Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s spectacle-oriented production of “The Tempest,” seen in prior versions at American Repertory Theater and a couple of other regionals, achieves what many stagings of Shakespeare attempt but rarely accomplish: It turns the bard into a genuinely popular entertainment. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and, more tellingly, the magician Teller, the show infuses the story of Prospero’s revenge and ultimate forgiveness of those who banished him years earlier with a high volume of quality illusions, as well as with deeply expressive music from Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan performed by an onstage band, plus an inspired, acrobatic take on a two-headed Caliban.
As far as interpretation goes, this is actually a conservative, straightforward take on “The Tempest,” without, for example, the relatively common commentary on colonialism. Nor should this be confused with a Penn and Teller show — it’s not edgy or ironic. But the plot of “The Tempest” is overseen by the wizard Prospero (Larry Yando), who begins by swirling up the seas to land his treacherous brother and the King of Naples on the island, and who manipulates events with the aid of his invisible fairy Ariel (Nate Dendy). The steady supply of magic, therefore — beginning with a terrific drowning illusion where the head of Prince Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile) is submerged in a bowl of water — provides a means of spicing up the proceedings by emphasizing that particular aspect of the work.
Posner and Teller set the show in the early 20th century, and it bears a purposely retro feel. Daniel Conway’s set, in this case adapted to Chicago Shakespeare’s Globe-inspired thrust, evokes an old-fashioned carnival tent. Dendy’s Ariel is a sleight-of-hand spirit with a seemingly infinite supply of playing cards to conjure up and conjure with. Simple moments take on sweet surprises, such as the sudden appearance in Ariel’s hand of an oversized hourglass when Prospero inquires about the time. Yando’s Prospero is a magician using an old book with classic but enjoyable bits: disappearing acts, a meditation sequence where his daughter Miranda (Eva Louise Balistrieri) floats above the stage, a mini-torture chamber where Prospero reminds Ariel of his promises by seemingly spinning his head in a circle (and then politely promising his freedom for obedience).
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There is, however, more than just the magic to enliven the show. Waits and Brennan’s score, played and sung by a costumed band positioned on a platform above the stage, is comprised of bluesy, earthy tunes riffing on themes of mortality. The songs are essential here, lending a consistent level of sophistication and a calibrated dose of darkness, while also providing spurts of energy.
And then there’s Caliban, played by two performers (Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) who climb all over each other and interlink at odd angles. Choreographed by the dance collective Pilobolus and its associate artistic director Matt Kent, the movement merges contemporary dance with cirque-ish acrobatics, and it is consistently compelling to watch.
Admittedly, the magic doesn’t always serve rather than distract from the drama. But we’re never too far from the Shakespeare, even if the verse is not always the center of attention. It might help if Yando brought us a bit more into his character arc from revenge to forgiveness; it’s there, but a bit flat at the moment. In other words, sometimes the story should take a bigger turn in the spotlight.
Nonetheless, there’s no question that the frequency of visual and musical stimuli makes a two-and-a-half hour show speed by, and makes it very possible that this “Tempest” has a magical commercial future.