The Tempest (Round House and Folger Theatre) @ The Round House

Early in Aaron Posner and Teller’s production of The Tempest – the acclaimed production that premiered in Vegas in 2014 – Ferdinand (Ro Boddie) wandered confusedly across the stage towards where Ariel (Nate Dendy) stood over a bowl of water in which he had submerged a paper boat. Ariel took the befuddled Ferdinand and plunged his head into the bowl, before letting him up to gasp for air. Then, Ariel coldly put Ferdinand’s head back in the bowl. Ferdinand thrashed for an impossibly long time before his body finally went limp, and then remained onstage, not moving, until finally a curtain was pulled in front of him.This was only the first in a number of ‘how did they do that?!’ moments in a Tempest that drew upon the wonder of stage magic to interrogate what power is – and what its limits might be.

Daniel Conway’s set combined the materials and structures of a deconstructed sailing ship with a makeshift steampunk travelling carnival, with Orientalist curtains and a chimera carousel figure on which Ariel sat. The three-level stage offered a vertically descending progression of illusion: on the highest level, the ship’s wheel and other sailing detritus provided both the deck for the opening tempest and a viewing platform for Prospero (Eric Hissom); a lower gallery housed the onstage band, spirits in Prospero’s employ who sang Kneehigh-style ballads in the style of Tom Waits; and the stage level itself was dominated by a large black proscenium frame surrounded by theatrical lights that offered a passageway into darkness, and a profusion of curtains that could be quickly drawn across the stage. This was Prospero’s conjuring space, a space where he controlled the scenery and lighting that allowed him to perform his sleight-of-hand magic, aligning Prospero’s power with the stage magician’s ability to enthrall and entertain.

Prospero (Eric Hissom) and Ariel (Nate Dendy) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The conceit of this production was, of course, designed to capitalize on the known expertise of one of America’s best-loved stage magicians, Teller, and the spectacle existed to be delighted in. But the integration of stage magic enacted a shift away from the usual concerns of contemporary Tempests, particularly away from Caliban and back towards Ariel and Prospero. Hissom’s Prospero was an old man who appeared to be dying; he clutched his arm from time to time, and at one point wheezed alarmingly. ‘Every third thought will be my grave’ had particular weight as the conjurer prepared to retire. Given the setting, Prospero presented as the last surviving embodiment of a dying performance tradition, whose tricks and performance of power depended on the apparatus he had accumulated and the ability to control his environment. By quitting the island and releasing Ariel, he forsook the props and technologies that allowed him to present himself as an all-powerful illusionist, and also by extension forsook the ability to control his own presentation. As such, his final exposed soliloquy – just after he had made his magic book magically disappear – felt surprisingly naked, deprived of the tricks of spectacle that had dominated his performance.

The illusionist is an entertainer, but the power involved in creating such elaborate illusions requires assistants, both real (the black-clad stagehands who had supported the work throughout got their own curtain call) and fictional. Prospero’s control depended on an obedient Ariel, who assumed prominence right from the start as he sat at the downstage edge of the circular Round House stage and performed close-up card tricks for the audience. This stone-faced (a term I choose deliberately for this Buster Keaton-like performance) Ariel took little obvious pleasure in his magic, which was simply the way he communicated. His reports of his work to Prospero were beautifully illustrated with the playing cards he magically drew from thin air: face cards became the nobles who he then scattered about the stage, while others became representations of chaos restored to order. But Ariel was defined by the piece of rope around his left wrist, which he held up constantly to Prospero, pleading to be released, in a gesture that made constantly visible that this Ariel was enslaved, and that the magician was not yet ready to release his servant. The subtle arc as Prospero shifted from tyranny to stunned surprise at Ariel’s quiet ‘Do you love me?’ didn’t suggest that Prospero was benign or had learned anything, but rather felt like acquiescence to the inevitable as Ariel ran out through the stalls.

The two worked in close collaboration on their illusions. While Hissom/Prospero performed some bits of stage magic, it was Dendy/Ariel who performed most of the labour, suggesting the uneven power relationship. Prospero’s magic was focused when performed, and often more elaborately old-school. To remind Ariel of the cloven pine, he brought out the a head twister box into which he placed Ariel, cranking Ariel’s head around 1080 degrees and revealing a knotted body inside the box’s chest cavity. Later, in place of a masque, Prospero levitated Miranda (Megan Graves), Ariel acting to assist with passing a ring around her, before Prospero lowered her and gave her to Ferdinand. This perhaps inadvertently reinforced the patriarchal underpinnings of the entire set-up, the father ritualizing through magic his passing-over of his daughter to her husband. But this was Prospero’s practice throughout; his magic was deliberately showy, designed to remind people who was in charge. He even brought Miranda back to him to assist him with the final disappearing of his magic book, a reminder that he hadn’t yet given up on the idea of having assistants.

If Prospero presented magic in ritualized, classic style, Ariel embodied magic itself. Dendy’s graceful movement often seemed weightless, sinking to a crouching position while standing on one foot and leaning against a pole, or lightly spinning himself twice around an upright pole. His ability to manipulate others was often alarming, as when he dunked Ferdinand’s head, but was also playful, as in his animation of an object Trinculo (Richard R. Henry) was holding to speak Trinculo’s accusations of lying. Ariel’s unobtrusive slacks and bare arms meant his body was exposed (in ways that, of course, are essential to the credibility of the close-up illusionist), and thus that he looked vulnerable next to the more extensively clothed Prospero; it also, though, gave him the flexibility to transform with his environment. Sometimes he stood close to the black upstage frame and pulled items out of nowhere, contrasting markedly with the emptiness with which he interacted. But at other times he spectacularized himself, as when he became the snapping dog that apparated from within Stephano (Kate Eastwood Norris)and Trinculo’s borrowed robes, or when he emerged himself from the black frame with an enormous winged cape to serve as the harpy. In one of the most amazing moments of onstage magic, stood in the middle of the stage, Ariel suddenly transformed into Prospero, who completed the ‘men of sin’ speech; the jaw-dropping transformation received an ovation, but also made clear Prospero’s reliance on Ariel’s command of the less ritualized but more spectacular magic.

