tempest0001In his classic Prefaces to Shakespeare, Actor/Director Harley Granville Barker, reveals, in passing, an important secret about the theater:

“A play, in fact, as we find it written, is a magic spell.”

“The magic of the theater” is a phrase often bandied about, usually meaning “theater is wonderful.” But the phrase contains an important idea:

The theater is full of “wonders”, things that cause astonishment and make people ask, “How did they do that?”

Consequently, throughout theater’s history, from the earliest Greek and Roman theaters 0n, the practitioners of theater and the practioners of magic worked easily and freely with each other.

The resounding success of the Aaron Posner and Penn production of William Shakespeare’s classic, The Tempest, clearly arises from a full appreciation and application of this historical fact. Even from the pre-show antics of the sprite, Ariel, the audience is caught in a spell which only grows as the production moves on from wonder to wonder.

Anyone who has ever tried his hand at magic knows the art demands clear thinking,  precise execution, and rigor, or all is lost. The directors’ production program notes for The Tempest  lay out their clear, precise, and rigorous goals.

This in itself is remarkable.

Most production notes are, unfortunately, pseudo-intellectual posturings, or socio-political manifestos which do nothing but inflate the egos of the creators. Most program notes would be hated by George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker’s theatrical (and perhaps biological) father, who believed notes test a director’s competence, and can point to a successful production:

“If for example, he writes “Shew influence of Kierkegaard on Ibsen in this scene,” or “The Oedipus complex must be very apparent here. Discuss with the Queen,” the sooner he is packed out of the theatre and replaced the better.”

Look at the list of Posner and Teller’s notes for The Tempest. They are of a short Shaw would love:

  • Make the story about a magician and a father.
  • Use magic to depict Prospero’s powers
  • Use “conjuring” to let the audience share the experience firsthand.
  • Depict how one behaves when genuinely hurt and how one moves past vengeance to compassion.
  • Show Prospero as a “vital, angry, extremely powerful, uneasy, uncomfortable father – and a terrifying wizard” using Ariel and Miranda as mirrors by which he sees the world more broadly.
  • Design the production in such a way that both scholar and newcomer have a visceral experience.
  • Marry poetry – magical speech – with magic – enacted poetry.

Consequently this Tempest is a rare production; one can clearly see each and every production note accomplished before one’s wondering and grateful eyes.

The directors bring to their stage exactly the kind of people they knew were needed to fit their precise roles:

  • Caliban grew from two unbelievable members of the Pilobolus Dance Theatre (Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat) who did what the company is famous for doing. In the words of The New Yorker dance critic, Andrew Boynton, “At various points in a performance of Pilobolus Dance Theatre, you forget what you’re looking at; the dancers move so skillfully, so symbiotically, that they cease to resemble people at all. Plants, animals, all manner of objects and suggestions of objects arise and then dissolve, and at the end of an evening you feel as though you’ve glimpsed many worlds.” Matt Kent’s magical choreography was perfect for the darkness of Caliban.
  • Worldly and unworldly sounds, resonating with both today and time past, emerge in the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, played by spirited perfection by the band Rough Magic, comprised of Juno (Bethany Thomas), Iris (Liz Filios), Jove (Ethan Deppe), and Mars (Jake Saleh). The group is so good the audience seemed ready to purchase musical albums of the slow had they been on sale in the lobby. Magical instrument design and “Wollesonics” were by Kenny Wollesen, and theatrical arrangements and musical direction were  by Shaina Taub.
  • Mies van der Rohe would applaud the precise geometry employed for both the great visual effects and for the stunning magical illusions handled with expertise by both Magic Designer Johnny Thompson. and Thom Rubino’s Magical Engineering and Construction. The illusions continued into the wondrous scenery, costumes, and lighting designs of Daniel Conway, Paloma Young, Rachel Laritz, and Thom Weaver.
  • The Tempest acknowledges the stage history of the play: actors engage individual audience members directly throughout the play, and the stage scenery echoes the Shakespearean square/circle ground plan, zodiacal heavens, tiring house, changing room, discovery space, curtained inner below, open inner above, and pit.
  • Casting facilitates the director’s notes. The Tempest has been called King Lear with a happy ending: Lear cannot regain his kingdom and loses his beloved daughter, while Prospero regains his kingdom to live happily with his beloved daughter. Who better to undertake the second of the dramatic pair than Larry Yando, last season’s standard-setting Lear. And he is more than up to the challenge. His encounter with his brother Antonio (fully played in the style of Walter Huston by Lawrence Grimm) recalls Old Hamlet’s relationship with his brother, Claudius, “Hyperion to a satyr.” And at the turning point of the play, Act V scene 1, when Prospero turns from vengeance to forgiveness, Mr.Yando had the audience on the verge of tears, as much from his powerfully charged silences as from Shakespeare’s glorious words.
  • The rest of the talented cast rises to Mr. Yando. Professional magician Nate Dendy’s Ariel wins the audience’s heart from the outset, as he must have won Prospero’s. His relationship with Yando gives credence to the notion that Shakeapre’s play is a response to Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, with Prospero an anti – Faustus who strikes a deal, not with Mephistopheles  but with Ariel, an Angel. Miranda (Eva Louise Balistrieri) and Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile) seem a newborn Eve and Adam, innocence restored, about to return to a Brave New Worldfrom from which they had been exiled. John Lister’s Alonso exudes desperate fatherly love. Barbara Robertson as  Gonzala, counselor to the king. radiates throughout the love which had prompted her to pack a bag for the three year old child about to be sent to probable death at sea. Ron E. Rains (Stephano) and Adam Wesley Brown (Trinculo) hit all the right comic notes as a pair of rural musicians who seemed to have wandered  in from the set of Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?

G. K. Chesterton, whose childhood of magic led him to great spiritual insights, said.

“Magic alone can express my sense that life is not only a pleasure, but a kind of eccentric privilege.”

If you want to fully understand what Chesterton was getting at, you need to visit The Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Tempest. It is not only a pleasure, it is an eccentric privilege.

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