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.

Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda). Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey

The American Repertory Theater’s staging of “The Tempest” — Nate Dendy (Ariel), Tom Nelis (Prospero), Charlotte Graham (Miranda). Photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey.

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.


  1. Douglas on May 17, 2014 at 11:19 am

    Wow. This has to be the worst review I have ever read. Not about the show. Just the review in general, it’s hardly relevant. Did you actually see the show? Or were you just trying to find some way to take it down for some unknown bitter reason? It’s amazing, I believe I read that the other night where the audience roared and applauded until the cast returned for another bow. With all the amazing buzz I wouldn’t be surprised if shows are added or extended.

    • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on May 17, 2014 at 11:48 am

      Sorry you didn’t like the review. Criticism is not about taking the popular pulse of the audience. A critic makes an evaluation of what he or she sees and hears based on their experience and standards. Nothing bitter driving my reaction — just disappointment. This particular production did not convince me that Shakespeare and magic tricks mix.

      • Douglas on May 17, 2014 at 12:15 pm

        I completely agree, criticism should not be based on popularity. But you are obviously very unaware of the story of The Tempest. This story was written about a magician…hence the magic! IThank you for continuing to show the irrelevance of your review.

        • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on May 17, 2014 at 12:34 pm

          Glad we agree on something. Prospero is a magician — but not of the card tricks, levitation, presto-chango variety.

          • Douglas on May 17, 2014 at 2:03 pm

            If I recall, Arial (sic) was the card trick sleight of hand master, and also a spirit released from a tree by Prospero (I mean, let’s face it he released a spirit from a tree, you don’t think he can levitate some stuff…also IT’S FICTION). Apparently you have a fine understanding of the characters and storyline, more so than the directors and cast who, if you read any interviews, worked on developing and understanding the story in great depths for a great length of time. Your review would be acceptable if you have proven in it that you understand the story better, paid attention during the show, or at least researched something about the show. As a writer and critic, these are your responsibilities before putting ink to paper.

            And to further add, I appreciate criticism whether good or bad. I just can’t stand ignorant, bad reviews.

            • Bill Marx, Arts Fuse Editor on May 18, 2014 at 9:13 am

              Ariel does the card tricks. Prospero levitates Miranda, for some reason. I am sure Shakespeare gave these figures the power to do all kinds of magic tricks, even pull rabbits out of a hat. But he didn’t, perhaps because he had a much more expansive vision of magic in this play. And a faith in the ability of language to spur the imaginations of audience members.

              Critics don’t have to provide alternative visions of a production — only judge what they see and offer reasons for why they think it falls short or succeeds. I have seen dozen stagings of The Tempest over the years. This one was not one of my favorites — because the magic distracted rather than illuminated.

              • Ian Thal on May 20, 2014 at 8:45 am

                I haven’t yet seen this production (and so withhold judgement) but I have to concur with Bill that Shakespeare’s conception of magic was something far more expansive than stage trickery. Looking at The Tempest, and other Shakespeare plays in which magic plays a role (as well as those by his contemporaries, like Marlowe) magic is not the power to entertain, but power to control elemental forces like seas and storms, perceive the future, travel great distances near instantaneously, raise the dead, bind supernatural creatures to contracts, control the bodies and passions of others, transform appearances and forms et cetera. This is one of the few things that Julie Taymor’s otherwise mediocre special effects drenched 2010 film adaptation got right.

                One place where stage magic would make complete sense is in the wedding masque in act IV– since that is meant to be an entertainment.

  2. Charles Atkinson on May 28, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    I have just returned from seeing this “show.” Whatever possessed the director to interpret a magical island as an island where people do lots of conjuring tricks? And most of the music added nothing to the play – apart from a sensitive setting of “full fathom five.”

    Marx’s review is right on the button.

  3. Russ on August 10, 2014 at 11:35 am

    Why must a modern telling of The Tempest somberly genuflect to Shakespeare’s intentions and be delivered purely by actors speaking lines? The producers here used The Tempest as a starting point: and created a novel show that is mystical, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining – a rare combination of dance, signing, acting and yes some amazing magic. The treat of hearing Shakespeare’s poetry read aloud remains as one of the chief wonders of the production and was not drowned out by the rest. My family was dazzled and greatly enjoyed themselves. So.. go and enjoy!

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