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This Magic Moment: Trust The Tale — And Teller — In A.R.T.’s ‘The Tempest’

Prospero (Tom Nelis) levitates Miranda (Charlotte Graham) with Ariel (Nate Dendy) providing assistance. (Geri Kodey)

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CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Make that “We are the stuff of which magic is made on.”

Posner & Teller doesn’t have quite the ring of Penn & Teller, but now that the silent one is talking it’s obvious that he could have quite a career directing theater if he ever wants to give up his night job. The production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at the American Repertory Theater codirected by Teller and Aaron Posner might not be the most transcendent version you’ve ever seen, but it might be the most entertaining.

Here they are talking about it. Teller speaks, yes speaks, at 1:03.

Coproduced by the A.R.T. and Las Vegas-based Smith Center for the Performing Arts, “The Tempest” takes Prospero’s magic act literally, though the onstage magic is done mostly by the mind-and-body-bending antics of Nate Dendy as Ariel. Along with Teller’s directorial shenanigans. I’ve never had the brainpower to figure out how Teller, or even lesser magicians, do anything so when Dendy’s body is twisted into a dozen knots by Tom Nelis’s Prospero, I’m fine calling it magic and leaving it at that.

It’s one of the many awe-inspiring moments of the show, but perhaps the most surprising aspect is how well Shakespeare and magic are blended. The magic flows organically from the script and even when there is a change you get the sense that if Shakespeare is turning in his grave it’s only because he’s laughing so hard.

Which is a boon to the canon in itself. There have been so many dreary, depressive, anti-colonialist, anti-paternalistic interpretations of the play that you’d think “The Tempest” was one of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Or that Prospero was a stand-in for Caligula instead of for Shakespeare himself.

Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee are the joined-at-the-hip Caliban, getting a workout from Tom Nelis's Prospero. (Geri Kodey)

Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee are the joined-at-the-hip Caliban, getting a workout from Tom Nelis’s Prospero. (Geri Kodey)

Nelis’s Prospero is a whiter shade of magician, which is all to the good, particularly with his solid performance. His love for Miranda, his daughter, and Ariel, his imp, are evident. Rather than standing in the way of Miranda, he’s just checking out the prospective son-in-law. His forgiveness for those who done him wrong — his brother and the King of Naples — is equally genuine.

But even though this began with Teller’s dream that he was Prospero, this isn’t the magician’s show. It belongs more to Dendy’s fabulous Ariel; the two-headed Pilobolus-choreographed Caliban (Zachary Eisenstat, Manelich Minniefee); Eric Hissom’s drunk-as-a-skunk Stephano mixing it up merrily with the crowd; and the fabulous Rough Magic “spirit band,” making Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s songs sound like Brecht-Weill. When you get the rasp out of the music it’s surprising how melodic Waits’ music sounds.

Joby Earle as Ferdinand and Charlotte Graham as Miranda in "The Tempest." (Geri Kodey)

Joby Earle as Ferdinand and Charlotte Graham as Miranda in “The Tempest.” (Geri Kodey)

Of course to many the whole point of Waits is the rasp and the whole point of “The Tempest” is Prospero. Posner’s professed focus is on Prospero’s and Miranda’s relationship. That being the case, I wish he had given Charlotte Graham’s Miranda and Joby Earle’s Ferdinand, the love interest, a little more pluck (assuming Posner was more involved than Teller in directing them). Their naïf-and-nerd act is the least interesting aspect of the production.

The cast of "The Tempest." (Geri Kodey)

The cast of “The Tempest.” (Geri Kodey)

The set is a strange one. Don’t go expecting the lush playground of “The Heart of Robin Hood.” This looks more like a steampunked showboat with the band on the upper tier, occasionally joined by Prospero and Ariel. The action takes place on the relatively bare stage below, as if it’s the main attraction on the showboat.

And what a show. When Dendy isn’t pulling cards out of the air (or from who knows where) and twisting himself into that aforementioned pretzel, the joined-at-the-hip Calibans are somersaulting all over the stage, jackets are turning into wolves, Miranda is levitating, or Prospero is making Ferdinand lean forward at a seemingly impossible angle.

For all that, this is well-acted Shakespeare, clearly and cleverly delivered by actors who know their way around Elizabethan language as well as slapstick hijinx. They’re as much fun to listen to as they are to watch.

So add “The Tempest” to the string of successes at A.R.T. the last few years under Diane Paulus. I’m sure that Teller could have a second artistic home here if he wanted.

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