Teller’s Tempest Is a Storm of Creativity—But Needs Some Thunder

Jonathan M. Kim, Manelich Minniefee, Zachary Eisenstat and Eric Hissom (C) Geri Kodey-The Smith Center for the Performing Arts

Impressive … Zzzzzz.

So goeth the contradictory sensation watching the weirdly inert, world-premiere production of The Tempest, magician Teller’s passion project—and perhaps Broadway show wannabe—running through April 27 in a 500-seat tent outside The Smith Center.

Much buzzed about, this is Shakespeare’s final scribble, tricked out with magic by Teller, a score by hardscrabble balladeer Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, and “movement” by dance troupe Pilobolus. Co-directed by Teller and Aaron Posner, it’s a collaboration between Tony-winning American Repertory Theater at Harvard University—its next stop—and The Smith Center, marking the latter’s first involvement in an original production.

Yet even while this Tempest is in creative overdrive, it’s got the momentum of a turtle on Valium.

On paper, its conceit is compelling—actual magic accompanying Shakespeare’s tale of Prospero, a magician and Duke of Milan whose power is usurped by his deceitful brother and aristocratic co-conspirators. Exiled with his daughter to an island, Prospero exacts revenge when his enemies pass by on a ship, flexing his hocus-pocus chops to conjure a fake storm, convincing them they’re shipwrecked, then freaking them out with slick illusions.

Perhaps this production’s biggest illusion is being less than the sum of its parts.

Visually quirky, it plays out on a multitiered set evoking a traveling carnival show, circa early 20th century. Musically intriguing, with onstage musicians and singers, it smartly uses the spare Waits/Brennan score that, while unmemorable as its own entity, provides haunting punctuation. Physically, it’s inventively choreographed, particularly the island-dwelling monster Caliban, portrayed by two actors with their limbs interlocked, moving as one, carrying one another on their backs while rolling across the stage. Magically speaking, its illusions—from card tricks to levitation to one squirm-inducing sequence in which Ariel, a spirit and Prospero’s mischievous servant, experiences a head-twisting, torso-knotting punishment from his master—are modestly scaled to fit, rather than overwhelm the story.

And the acting by a professional-level cast is uniformly strong.

Taken together, it should amount to an evening of enchantment, not an exercise in endurance, with flashes of fun.

Word out of rehearsals was that right up until preview performances they were still trying to pick up the pace, apparently unsuccessfully. At two and a half hours (with an intermission), The Tempest is one slow-moving storm, feeling like a collection of scenes that haven’t yet coalesced to capture the drive of Shakespeare’s narrative. Some unifying element is absent here. Without it, watching this is like roaming a boutique shop, casually wandering from one pretty curio to the next, briefly admiring the beauty of each in its turn but never getting turned on by the overall aesthetic.

Surely this is fixable when this Tempest moves east. Should this production locate the true pulse of Shakespeare’s last classic and reach Broadway from its Las Vegas birthplace, it will emphasize that what The Smith Center can accomplish for this city is very real and far from an illusion—but magical nonetheless.

So get it to New York and satisfy my craving for a bumpy ride on the BMT subway line.

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