The Tempest Theatre Review –A Magical “Tempest” Surges and Flourishes in Orange County

Prospero (Tom Nelis, r) casts a spell on Caliban (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee, l)

(Costa Mesa, CA) September 6, 2014 – The creative minds at South Coast Repertory (SCR) have placed themselves into a challenging situation for the beginning of their 2014/2015 season, but it is a situation that all successful regional theater companies could only dream about. SCR’s Golden Anniversary season (2013/2014) was filled with critically acclaimed productions that performed to full houses, marking the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. The question beckons: How does one surpass such a significant milestone? The answer: Bring back The Bard and add some magic to the mix.


Which leads to the SCR season opener of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a mind-blowing theatrical concoction cleverly directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (the quiet one of the Penn and Teller magical duo). It’s been only four seasons since their last Shakespearean production: The hilarious A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Originally produced by the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University, The Tempest takes an assortment of diverse, dynamic ingredients—magic and illusion, a 1930s Dust Bowl traveling tent show setting, and songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan—and mixes them together as though it were a witches brew, resulting in a phenomenal visual and emotional feast for those who love theater, magic, and a simple story about love and forgiveness. Brilliant acting, delicate direction and spectacular magic make The Tempest a profoundly perfect production for SCR as it begins its 51st season.  

Prospero (Tom Nelis) shares his tale with his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham)

Under conventional circumstances, the play would have begun with a tempest conjured by Prospero (Tom Nelis)—the exiled duke of Milan (by profession) and magician (by inclination)—and his spirit servant Ariel (Nate Dendy). But Possner and Teller are far from conventional. Instead, the play begins with the albino Ariel building a house of cards and then performing a card trick with a member of the audience, which results in an enthusiastic round of applause. This wonderfully establishes the foundation for this Tempest as a contemporary world filled with magic and wonder. The storm shipwrecks a schooner on Prospero’s island, where all the passengers escape unharmed. The castaways include the King of Naples Alonso (a pleasantly patriarchal Mike McShane), a Naples noblewoman and Prospero’s friend Gonzala (a marvelously matriarchal Dawn Didawick), Alonso’s scheming, yet weak-willed brother Sebastian (a fey and funny Edmund Lewis) and most notably Antonio (a fantastically reptilian Louis Butelli), Prospero’s brother who betrayed him and usurped the magician’s dukedom. This villain becomes the object of Prospero’s revenge as he instructs Ariel to plan, prepare, and perform all sorts of magic and sorcery to kill Antonio and escape his exile.


But Prospero and Ariel also plot as matchmakers to bring his own daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham) and Alonso’s son Ferdinand (Joby Earle) together as husband and wife, and the tests that Prospero inflicts on Ferdinand would make the twelve labors of Hercules seem pale in comparison. But the journey that this young couple go through brings shades of compassion and mercy to Prospero that will play an important role in his scheme for revenge, especially when he learns that his slave Caliban (Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefree) also plans to murder the magician in order to be set free, courtesy of Alonso’s two court jesters—the wise Trinculo (a charming Jonathan M. Kim) and the not-so-wise and very loud Stephano (a scene-stealing Eric Hissom, who channels Waits with his own various growls and howls, especially when he sits amongst the audience). And when Prospero’s magic is in full bloom, heaven helps those who get in his way.

Ariel (Nate Dendy) plays a trick or two

Setting the production during the 1930s Depression-era Dust Bowl America is a stroke of genius by Possner and Teller because that time and place of financial hardship and gothic mystery seem to bring more out of Shakespeare’s text and the magical atmosphere that is conjured on stage. They set the foundation for Daniel Conway’s sublime scenic design of a three-tiered stage—which includes the magician’s tent in the middle level and the musician’s performance area on top—and Christopher Conway’s moody lighting design. The magic and illusions—ranging from card tricks, levitation, shadow play, and the body in a segmented box tricks—add to the wonder of the play without it being a distraction. Co-director Teller and magic designer Johnny Thompson keep the tempo of their techniques at a nice pace, bringing much applause after every trick is performed on stage.


What also adds to the 1930s gothic circus effect is the magnificent music direction and engineering by Miche Braden and Thom Rubino (respectively). Their musicians (which includes Braden)—Liz Filios, Joel Davel, and Matt Spencer—provide the glorious soundtrack to the theatrical journey, using songs by Waits and Brennan, resulting in an atmosphere that combines all the literary, nightmarish context conjured by Ray Bradbury during his “Dark Carnival” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes” years with the cinematic vision of filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet, especially in his post-apocalyptic “The City of Lost Children.” The songs used in the play add to its heart, most notably the pieces that bookend the production: “Everything You Can Think of is True” and “You’re Innocent When You Dream”—Filios is so incredibly heartbreaking in her performance of these two songs that she easily surpasses the performance of their creator, Waits, by a mile.


Prospero (Tom Nelis, forground) announces his final decision as Sebastian (Edmund Lewis, far left), Miranda (Charlotte Graham), Ferdinand (Joby Earle), King Alonso (Mike McShane), and Gonzala (Dawn Didawick) listen

The cast is nothing short of brilliant. Graham and Earle are a perfect couple as Miranda and Ferdinand. Graham exudes an innocent elegance and carefree humor to Miranda where she nicely captures both the inner purity and strength of her character. But Earle’s performance is a revelation because he doesn’t portray Ferdinand as just the “leading man.” Earle doesn’t play it safe by playing Ferdinand as “the straight man” in the crazy world around him. He expertly captures the humorous and awkward moments within Shakespeare’s dialogue and runs with it full blast. By capturing the humorous qualities of Ferdinand, he makes a nice match to Miranda with his gullible naïveté, as well as adding his own courageous dignity. Portraying the monster Caliban as a conjoined twin, both Eisenstat’s and Minnifree’s performance is a lesson of mastery in two ways. First, their physical ability—courtesy of the amazing choreography by Matt Kent and Pilobolus—to portray one character with their body twists and contortions is a treat to watch where you come to see them as one person. And their eloquence of the Bard’s dialogue while performing such physical feats is absolutely flawless.


But the true stars are Nelis’s Prospero and Dendy’s Ariel. From the very moment he steps on stage, Dendy inhabits the spiritual, animalistic, and magical facets of Ariel. His skills with the card tricks, as well as other, more ambitious, illusions he performs is matched only by his playfulness and especially his sensitivity. Nelis’s Prospero, whose classy composure is a frightening mirror image to the early 20th century magician Willard the Wizard—especially with the silver sideburns, deep, penetrating eyes and goatee beard—is a symbol of power, class, refinement and mystery…which also hides the pain and anger he feels regarding the betrayal by his brother. But as the play progresses and he sees his daughter happy for the first time, that hard armor starts to break, slowly revealing a respect and some good natured humor regarding his future son in law. And then when the final confrontation occurs with Antonio, Nelis reveals Prospero’s heart in the form of acts of mercy. Nelis peels each layer off of his character like an onion, revealing subtle traits that adds likability to Prospero. It’s a nuanced performance that only a talented artist like Nelis can accomplish. And if The Tempest is just a sample of what the rest of the 2014/2015 season is going to be like, then South Coast Repertory will only enhance its growing reputation as one of the most revolutionary regional theaters in the country, if not the world.     



Peter A. Balaskas is a fiction writer, copyeditor, journalist and voice over artist.

The Tempest runs from September 6-28, 2013

South Coast Repertory: Segerstrom Stage

655 Town Center Drive

Costa Mesa, CA 92628-2197

Photos by Debora Robinson (Images 2-4) and The Smith Center/Geri Kodey (Caliban Image)

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