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The Tempest & Twelfth Night

4/5 starsThe Tempest at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Tina Landau. With ensemble cast. 3/5 starsTwelfth Night at Chicago...

4/5 stars
The Tempest at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Tina Landau. With ensemble cast.

3/5 stars
Twelfth Night at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. By Shakespeare. Dir. Josie Rourke. With ensemble cast.

Taken together, Steppenwolf’s The Tempest and Chicago Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night offer a master class in the elasticity of Shakespeare’s work. Steppenwolf, tackling Shakespeare for the first time, brings out its punkiest bells and whistles. Shakes, working in its wheelhouse, tricks out its own ruffles-and-doublets affair with a giant dunk tank. But each production rises and falls on the strengths of its cast.

Both plays start with a shipwreck. Landau’s Tempest kicks off with gale force. The storm that the magician Prospero whips up to run his enemies aground is rendered with a disorienting, stylized cinematic realism; it’s the last time we’ll see anything remotely literal.

Landau’s production is visually ambitious, if not terribly cohesive. Scenic designer Takeshi Kata strips the stage to bare walls; in this blank space, he deploys an ever-moving array of sheets and masts that suggest the nautical world while serving as canvases for Stephan Mazurek’s bizarrely inconsistent projections. His choices range from subtle and gorgeous, as with the simulated rush of water that accompanies Miranda’s first encounter with Ferdinand, to a jarring sequence illustrating Ariel’s recounting of the shipwreck that unaccountably recalls the video-art aesthetic of the 1980s.

Mazurek’s projections are part of Landau’s kitchen-sink visual approach. The spirit Ariel (Jon Michael Hill) races down zip lines for no particular reason; he’s shadowed by a trio of lesser spirits who, similarly, perform aerial rope tricks in the background just for the heck of it. The director’s tendency for excess is certainly indulged. An otherwise lovely scene, such as Prospero’s masque for Miranda and Ferdinand, with giant tropical flowers magically filling the sky, is disrupted by a wince-inducing 30-second rap song by Ariel. It’s as if Landau just couldn’t stop herself from trying one more thing.

But there’s enough cleverness in Landau’s bulging bag of tricks—from James Schuette’s playful costumes to an entrancing original score by Josh Schmidt—to cut through the chaos. And her smartest choice is making astoundingly good use of the company’s ensemble. Terrific supporting performances by the likes of K. Todd Freeman as the slave Caliban, Yasen Peyankov as doltish drunk Stephano and, most inspired, Lois Smith as wizened royal adviser Gonzalo enliven the far-strewn subplots.

As Prospero, Frank Galati is a presence less raging than calming, the eye at the center of the storm. The force of nature here is athletic, electric Hill, whose Ariel confidently guides the action. The uniformly exceptional cast elevates Landau’s sometimes-messy extravagance above insubstantial pageant.

At Chicago Shakes, meanwhile, it’s everybody into the pool. Rourke’s Twelfth Night suggests its storm by flooding the center of CST’s courtyard stage; amid flashes of lightning, a silhouetted Viola (Michelle Beck) is dunked from the sky to crawl upon the shore—here, a series of wooden decks descending into the water that designer Lucy Osborne extends into an enormous framing heart.

That’s the only time the tank makes narrative sense. For the next three hours, the citizens of Illyria wade and splash—and here’s where Rourke’s and Landau’s sensibilities meet—just because they can, skirts dragging along the water’s surface. It’s a visually appealing gimmick, but gimmickry nonetheless.

Rourke’s production is otherwise almost stridently traditional. The director makes no effort to sex-up the story; nor does the story need it. Viola’s gender-bending masquerade and the numerous romantic mix-ups engendered by it make up one of the Bard’s most pleasant comedies.

Chicago Shakes isn’t officially ensemble-based, but the company’s amassed what could be called a de facto ensemble (Karen Aldridge, for instance, makes her third appearance this season), and it’s in fine form here. Aldridge’s Countess Olivia, the would-be object of Viola/Cesario’s affection, is a welcome reminder of this actor’s comedic finesse. Larry Yando is enjoyably droll as pompous, put-upon Malvolio, and Ross Lehman’s world-weary Feste is a jester with emotional heft. Scott Jaeck’s boozy Sir Toby and Ora Jones’s mischievous Maria are a thoroughly charming pair.

The only weak links among the leads, in fact, are the newcomers. Neither Beck, whose Viola needs to be our way into the story, nor Peterson Townsend, as her look-alike brother Sebastian, appear up to the task of matching their castmates’ comic ease. No matter how they’re dressed, Shakespeare’s texts rely most on the human element.

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