A Shakespeare text is far more than merely the sum of its elegant language. When it's successfully staged — and often that's despite radical pruning, contemporizing concept overlays or outright adaptation — it becomes a Renaissance Gesamtkunstwerk, an encompassing treatise of moral philosophy articulated with drama, spectacle, music and dance. The Q.E.D. of that philosophic argument is always found in the persuasive force of a defining performance.
That's exactly what's on offer in a majestic and thrilling, semi-musicalized adaptation of The Tempest, now in the midst of a must-see, four-week run at South Coast Rep.
Co-conceived and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (the “usually silent half” of the magician team Penn & Teller), and featuring an original, Kurt Weill–inflected songbook by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, the production ingeniously transports the Bard’s fanciful tale of vengeance, reason and justice to a circa-1930s tent magic show.
Miche Braden’s musical direction is supple, and Daniel Conway’s tiered set is accomplished. But the most spectacular coup of the staging is Teller’s seamless integration of classic illusions from his encyclopedic bag of magic tricks. These include Prospero (a spot-on Tom Nelis) conjuring the inciting storm of Act 1 with a basin of water and a toy sailboat, to the expert card-deck flourishing and sleight-of-hand practiced throughout by his aloof spirit assistant, Ariel (the affecting and effective Nate Dendy), to the time-honored “levitating woman” trick that Prospero carries out on a sleeping Miranda (the delightful Charlotte Graham).
The other big surprises of the show include the two-man Caliban (the amazing Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee), who takes the stage as a comically scatological and acrobatic Cirque Nouveau act (choreographed by Pilobolus’ Matt Kent), and the realization of just how funny The Tempest can be, thanks to the edgy clowning of Eric Hissom’s Stephano and Jonathan M. Kim’s Trinculo and the fine screwball turn by Joby Earle as Ferdinand.
But what finally makes the magician conceit more than mere gimmick is the poignant lyricism that the legerdemain develops in the drama. Among its many resonances, the core “romance” in The Tempest is between Prospero and Ariel (the artist and his art), and under the crystalline clarity of Teller and Posner’s vision and the perfect pitch of a flawless ensemble, that big heart becomes movingly explicit at center stage.
To appreciate just how skillful and delicate an achievement the Teller-Posner Tempest is, one need only drive to Pasadena to witness co-directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott’s leaden and murky Tempest dressed up in 1920s clothing (by costumer Angela Balogh Calin), which is opening A Noise Within’s 2014-15 season.
Featuring a gender-switched Prospero (an indifferent Deborah Strang) and the attractive stage pictures contributed by designer Frederica Nascimento’s Gaugin-derived scenery cutouts, this Tempest comes across as an under-thought and disjointed collection of performances in search of a unifying vision.
Elliott acquits himself well enough as a glumly brooding but oddly unfunny Caliban, and William Dennis Hunt is a standout as a dithering yet wise Gonzalo. But with few other exceptions, the ensemble mostly achieves little more than plummy recitation, bereft of any real sense or feeling for what might lurk beneath the language.
The Tempest at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; through Sept. 28. (714) 708-5555, scr.org.
The Tempest at A Noise Within, 3352 E Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; through Nov. 22. (626) 356-3100, anoisewithin.org.