Tempest Transformed

By a turn of fate, I saw Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s The Tempest on the first Friday night performance of its run. Magic is illuminated in this telling of Shakespeare’s play with Teller (of Penn and Teller) as one of the Adapters/Directors along with Aaron Posner.


There were easily over twenty substantive magic tricks laced throughout the show. I couldn’t help but think “Wow. This is what a big budget can get you.” There was so much art packed into one evening, it was almost unbelievable. From the magic tricks, to the live band playing Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan songs, to the ornate set, Chicago Shakes firmly established itself as an institution of performing arts anchored in patrons willing to dish out the dough.


Beckoned in by Ariel

Beckoned in by Ariel

Magic enchants the audience from the moment they walk into the space. The front of the stage tampers into a ship cabin and audience members climb in. Ariel (played by Nate Dendy) engages audience members with card drawing tricks. Starting the show off with this bridging of the world of the play literally into the audience was extremely captivating. When spent cooped up in the lobby until minutes before show, the theatre space instantly opened up to the world of the show (minus a few incidents of audience members dropping cell phones from balconies or making out with their dates…) The style of the magic space was echoed elegantly by the set.


Prospero’s magic was not so much a mystical quality, but a performing art. This tale placed the role of Prospero as the magician rejected by his family for his passion for performing magic tricks. The rejected artist figure challenged the role of art practice to the individual. Ariel takes on a “Teller-like” role for the beginning of the show, letting the magic speak for him. Prospero and Ariel create their world through magic, which contrasts with the stark family Prospero left behind, laced-up and focused on money and power.
But what happens when arts are intersected with money?
Most productions I see are making ends meet to bring performances to an audience. The small budget can sometimes transfer to the stage impacting some qualities of the performance. With The Tempest, the struggling artist was juxtaposed with an art space that spared little expense to deliver a fantastic show. But it happened with such elegance that the irony of struggle with a large budget was buried underneath the pearl of the storytelling. Even with all the flash, the artistic balance was remarkably managed to truly present the story.


The audience was transported to the world of Prospero’s island with ease and thus, affected by the story’s emotions. Through this telling with magic arts emphasized, the focus and desire for revelation of a trick draws an audience in. Magic is an art of transforming. But at base, all the arts can transform. Whether its the audience viewing, the artist practicing or ideas changing, the arts challenge us to think and adapt understanding. Another reason why the cornucopia of art forms (magic arts, visual set, theatrics of Shakespeare’s story, music in the band, movement/dance of Caliban) in this telling of The Tempest was a profound choice.


To focus on Caliban, his interpretation in this telling cast him as a transformed being. He was played by two actors almost fuzed together to be a creature that only the magical island could sustain. This unique staging transformed what we typically think of as dance or movement and made it grotesquely intriguing. Caliban, therefore, is a creature that can only exist in the magical space of the island, because he has been so altered by it.


One of my favorite lines from The Tempest well represents the idea of transformation in this production.

Nothing in him doth fade,

But doth suffer a sea-change 

Into something rich and strange (Act I, Scene II, 399-401)

Let’s unpack these lines. One does not simply undergo a sea-change, but “suffers.” The weight of transformation does not come easily without pain. The material of the sea-change remains intact, as “nothing fades” but becomes something other, “rich and strange.” The sea-change is hauntingly dynamic because the sufferer comes out of it better (rich), yet marred (strange).

Dedication to art can be a type of sea-change. The artist’s identity is re-formed only through suffering to something “rich and strange.” Prospero fits well as a tortured artist. Sea-change has cast him aside and pushed his art practice. Through the suffering of his family abandoning him, over his magic initially and then as Miranda slowly steps away from him, we see before us a sea-change. Out on Navy Pier, with waves crashing up, the audience at Chicago Shakes experiences its own sea-change at the performance of The Tempest. Not fading the content of the story, but augmenting it with content that makes it more rich and strange.

I interpreted this quote visually to reflect art’s transformation. I chose watercolor relief for several reasons (…besides that I love them). 1) Adding water transforms the paint from something hard into a watery (sea-like?) pigment combining qualities of both paint and water 2) The vibrancy of the colors is dependent on each time you add water which makes it multi-dimensional 3) The transformation to make the relief “appear out of nowhere” like magic.
The presentations of Shakespeare transform today. How many Shakespeare in the Park performances have you heard of? Or even popular films based on the bard? (I wrote a little bit about this after Chicago Shakes Greatest Hits, here). Art continues long passed the playwright’s life and constantly strives for the new in order to change the audience’s perspectives on a classic. Posner and Teller wanted to accentuate the art of magic connected to Prospero and in doing so, exposed truths about the transformation art can cause.

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