The productive tension between Prospero’s and Ariel’s forms of magic made clear that magic was where power resided. Conversely, Caliban had no magic at all, but rather raw physical prowess. Eschewing a reading around race or colonialism (‘This thing of harshness I acknowledge mine’, said Prospero), Caliban was presented as a two-headed creature by Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers in an astonishing tour de force physical performance. The two actors never broke contact with one another and moved by tumbling over one another, taking turns to lift and place each other down, to stand on one another’s shoulders, to form wheelchairs or giants. They spoke both in unison and separately, and were alternately addressed as a singular or a dual entity (interestingly Stephano was the one who most often seemed to recognize the doubleness of Caliban, pointing out the six legs when Caliban and Trinculo shared the gaberdine, and playing with a nice pun on Trinculo being this monster’s third/turd after Trinculo appeared to have been shat out of his bedfellows’ cover). Whereas Ariel’s carefully deployed spectacle worked to construct a specific dynamic with Prospero, though, Caliban’s consistently skillful display had no obvious relationship to his plot arc, and his scenes with Stephano and Trinculo played as comic set-pieces, vehicles for skill rather than as an integrated story.

Ryan Sellers and Hassiem Muhammed (Caliban) in The Tempest at Round House Theatre. Photo by Scott Suchman.

With that said, the clown scenes were genuinely funny. Norris’s quasi-improvised clowning drew in anachronisms, saw her slurring Trinculo’s name incorrectly, and allowed her some fun pratfalls. Stephano was played as female, but she picked up on Caliban referred to her as a man, and started comically adopting masculine mannerisms, spitting and strutting. Both Norris and Henry played with the audience (a fed-up Stephano even went and sat in the front row during the final reckoning, sulkily exempting herself from the moralizing), and Trinculo’s pratting with Caliban during the gaberdine scene was one of the more successful stagings of this tricky scene I’ve seen, partly because the presence of two Calibans allowed for a bigger cloak and for Trinculo to be able to squeeze in between the bodies (who poked their tongues out through holes in order to receive Stephano’s liquor). It was this plot on which the first half ended, with Stephano being held aloft in triumph, even as Prospero contributed to the music underscoring their military song.

The clowns’ plot was linked with that of the nobles through a shadow-play that begun the second half, as all the characters being led along by Ariel appeared in silhouette behind the stage curtain. Some creative play here saw, for instance, Antonio (Cody Nickell) stamp on a spider made out of fingers, only for that spider to then grow to monstrous size and engulf him. Ariel beckoned down branches which surrounded and engulfed Alonso (Kenyatta Rogers) which then cleared for Gonzala (Naomi Jacobson). And Ariel grew himself to enormous size in order to grab Sebastian’s (Kevin Mambo) head from off his body and throw it up and down before returning it. The visualization of the offstage tribulations gave greater context to the gradual capitulation of the nobles to Prospero’s power. The acting highlight in this plotline was Nickell and Mambo’s handling of the aborted assassination scene. Unusually, Mambo played Sebastian not as slow to catch on, but rather as a thoughtful threat. The cynical, joking Antonio worked hard at his snide comments and manipulations, but Sebastian was the true power here, slowly acknowledging his opportunity and committing to it firmly, while drawing Antonio to say more about his own history of treachery.

Ferdinand and Miranda’s scenes, a little like Caliban’s, were overshadowed by the spectacle around them, such as Ferdinand becoming firmly anchored in place by Prospero’s magic and his knife being electrified out of his hands, as well as the aforementioned levitation sequence. These were sweet scenes, though, with Miranda appearing dressed all in white for the masque after Prospero had had a few moments alone preparing with Ferdinand, and Ferdinand posing while hefting logs for the benefit of a Miranda who inexpertly tried to adjust her cleavage before talking to him. Their main function was as the props in Prospero’s performance of spectacle, but Miranda turned out to have an important role to play in softening her father’s brusqueness. It was Miranda who reached out to her uncle Antonio as the groups left the stage in the final scene, bringing him back into the fold, and prompting him to embrace his brother in contrition.

It might be easy to dismiss this production as an exercise in using Shakespeare as a vehicle for mere spectacular entertainment, particularly given that some of the plot-lines did feel sidelined by the tricks. But, to take a more positive spin, the illusion replicated something of the structural function of the ‘quaint device[s]’ of the Folio text. This short play always made use of the technologies available to it, and the supplementation of the play with Teller’s magic in this production made surprising and intuitive sense both of the play’s pacing and of the reaction of everyone else to Prospero. Further, in Prospero’s abjuring of his magic and release of Ariel, even as he appeared to show signs of ill health, the magic allowed for a melancholy edge to a production in which Prospero often seemed to be pacing himself in relation to the inevitable, and implied that his giving up of his control and his giving up of his craft represented a world that no longer had space for him – necessitating his appeal to us, the only ones who could truly set him free.

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