Like stepping into a Victorian sailor’s ornate tattoo, Aaron Posner and Teller’s co-directed production of The Tempest (★★★★★) creates a world so rich, sensical, and cleverly fun, you will rue the final cutting of the lights. It is a joyful, defiant answer to everything that steals wonder — from our life on screens, to the Internet, to the mainstreaming all that once lived in life’s dark and interesting corners. It’s enough to make you weep with gratitude.
Of course, at the helm of this particular ship is a veritable dream team: Posner with his extraordinary ability to surface warmth, intelligence and humor from every play; Teller, the wittiest of magicians and illusionists; and in allowing his music, the always theatrical, ever-outsider, Tom Waits.
Posner and Teller may have first paired to create this Tempest in 2014, but it’s hard to imagine a better version than this intimate collaboration between the Round House and Folger Theatres, with an ensemble that positively vibrates with talent, seasoned and new, and much of it local.
Right out of the box, Daniel Conway’s antique vision of a multi-tiered set blending a sea-shell proscenium with a ship above, a floor of runes below and a faded carnival horse in between, evokes a darkly cozy space for the mystical. Add Waits’ sea-shanty-style songs and the vibe becomes, by turns, wistful, rebellious, and gratifyingly morose.
This is not just a visual and an aural experience — in hearing Shakespeare’s language spoken with relish — but also in the gloriously-invested musicians delivering Waits and a landscape of sound from their dimly-lit cavern above the action. These powerful presences cannot be praised too much: Kanysha Williams and Lizzie Hagstedt give sultry, stunning voice to the songs, Hagstedt also playing a deliciously thrummy bass. As percussionist, Manny Arciniega works like a wild stevedore when the time calls, then almost turns invisible when it’s not. This trio is integral to the mood, and they are pitch-perfect.
But however brilliant the music and vibe may be, there is the play itself to contend with and The Tempest in the wrong hands can feel long and obtuse. With sheer alchemy and a clever adaptation, Posner and Teller bring the narrative forward here and, at last, this becomes a story to grab onto: a weird tale, well told because it’s people and creatures are made funny, real, and full of charming foibles.
At the heart of this extraordinary vision is Eric Hissom, delivering a truly stellar performance as Prospero, the duke betrayed and exiled from Naples only to be shipwrecked on a mystical island which he rules with magic until his enemies are at last blown onto its shores. Hissom utterly owns the role, tempering Prospero’s philosophical bent with a wholly convincing, immensely authentic weave of sardonic warmth, understated determination, and mid-life melancholy. Indeed, his “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” soliloquy comes with the kind of urgent, confiding tones of a close friend. Shakespeare never felt so real and present.
Among the innumerable highlights of this Prospero is one that cannot be revealed to protect its illusory joy, but suffice to say, it is a reimagining of the giving-away of his daughter Miranda, soon to be wed to Ferdinand, with the most extraordinary use of illusion to offer emotion. And when it comes to the magic and illusion throughout, the level of skill and coordination among cast and crew is almost beyond belief.
Even more importantly, all of the illusions are saying something, be it funny or serious. No matter how creative or spectacular, they arrive seamlessly and never feel contrived. If this synergy is embodied in one of the actors, it is surely Nate Dendy’s Ariel, Prospero’s indentured, but powerful, island spirit. Dendy is not just a talented sleight-of-hand magician, he is an exceptional actor, imbuing Ariel with a truly affecting, dimensional, rather complicated personality.
When it comes to the creativity of this production, another stand-out is the fabulous two-headed Caliban, played with impressive physicality and much comic timing by Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers. The choreography by dance company Pilobolus is full of wit and complexity, and its execution by these actors is as breathtaking athletic as it is funny. Kudos to Sellers for so ably leading Caliban’s Shakespeare in the middle of it all.
One of the most charming features of the production is the gentle fun had with the young Miranda, who has lived most of her life on the island, and her soon-to-be-suitor Ferdinand, who washes ashore during Prospero’s revenge. As the spirited young woman, Megan Graves hits just the right note, being comically, ridiculously silly without ever overstepping the line. As Ferdinand, Ro Boddie is full of noble, charismatic energy, delivering his Shakespeare with satisfying gusto and ably playing foil to Prospero’s misgivings. The rest of the ensemble bring every corner together, with Richard R. Henry being a particularly sympathetic Trinculo and Kenyatta Roger’s Alonso offering some understated humor.
In the words of Tom Waits: “We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness.” Let this Tempest leave you with a clear and starry night.
The Tempest has been extended through Jan. 29, 2023, at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda. Tickets start at $46. Visit www.roundhousetheatre.org or call 240-644-1100.
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