By Emmanuel Rockwell
Waiting for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of The Tempest to begin, Ariel, the spirit of Prospero’s island (performed by Nate Dendy), sat perched nimbly on the edge of the thrust stage. He beckoned a single audience member to come forth, then proceeded to perform a series of card tricks, a tease to the thaumaturgical feats to follow throughout the play. However, these simple tricks, impeccably executed from all vantages, served as the initial enticement, baiting the audience to invest their attention and skeptic attitudes into the play’s atmosphere and effects, which, going forth, proved extremely convincing.
Shakespeare’s The Tempest recounts the story of Prospero, the former duke of Milan, who was dethroned and exiled by his ambitious and conniving brother, Antonio. Prospero has spent the past twelve years living in isolation on an island with his daughter Miranda, plotting his revenge against his estranged brother. Prospero’s only companions are the island’s two other inhabitants: Ariel, the spectral spirit of the island who aids Prospero with his prescience and supernatural abilities, and Caliban, the indigenous, beast-like, inhabitant of the island. The play opens as the eponymous storm shipwrecks the vessel carrying Milan’s royal party onto Prospero’s island. After the tumult, the play progresses as Prospero leads Milan’s royal party on a journey through his illusions to realize their former wrongs.
In a way, the audience becomes a marooned crew member of the ship, too, vulnerable to Prospero’s deceptions as newcomers to this foreign and mystical world. In this manner, the audience member assumes a similar perspective to the royal party, largely unaware of the inner workings of Prospero’s schemes.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of The Tempest, written and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of the American comedy and magic duo Penn and Teller), introduced magic and acrobatic elements typically absent from most Shakespearean productions. The convincing magical feats executed by the play’s actors emphasized the audience’s identification with the royal party. The incorporation of spectacle and illusion into the play production paralleled Prospero’s scheming within. Just as Prospero hopes to lead his audience to realize an ultimate prescribed lesson mediated through illusion, we can safely assume Posner and Teller hope to achieve a similar goal with theirs.
The production also featured unconventional acrobatic feats as demonstrated in the portrayal of Caliban by two actors. These actors (Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee) spoke Caliban’s lines in unison and acted through conjoined movements. The production was choreographed by Matt Kent and the Pilobolus dance company, known for their avant-garde acts which feature contortions of the human form. Other than accentuating his otherness, the dual casting of Caliban also evoked the voice of a larger people. These associations, in addition to Caliban being the subjugated indigenous resident of Prospero’s island, illuminated the imperialist associations often linked to Caliban’s interpretation.
Another prominent feature of the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the Tempest was the music score, comprised of songs by Tom Waits. The mystical, gypsy-like score further informed the play’s ghostly atmosphere. The music itself also served as an agent in the plot, as the lead female singers acted as spectral inhabitants of the island, entrancing and confusing newcomers with their lush and wispy melodies.
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater offers a great opportunity for students to escape the Evanston bubble and watch world-class performances of Shakespeare’s works. Students and young professionals under 35 can buy tickets for $20, making these productions extremely accessible.
Note: much of this post was informed by Ira Murfin’s introduction to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Tempest, which you can listen to on Soundcloud.