Theater Review: At the A.R.T., “The Tempest” is Toast
Is it the Bard or a magic show? The prestidigitation wins out given the wanness of the dramatic proceedings.
The Tempest by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. Magic by Teller. Music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Choreography, Matt Kent, Pilobolus. Staged by the American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Cambridge, MA, through June 15.
By Bill Marx
The A.R.T.’s Artistic Entrepreneur Supreme, Diane Paulus, has two targets in her sights at the moment – orphans (Witness Uganda and the upcoming rejiggered Peter Pan) and William Shakespeare. The ear-splattering Donkey Show continues to pound the sense out of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and now we have two watered-down versions of The Tempest available for our lite viewing pleasure (except for our gullible theater critics, who claim that Paulus’s fusion of New Vaudeville and Ka-Ching is “visionary”).
Amaluna, a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza based on The Tempest (May 29 through July 6 at Boston’s Marine Industrial Park), is directed by Paulus and is no doubt destined for Las Vegas and the edification of wide-eyed tourists and high rollers. At the Loeb Drama Center we have a small-scale souped-up version of Shakespeare: it so dilutes the original that the production has a bit of an identity crisis. Is it the Bard or a magic show? The prestidigitation pretty well wins out given the general wanness of the dramatic proceedings. You can almost see directors/adaptors Aaron Posner and Teller scratching their heads, trying to figure out where they can wedge in some additional presto-chango. Their most amazingly silly moment is when Prospero, to celebrate Miranda’s betrothal to Ferdinand, levitates her into the air! Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg advises women to lean in — this Tempest tells gals that when they get their man they should fly up, up, and away.
The circus-to-the max approach is similar to the A.R.T.’s zipped up Pippin — which is a hit on Broadway, so expect copycats galore. The idea is to stuff in as much extraneous sideshow entertainment as possible so that Shakespeare’s poetry comes off like a chaperone at a love-in. (Be patient, once this boring speech is over we will get to the flying hankie.) An onstage band plays recycled retreads of scraps of extraneous tunes by Tom Waits; Ariel (a deadpan Nate Dendy) flings cards around and wears a wolf suit; Caliban (a breathless Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) is made up of two conjoined acrobats who tumble about; and, of course, Stephano (Eric Hissom) and Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim) move out into the audience, milking laughs.
The formula is to marry physical hijinks to musical comedy, so the poetry and darkness of The Tempest disappears — though we do get to see Ariel (via a flashback) twisted into knots. Why settle for Shakespeare’s words when a boffo visual will rev up the crowd? Of all the Ariels I have ever seen, Dendy’s sprite seems the least anxious to win his freedom. What, leave the island and give up show biz? Also, this production includes the most lunk-headed Ferdinand (Joby Earle) I have ever encountered (I am surprised he can move logs from point A to point B). Apparently, this is so his courtship with Miranda (a tepid Charlotte Graham) can come off as cute and sappy as possible. As Prospero, Tom Nelis maintains his dignity; the character strikes me as a sort of weary-to-the-bone Houdini, the only figure onstage who realizes that the island’s mildewed tricks and capers are beside the point.
If the approach of this Tempest catches on then we will have much gauche amusement to look forward to in the magic-ized Shakespeare genre: Hamlet will literally vanish and reappear during his “To be or not to be” monologue (and just wait for that ‘O, that this too too solid flesh would melt’ illusion!). Othello will saw Desdemona in half (“Woman, where is that flying hankie?”), and the takeoff and landing of Macbeth‘s Weird Sisters will leave Wicked‘s broom jockeys in the dust (“Is this a dagger I see up my sleeve?”). Each generation finds something different in the classics — appropriately, ours sees opportunities to insert sleight of hand … and mind.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.