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There are no less than five productions of The Tempest this late summer in Southern California, a testament perhaps to the durable appeal of the play’s autumnal vision, all promising fresh variations — including no less than two female Prosperos. So perhaps tricking out the play’s fantastical manipulations of the elements and minds of men with stage prestidigitation (masterminded by celebrity co-director and adapter Teller) may not be such an outre innovation.
Indeed, the signal honor of this potentially pandering production, for all its flashy bells and whistles, is that every inserted illusion illuminates the meaning of the play, perhaps not subtly but honestly. It provides a thoughtful reading that makes innate sense, even if it skimps on some of the complexity and depth that Shakespeare plumbs.
Though uniformly regarded as perhaps the most successfully realized of his later romances, The Tempest does rely a lot, especially for modern tastes, on overextended forays into comic relief, which serves to elaborate the contours of the play’s acute portrait of class consciousness. For centuries. there was no more profound dramatic dissection of master-slave relationships that I can think of.
Prospero (Tom Nelis, a founding member of the same SITI Company currently presenting Persians at the Getty Villa) exploits his sprite Ariel (Nate Dendy, in the one truly topflight portrayal) with promises of freedom, and doles out condemnatory justice for the rebellious slave Caliban (monstrously incarnated jointly by Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, with choreographed writhings courtesy of the Pilobolus dance company and its associate director, Matt Kent).
While Teller and his collaborator Aaron Posner have cut judiciously, some prime meat has inevitably been carved away with the fat. For example, the ongoing treachery of Prospero’s usurping brother Antonio (Louis Butelli) and his Neapolitan counterpart Sebastian (Edmund Lewis) has been seriously scanted, undercutting the enormity of the sins against which Shakespeare’s argument for forgiveness above all needs to be measured.
Though what buffoonery remains may be less extensive, Teller and Posner’s careful craft make sure its humor lands. Even so, the lesser weight accorded to the parallel dysfunction of the shipwrecked royals shortchanges the supernatural achievements of Prospero in using his powers to set to right all festering wrongs. In a curious twist, loyal Gonzalo has been regendered as Gonzala, for no apparent reason other than the pleasure of casting the stalwart Dawn Didawick (Eugenia Dobbs in Hart of Dixie).
The magical gags begin with canonical card dexterity executed with mischief by Ariel before the action starts and culminate with an unimpeachable levitation of Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham) upon her betrothal to his enemy’s son Ferdinand (Joby Earle). Teller (and designer Johnny Thompson) apply their connoisseurship of conjuring to perfect the execution of the effects for maximal bewilderment even to practiced eyes.
Songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan — accomplished pastiches of sub-Weill-Brecht pungency, performed with the bite of only voice and rhythm instruments (save for a sort of glass harmonica) by the ensemble Rough Magic — manage precisely to set mood and tone. Purely as commercial entertainment, Shakespeare would doubtless have approved.
Though all the innovations seem inspired, it would have been even more impressive had the fundamental elements of the masterpiece been as sensitively attended to. Oddly cast, more rangy than regal, Nelis speaks the poetry well enough and carries himself more convincingly as a stage wizard than as a master of the elements of nature. (One cannot help but remember the aggrieved irony and transcendent grace of our greatest local Prospero, Roscoe Lee Browne.)
Certainly there can be greater riches mined from this frequently sublime play. Nevertheless, Nelis’ rendition of the final speech — which, in its wisdom that what matters most in life must be to abjure all rancor and grudge for generosity of soul, may possibly be the finest of all of Shakespeare — here proves every bit as transporting as in many a better production of The Tempest. The Bard wrote a great closing soliloquy to his career, and Teller & Co. fulfilled the primary task of making it ring true.
Songs: Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, performed by Rough Magic (Miche Braden, Joel Davel, Liz Filios, Matt Spencer)
Choreography: Matt Kent, Pilobolus
Set designer: Daniel Conway
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Carles Coes and Darron L West
Magic designer: Johnny Thompson
Music direction: Miche Braden
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