Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s staging of The Tempest was hotly anticipated on fall preview lists, everybody (including me) getting worked up over its various components. Songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Choreography by Matt Kent of Pilobolus. Local favorite Larry Yando in the lead role. And an intriguingly odd couple of directors: Aaron Posner, author of Stupid Fucking Bird, a metatheatrical update of Chekhov’s The Seagull that became a hit for Sideshow Theatre in 2014, and—most fertile for column inches—Teller, the famously silent half of Penn & Teller, who was expected to bring legit magical effects to Shakespeare’s play about an old sorcerer executing his last great trick.
Well, it turns out we were right to get excited. The whole of this Tempest is far more delightful than the sum of its parts. Kind of marvelous, in fact—not just visually striking and plenty of fun, but willing and beautifully able to get at the paradoxes that have made the play fascinating to audiences since, oh, say 1611.
And the central paradox is Prospero, ousted duke of Milan.
When an angry Dorothy Gale calls the Wizard of Oz a “very bad man,” he demurs, saying “Oh, no my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.” Those polarities are reversed in Prospero. Absorbed in his occult studies, he ignored the business of maintaining the state—a grave crime for Shakespeare, inasmuch as the Bard saw civic order as an earthly manifestation of the cosmic design. (Don’t believe me? Check out Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, and any of the history plays.) He’d deputized his brother Antonio to run things, but that only meant condemning the poor fool to envy, intrigue, and, finally, subversion. Mortgaging Milan’s independence for strategic support, Antonio teamed up with King Alonso of Naples to overthrow Prospero. The conspirators put him in a rickety boat along with his infant daughter, Miranda, and pushed him out to sea, where they were expected to drown.
Only they didn’t. Instead, they washed up on a remote and mysterious island presided over by a witch named Sycorax, whom Prospero promptly overthrew in his turn.
None of this seems to have taught Prospero as much as you might hope. When we’re introduced to him, a full 14 years after the coup d’etat, he’s still less than congenial. Punitive, peremptory, tyrannical when it suits him, he’s not above enslaving Sycorax’s grotesque son, Caliban (embodied here by two bodies, those of Manelich Minniefee and Zach Eisenstat, who demonstrate the Pilobolus influence by playing him as something like conjoined twin alligators), or even the “airy spirit” Ariel (Nate Dendy, pale blond and powdered like the hermaphrodite from Fellini Satyricon. Prospero’s idea of auditioning a potential son-in-law is imprisonment with hard labor.
Still, the old man’s long game is reconciliation, and he bends his profound anger as well as his prodigious conjuring power toward the surprisingly sweet goal of making the world safe for the truer magic of love.
Yando is the perfect vessel for Prospero’s contradictory nature. Best known for his annual gig as Scrooge in Goodman Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, he’s practiced at using his lean and hungry looks to express a deep orneriness before they crack open into his big, go-buy-that-goose grin. What happens to his Prospero, though, is far more various, ranging across stages of pain, rage, and melancholy to mischievous joy. He’s positively convulsed at times with the strain of holding on to good intentions.
Perhaps most remarkably, the spells Yando’s Prospero contrives through Ariel suggest much the same struggle between revenge and forgiveness. In a promotional video for The Tempest Teller says that the big question he brought to the production was, “What would it take to make a magician give up magic?” The answer is in Yando’s face and Ariel’s tricks—and in the end, it’s not so very straightforward.
Which leads us to a crucial aesthetic achievement of the show: That despite all the excess implied by big fantasy, neat effects, and a list of cool collaborators, it never feels gratuitous. Everything is grounded in motive and struggle and interaction. Nothing exists merely to make us say wow—though plenty does. v