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‘The Tempest’ Review — Stage Magic Worthy of the Bard

By Leanne Star

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Larry Yando as Prospero and Eva Louise Balistreiri as Miranda

Magic is at the heart of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” Prospero, the deposed and enisled Duke of Milan, conjures up the play’s titular storm to lure his usurping brother Antonio and his shipmates in for punishment. Prospero’s sorcery is powerful enough to levitate his daughter Miranda as if she were sleeping on a cloud, and his spirit servant Ariel executes equally impressive feats of wizardry and legerdemain in Shakespeare’s late romance. But as central as magic is to “The Tempest,” most productions honor the magic more as allusion than illusion.




“It puzzles me that so few productions use stage magic to depict Prospero’s powers,” notes Teller (Penn Jillette’s “silent partner” in comedy and magic — Teller’s first name, Raymond, seems to have disappeared) in the program for Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s mind-blowing production of “The Tempest” on Navy Pier, that enchanted peninsula of entertainment.



'Tempest' directors Aaron Posner & Teller (photo by Bill Burlingham)


Helen Hayes and Barrymore Award-winning director and playwright Aaron Posner and Teller have joined their considerable talents to adapt and direct a “Tempest” like none before, with astonishing feats of magic that infuse the words of the Bard with ripe meaning. The production is based on beta versions tested in Las Vegas and Boston, but it comes fully to life on the combo proscenium-thrust stage of the Courtyard Theater at Chicago Shakes, regularly sprinkled with pixie dust by artistic director Barbara Gaines.




Magic is not the only art that enhances this “Tempest.” Music and movement coax out the nuances of the text as well. Songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan mix blues with ballads, the tunes and lyrics soulfully advancing the story. Choreography by Matt Kent of Pilobolus, the ever-avant-garde American dance company, infuses the production with a physicality too often suppressed in presentations of Shakespeare.


Nate Dendy makes card magic as Larry Yando watches


The magic begins before the first lines are spoken. At the edge of the stage Nate Dendy mimes card tricks with audience members, who see that Dendy has nothing up his sleeves, because he has no sleeves, only a vest that reveals his bare arms. Dendy, an actor and a professional magician, goes on to give voice to the Ariel of Shakespeare’s dreams, bewitching and affecting, no more so than when he asks Prospero, “Do you love me, master?”



Larry Yando and Eva Louise Balistreiri in foreground, with Nate Dendy and Rough Magic ensemble looking on


Larry Yando answers that question after an exquisite pause. Yando is a master of exquisite pauses and superb in the role of Prospero, as this versatile Chicago actor is so many roles.



Larry Yando with Caliban: Manelich Minniefee on top; Zach Eisenstat bottom


Dendy and Yando play off of a capable cast. Prospero’s adopted slave Caliban, the subhuman son of an evil witch, is usually portrayed as a monster fueled solely by id. In this production, Caliban is something more. Two gymnastic actors (Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) move as one two-headed creature, propelling one another across the stage like tumbleweed in the signature style of Pilobolus.



Adam Wesley Brown (left) and Ron E. Rains (right) with Manelich Minniefee & Zach Eisenstat


Lawrence Grimm is well cast as Prospero’s traitorous brother, Antonio: Grimm’s voice and bone structure seem to have emerged from the same gene pool as Yando’s. Barbara Robertson as Gonzala, John Lister as Alonso, and Michael Aaron Lindner as Sebastian all bring the requisite gravitas to their roles, while Ron E. Rains and Adam Wesley Brown provide comic relief — and musical chops — to their roles as court minstrels. Rough Magic, the “spirit band” that plays on a platform above the stage is beautifully styled by Bethany Thomas, Liz Filios, Ethan Deppe and Jake Saleh.




That leaves the lovebirds, Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter Miranda and Ferdinand, Alonso’s son. Eva Louise Balistrieri reaches too far beyond adolescence into childhood as Miranda, but her performance ripens when she is paired with Luigi Sottile’s dreamy Ferdinand.



Nate Dendy floats a crown over Liuigi Sottile's head


The magic never stops coming and never fails to surprise. From a simulated drowning to a floating crown to players who lean forward at impossible angles (magic design by Johnny Thompson), Posner and Teller’s “Tempest” engages the audience in Shakespeare’s text at a visceral level.




This “Tempest” will appeal to theatergoers of all ages and inclinations, and it is sure to sell out. Too bad Chicago Shakes doesn’t have room for groundlings.




Photos: Liz Lauren






The Tempest


Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave.


Through Nov. 8, 2015


Tickets $48–$88 ($20 for patrons under age 35) 312-595-5600 or Chicago Shakespeare Theater


Published on Sep 19, 2015

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