Reviewed by Terry Morgan
South Coast Repertory
Through Sept. 28.
The current production of The Tempest at South Coast Repertory is the best version of the play I’ve ever seen.
It does something seemingly obvious, yet not so obvious that I’ve seen it before: It focuses on the magic. This isn’t to say that it skimps on vengeance, forgiveness or young love, but director/adaptors Aaron Posner and Teller bring the magic to the forefront, and it’s dazzling. This, combined with selected songs by Tom Waits & Kathleen Brennan, superb choreography by Matt Kent of Pilobolus, and a sharp ensemble of actors and musicians, results in a brilliantly theatrical wonderment.
Prospero (Tom Nelis), once the Duke of Milan until he was supplanted by a scheming brother, was shipwrecked on an island with his young daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham). During his time there, he became a powerful magician, with the help of bound-spirit Ariel (Nate Dendy). Seizing his moment for revenge, Prospero uses his abilities to cause a group of those who wronged him to shipwreck upon the island, where he uses his powers of illusion to regain what he has lost.
Nelis makes a properly commanding Prospero, dustily elegant in Paloma Young’s faded magician suit, and he brings a sense of serious style to his acts of prestidigitation. Graham is a model of openhearted happiness as Miranda, matched by Joby Earle in a charmingly goofy turn as Ferdinand. Their romantic scene together, underscored by the song “Dirt in The Ground” and highlighted by a floating crown trick, is one of the strongest moments in the show.
Dendy is a deadpan delight as Ariel, and is so skilled with performing a myriad of tricks that one would think he was a professional magician. And yet perhaps his most affecting scene is a quiet one, in which he helps Prospero dress up for his confrontation with his foes, where the unspoken affection the spirit and wizard have for each other is quite clear. Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee make an incredible team as Caliban, and Eric Hissom offers a memorably sozzled Stephano.
Posner and Teller’s adaptation and direction honor Shakespeare’s text and amplify its strengths in multiple ways. The frequent and often startling use of magic (designed by Johnny Thompson) creates a fantastical environment that doesn’t take one out of the show but instead puts you further into that world. Some memorable astonishments include a contraption that twists Ariel’s head completely around and a sudden replacement from one actor to another that is seamless.
There are also scenes that I’ve never seen work in previous productions, such as the shipwreck or the sections involving Stephano and Caliban. These work wonderfully here, especially the opening sequence, where Prospero does magic on a paper boat in a bowl of water as sailors are flung about on the upper half of the set above him. The use of Waits and Brennan’s songs (these tunes are not original to this show, by the way) worked reasonably well for me, and they’re expertly played and sung. As a Waits fan, it was a special treat to see a SCR audience enthusiastically clapping along to “Clap Hands.” Also, having actual songs in a play where characters keep remarking upon hearing eerie music from the island makes sense. Kent’s choreography, particularly of the ever-moving and tumbling Caliban, is nimble and inventive.
This production of The Tempest is a stunning, enjoyable and impressive accomplishment. It’s well worth the drive to Costa Mesa. Kudos to South Coast Rep for putting it up; it’s just a shame that Center Theatre Group or the Geffen Playhouse aren’t doing so.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Wed. 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat & Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through September 28. scr.org