A reimagined production uses sleight-of-hand and other tricks to achieve real magic.
The new production of The Tempest running at Chicago Shakes pulls off a neat trick. Rather, it pulls off several. The eclectic creative team behind the show—co-adapted and directed by Aaron Posner (writer of Stupid Fucking Bird) and Teller (the silent half of comic magic duo Penn & Teller), using songs by Tom Waits and with choreography by dance collective Pilobolus—has had me intrigued since its debut at Cambridge, Massachusetts’s American Repertory Theatre last year.
Newly staged on Navy Pier with a mix of actors from the A.R.T. production and newcomers (many Chicago-based), Posner and Teller’s Tempest is set in a world somewhere between sea shanty and steampunk, with Larry Yando’s Prospero inspired by a Depression-era traveling illusionist. Neatly trimmed, fast paced and with fascinating arrangements of Waits’s songs performed by an onstage band, this rethinking is a near perfect storm.
The production cleverly integrates Teller-designed illusions that tend toward the old-school, appropriate matches for Daniel Conway’s set design, which suggests a crumbling vaudeville theatre. Yando’s Prospero wears a tattered tailed jacket that looks like it’s been through multiple shipwrecks. The spirit Ariel, played by actor-magician Nate Dendy as a kind of hybrid of Star Trek android Data and Teller himself, specializes in dazzling card tricks—pointedly performed in a costume that lacks sleeves.
The Pilobolus involvement becomes clear in the conception of Prospero’s slave Caliban, who’s played by two performers, Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee. The pair twist and twine around each other in ways that suggest a shapeshifter, often speaking Caliban’s lines in unison as if to underline his dual nature as man and monster.
As Miranda, Prospero’s daughter, Eva Louise Balistrieri can slightly overemphasize her character’s guilelessness in early scenes with her father. But she and Luigi Sottile, who makes an unnervingly handsome Ferdinand, find both sincerity and comedy in their young lovers’ instant connection.
From the musicians (collectively and cleverly referred to in the program as “Rough Magic”) to the flawlessly executed tricks, this Tempest can be so visually and aurally absorbing you almost forget to pay attention to the words. This is especially true in a side-plot scene between Caliban and the comic-relief characters Trinculo (Adam Wesley Brown) and Stephano (Ron E. Rains), in which a talking handkerchief literally upstages plot machinations. But go in with your full attention at the ready. The illusions may be impossible, but the magic is real.
Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; one intermission.