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A genuinely magical spirit levitates Chicago Shakespeare’s “Tempest”

The mischievous sleight-of-hand unfolds even before the audience has settled into darkness and the formal start of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s altogether beguiling, ingeniously imagined production of “The Tempest.” It is set in motion by Ariel, the play’s ghostly pale “spirit.” Both muse and slave to Prospero, the reigning magician on a remote island, Ariel is a fellow who brings new meaning to the phrase, “now you see it, now you don’t” as he palms his playing cards barely an inch from spectators’ eyes.

But there’s an even bigger trick at work when it comes to this fleet and ingenious production that has been adapted and directed by Aaron Posner (whose play, “Stupid F…ing Bird,” was a big hit here last season), and Teller (the mostly “silent partner” in Penn & Teller ). And that trick is this: “The Tempest,” widely thought to be Shakespeare’s valedictory work, talks a great deal about magic, but rarely is it actually made manifest.

Here, every element of the story comes wrapped in a “spell” of some sort, from the music (a brilliant use of the songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan), to the movement (a monster formed with the interlocking bodies of two dancer-acrobats from Pilobolus), to the design (Daniel Conway’s beautiful set, best described as Victorian baroque nautical), to the actual acts of prestidigation designed by Johnny Thompson (including a levitation, a head-twisting body box and more). But best of all are the actors, who possess a sublime magic of their own, and find a way to turn all this artful “illusion” into profound emotional truth. Quite a trick, that.

‘THE TEMPEST’

Highly recommended

When: Through Nov. 8

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater,

800 E. Grand on Navy Pier

Tickets: $48 – $88

Info: (312) 595-5600;

http://www.chicagoshakes.com

Run time: 2 hours and 20

minutes with one intermission

Prospero (Larry Yando, left) challenges his disobedient servant-monster Caliban – Manelich Minniefee top) and Zach Eisenstat (bottom) – in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Prospero (Larry Yando, left) challenges his disobedient servant-monster Caliban – Manelich Minniefee top) and Zach Eisenstat (bottom) – in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

“The Tempest” is about many things: Power, trust and betrayal, enslavement and freedon, exile, cruelty, compassion, mercy, parental love, young love, friendship and the acceptance of old age. The element of magic functions as a dark art, but also can be seen as a light-giving process that can engender change and transformation, as well as a certain kind of peace.

Shakespeare’s story is set in motion on an island where, for the past 12 years, Prospero (Larry Yando), the rightful Duke of Milan, has lived in exile, accompanied by his daughter, Miranda (Eva Louise Balistrieri), as well as by Ariel (Nate Dendy), the spirit he rescued from a witch on the island, and Caliban, that witch’s deformed, beastlike son (wonderfully realized by Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat, those shape-shifting Pilobolans “choreographed” by Matt Kent).

Prospero was overthrown and sent out onto the open sea by his corrupt brother, Antonio (Lawrence Grimm), who secured his power by aligning himself with Alonso, King of Naples (John Lister), and his brother (Michael Aaron Lindner). He and Miranda survived the voyage in large part because of aid secretly supplied by Gonzala (ordinarily a man, but here given a most winning female persona by Barbara Robertson).

Now, the fates have seen to it that a ship full of Prospero’s enemies is just close enough to the island so that he can use his magic powers to churn up a storm and have them shipwrecked – not dead, but under his control. Part of his plan is to find a husband for Miranda (who was nearly raped by Caliban). She has seen no other real man aside from her father, and, as it happens, Alonso’s handsome, warm-hearted son, Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile), fits the bill and passes the tests.

Ariel (Nate Dendy, top)) enchants a crown to float and land on the head of a bewildered Prince Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Ariel (Nate Dendy, top)) enchants a crown to float and land on the head of a bewildered Prince Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Yando, an actor with a sublimely subtle way with language, an exquisite wit, and a flair for lightning fast mood shifts, also understands that a heart revealed slowly over time has the greatest impact. He is a master, and Prospero is an ideal role for this man who has finessed Scrooge and King Lear, as well as “The Lion King’s” Scar.

Yando is winningly paired here with Dendy, a wisp of a fellow with eerily intense eyes, magically articulate fingers and a sense of movement that makes you feel he is riding a current of air. Magic personified. Balistrieri’s Miranda is, on the other hand, wonderfully real – wholly natural, sweet but never sugary, and delightfully funny.

Prospero (Larry Yando) and his daughter, Miranda (Eva Louise Balistreiri) in “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Prospero (Larry Yando) and his daughter, Miranda (Eva Louise Balistreiri) in “The Tempest.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Posner and Teller’s enchanting concept includes the inspired use of songs by those poets of the marooned, Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. And they are stunningly performed by Liz Filios and Bethany Thomas, with musicians Ethan Deppe and Jake Saleh, all with a sort of Brechtian blues-meets-opera quality courtesy of music directors Deppe, Filio and arranger Shaina Taub.

I could go on, and on. But magic, of course, is elusive. It is shadow-play. And there even is some of that, too, in this “Tempest.”