Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Review: The Tempest

From the moment you entered through the lobby doors into the theatre, Steppenwolf fully immersed you in the world of the play. You are immediately met with an essentially bare stage, littered only with a few dangling ropes, poles and ladders. Indeed this is a blank canvas on which to play upon that would have truly excited the likes of Geoffrey Tennant.

The play began with an appropriate tempestuous crash and a storm truly stunning and monstrous. Actors dangling from ropes above the stage, at the back of the house, and over the audience itself made you feel as if you were really on the ship with the mariners who were fearing for their lives. But that's where it broke down.

It was very quickly apparent that the design for this show was going to swallow up the rest of the action. I was seated in the fourth row and I couldn't hear a mic'ed actor on my side of the stage over the raging tumult - let alone anyone else. "It's the storm," I thought to myself; "I don't really need to hear them." But sadly not hearing and not understanding these actors seemed to be the rule and not the exception for the evening.

Steppenwolf's first foray into Shakespeare looks like, well, just that. The stage was strewn with excellent ideas. The design was one of the best I've seen and possessed a huge range of possibly that was exactly what this story cried out for. Sadly, the ensemble didn't seem to "get" this play beyond an academic understanding of the script.

Perhaps the program notes tell the story best: "What happens if I enter this and don't put pressure on myself to know more than I do or be perfect in some way, and kind of just swim around there and see what happens" says director Tina Landau in describing her approach to the text. Well, it showed because it looked like this play's vision was swimming, over its head, and lost. Many actors didn't understand their lines. Worse yet, we couldn't understand the many of the actors; and I suppose that's what you get when you take an ensemble that is used to doing edgy and contemporary work and try to elevate them to classical theatre. Nobody laughed at the clown's jokes because they couldn't understand what they were saying. Worst of all, the production was uninspired: all the actors (except Jon Michael Hill who stole the show with his energetic Ariel) showed little emotion, no arc, and played all the action at the same bland level.

This production didn't know what it wanted to be. There were elements of Lookingglass Theatre in aerial tricks and rope work. There was stunning spectacle of design like you would find in Mary Zimmerman's work (especially her Shakespeare, Pericles), and of course in this town you could help but wonder what this show would be like if it was set on Navy Pier at Chicago Shakespeare instead of at Steppenwolf on North Halsted.

There are some fun elements to this play that are worth mentioning. The dances and masque with the fairies in Act IV are very beautifully designed and Shakespeare's lyrics are performed in a rap by Jon Michael Hill. Landau and her set designer got it right by choosing to create a mailable and changeable world to work with the play's idea's of imagination and the inconstant seas.

This is not your mother's Tempest which makes it kind of cool. It's definitely worth going to see, but only if you have some advanced knowledge of the play. But it's difference may be its saving grace as it opens Shakespeare up to us in a new way. The group of high school students that were seated by us seemed to really enjoy the play - especially some of the more visually stunning moments created by an excellent team of designers.

Happy Birthday: Fred Ebb (1933-2004)

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