Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"The Tempest": A New Level of Wonderment

Nate Dendy (Ariel) Joby Earle (Ferdinand), Tom Nelis (Prospero) and Charlotte Graham (Miranda) in The Tempest. Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
A Dust Bowl Prospero

The Dust Bowl, tent-show frame around this Posner-Teller production of The Tempest was inspired in part by the directors’ interest in a magician named Harry Willard, who traveled the American southwest in the first decades of the 20th century performing under the name, “Willard the Wizard.” He was one of several family members who used that stage name, beginning with his father, Jim Willard; but it was Harry who achieved the greatest success, earning a reputation as one of the best magicians of the 20th century.

Traveling tent shows were enormously popular in the first decades of the 20th century, particularly in Texas and Oklahoma, where entertainment wasn’t easy to come by. Most shows featured performances of plays interspersed with vaudeville acts, but Willard the Wizard offered his own, full-length magic show. Tent entertainments fell on hard times during the Great Depression, never recovering in the face of the rising popularity of radio and the talkies.

Of particular interest to Teller and Posner was the fact that Willard’s daughter, Frances, began performing with him at age 6, serving first as his assistant and later becoming a magician and mentalist in her own right. Imagining the life of the father-daughter team, moving from town to town in their own enisled little world, inspired the directors’ visual approach to this production, and led to the choice of songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan to provide an appropriately dusty, bluesy, mysterious soundscape for the world of the play.
Marc Masterson, South Coast Repertory’s artistic director, has been a friend, supporter and collaborator of director Aaron Posner for some 20 years, so when Posner began working with the magician, Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), on a new approach to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Masterson was among the first to hear about it. He followed the development of the project and, when it neared fruition, stepped up to enlist SCR in the consortium of theatres that would offer the production to their audiences.

By that time Posner and Teller had added songs by Tom Waits and movement/choreography by the world renowned Pilobolus dance company to the alchemical mix of their innovative production. The result is a show that re-imagines Shakespeare’s romance while remaining true to the letter and spirit of the original. The story, characters and the language are Shakespeare. The ethos is that of a traveling tent show during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, reinforced by the idiosyncratic, honky-tonk songs of Waits and his partner, Kathleen Brennan (whose lyrics are virtually the only words in the production not written by Shakespeare). Add an assortment of astonishing illusions created by Teller and magic designer Johnny Thompson and the entire enterprise is lifted to a new level of wonderment.

The play begins with the titular storm, conjured by the magician Prospero in order to wreck a passing ship full of hapless men (and, in this production, one woman). Prospero then explains to his astonished daughter, Miranda, why he has taken such drastic action. One of the castaways from that ship is Prospero’s younger brother, Antonio, who made himself the Duke of Milan by usurping the throne from Prospero twelve years earlier—and then cruelly cast Prospero and his little daughter adrift at sea, leaving them to die a watery death.

Prospero (Tom Nelis) blesses the union of Miranda (Charlotte Graham) and Ferdinand (Joby Earle) as Ariel (Nate Dendy) assists. Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey
Prospero and Miranda escaped that fate by washing ashore on the uncharted, inhospitable island that has been their home ever since. Shortly after arriving, Prospero conscripted two of the island’s inhabitants—the spirit, Ariel, and the half-human monster, Caliban—to be his servants, and has spent most of the ensuing years perfecting his mastery of the magic arts. With the arrival of Antonio and his retinue, Prospero has finally been given an opportunity to reclaim what was taken from him so long ago. As the passengers of the wrecked ship straggle ashore in several small groups—all believing the others to be dead—Prospero sets to work on his master plan.

Using magic and illusion he proceeds to stage manage a series of encounters that completely confuse and disorient the various survivors, rendering them vulnerable to his manipulations. But he devotes his keenest attention to the meeting of Miranda and a young man named Ferdinand. The son of Alonso, King of Naples (one of Antonio’s allies), Ferdinand is the first young man Miranda has ever met, and as soon as she sees him she has no desire to meet another; and he is as smitten with her as she with him. Like any concerned father, Prospero keeps a close watch on the couple and their quickly developing love for one another, making certain that Ferdinand has the proper appreciation and respect for his beloved daughter.

Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee as Caliban. Photo: The Smith Center/Gery Kodey
That primary plot-line is paralleled by two others—one serious, one comical—which both involve conspiracies, attempted murder and grabs for power; but Prospero has control of everything that happens on this island. With the help of his spritely servant, Ariel, he engineers a gradual movement towards forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration of the proper order, ultimately showing mercy rather than exacting revenge on the men who wronged him so grievously.

And then he gives up his magic staff and books, says goodbye to the enchanted island that has been his home for twelve years, and prepares to retire to his original home in Milan—where “every third thought shall be my grave.” This being the last play Shakespeare wrote without a collaborator, some scholars have proposed that the poet had his own imminent retirement in mind as he penned Prospero’s final words. He knew he would soon be leaving his own “enchanted” world of the theatre, setting aside his books (scripts that contained their own kind of transformative magic) and returning home to Stratford, where he would live out his final few years in humble retirement.

But if The Tempest can be thought of as Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre, it is more importantly redolent of new beginnings, new hope, redemption and a renewed sense of wonder. Prospero’s every third thought may point towards death, but the play he has conjured celebrates life, and even a kind of immortality—the kind achieved through the perpetuation of love into new generations.

Love and magic are both transformative forces. Both are wondrously alive in this transformative production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

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