Regional Theater Review: THE TEMPEST (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

by Jason Rohrer on September 8, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

Post image for Regional Theater Review: THE TEMPEST (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

MAGICIANS OF THEATRICALITY

Zach Eisenstat, Manelich Minniefee and Tom Nelis in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Geri Kodey.Aaron Posner is on fire right now. His adaptations, My Name Is Asher Lev and Stupid Fucking Bird, are being produced all over the country, and his version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which he co- adapted and -directed with sleight-of-hand artist Teller in Las Vegas and Boston, now resides at South Coast Rep for the next few weeks. To avoid being told about it second-hand, you should see it. To avoid being the one person in your circle not to have seen it, you should see it. To enjoy theater as illuminating, stimulating, transportive entertainment, you should see it.

Nate Dendy in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson-SCR.The Tempest is a famously problematic play, raising more questions than it answers. The tale of a usurped Duke of Milan, Prospero, who has escaped with his daughter Miranda to a desert isle, the script treats (among others) issues of fidelity vs self-interest, heredity vs self-determination, and reality vs illusion. The relationship of Prospero to his servants Ariel and Caliban is questionable: whether he got his uncanny powers from book-study, as he claims, or from Caliban’s mother Sycorax, a conveniently deceased sorceress who used to live on the island; whether Caliban is a foundling or really his son; whether Prospero and Ariel’s connection is more than master and servant: these questions have been asked and answered by many a production. This one, given its Vegasy provenance, wisely narrows its vision to truth vs appearance-of-truth. After Prospero raises a storm to shipwreck his antagonist brother Antonio, King Alonso of Naples, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian upon Prospero’s island, the duke uses tricks of mirror and smoke to dazzle his enemies (and the audience) into subjugation. We are happy to submit.

Cast members of THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson-SCR.Legerdemain, misdirection, and conjuring have never had a better literary excuse for appearing onstage (magic design by Johnny Thompson). Nate Dendy is a marvel as Ariel, acting and prestidigitating with like excellence; posted onstage as the crowd entered for the performance I attended, he managed to steal a playgoer’s watch without her noticing. Tom Nelis, though less often required to perform them as Prospero, likewise executes his tricks of production and levitation with panache. And these marvels of illusion are not randomly or willfully placed; they pretty much always illustrate theme and text, adding to the delight and wonder already invested in the proceedings by that Elizabethan wizard of words who wrote the text.

Liz Filios, Joel Davel, Matt Spencer and Miche Braden in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson-SCR.A wonderful band, Rough Magic, plays songs from Tom Waits’s later catalog on a second level above the action, but good as they are, they’re the least of the smart choices Teller and Posner have made in presenting this play. The entire production is perfectly encompassed by the calliope-carnival tunes of Waits and his muse, Kathleen Brennan; at times, Ariel even bestrides a carousel horse. The attention to detail in broad characterization and narrow interpretation had me in tears at least three times in the second half, when Prospero’s sorcery eventually takes a back seat to the magic inherent in the circumstances. Miranda and Alonso’s son Ferdinand fall in credible, joyous love with not much need of fakery, and when Ariel finally wins his freedom from bondage, the disappointed ambivalence of his expressive jaw was just too much for my composition.

Louis Butelli, Dawn Didawick, Edmund Lewis and Mike McShane in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson-SCR.Also at the packed performance I attended, I finally saw what in all my years of weekend matinees I have dreaded and avoided seeing: a gentleman of advanced years had trouble navigating the multicolored carpet on the steps of SCR’s raked seating, and he fell, cracking his head open on the arm of a seat. In assisting him (I discovered later) I got a little blood on myself. It’s a representational incident that highlights the regional theater’s dependence on old blood for its lifebread. With more visiting productions like The Tempest and the recent mind-blowing excellence of Dominique Serrand’s Tartuffe, a wider net may be cast to ensnare younger audiences.

Nate Dendy, Tom Nelis, and Charlotte Graham in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Geri Kodey.

Also in the cast: Louis Butelli, Nate Dendy, Dawn Didawick, Joby Earle, Zachary Eisenstat, Charlotte Graham, Eric Hissom, Jonathan M. Kim, Edmund Lewis, Mike McShane, Manelich Minniefee, Tom Nelis, and Christopher Rose.

Rough Magic is Miche Braden (also music director), Joel Davel, Liz Filios, and Matt Spencer.

Also on the design and creative team: Daniel Conway, scenic design; Paloma Young, costume design; Christopher Akerlind, lighting design; Charles Coes and Darron L West; sound design; Thom Rubino, magic engineering and construction; Matt Kent of Pilobolus, choreography; Kenny Wollesen, instrument design and Wollesonics; Joshua Marchesi, production manager; and Katie Ailinger, stage manager.

Edmund Lewis, Tom Nelis, Charlotte Graham, Joby Earle, Mike McShane and Dawn Didawick in THE TEMPEST by William Shakespeare at South Coast Rep. Photo by Debora Robinson-SCR.

photos by Debora Robinson/SCR and The Smith Center/Geri Kodey

The Tempest
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
scheduled to end on September 28, 2014
for tickets, call (714) 708-5555 or visit www.SCR.org

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