).

Magical, too, is the presentation of Caliban, who is supposed to be a monster, but in most productions comes off as a guy in a suit or body paint. Here, however, Caliban is played by two actors, Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, speaking at times in unison, at others in split lines, but always creating a single body, with choreography by the modern dance company Pilobolus. It’s a wild physical creation mutating with every movement.

The performers are all solid, beginning with the above-mentioned, but extending through a female Gonzala (Dawn Didawick), a relatable Miranda (Charlotte Graham), and a more-comic-than-usual Ferdinand (Joby Earle). The clowns, too, are well done with Eric Hissom’s Stephano coming off as some madcap mix of Jack Nicholson and Tom Waits.

The script has been cut judiciously, allowing for the additional illusions and songs to be added to the play, but still running just a little over two and a quarter hours, including intermission. Thus, the play rolls along at a quick clip, combining laughs, magic, music and real pathos.

Maybe it’s because I’m writing this in the first blush after seeing the play, but this may be my favorite stage production of Shakespeare seen. Ever. It works on so many levels, taking the play beyond its text but keeping its spirit intact. My only hope is that they record it for a DVD release, so that more people can see it.

It’s that good.

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