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Chicago by John Olson

The Tempest
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre

The Tempest
Frank Galati and
Jon Michael Hill

Shakespeare called for the play to open with "a tempestuous noise of thunder and lightning," and Tina Landau's production begins with a clamor and flash of light that lets you know from the very first split-second that she is not fooling around. Boatswains descend from ropes into the audience and people are swinging on giant poles and hanging from ropes above the stage. The opening thunderbolt knocks the audience out of their seats almost literally, and this production—a muscular and athletic one that's not afraid to explore the darkness inherent in Shakespeare's fantastical comedy—repeatedly knocked me out figuratively and repeatedly throughout the next two and a half hours.

This comedy of Italian royalty washed ashore on a remote island by the sorcery of the former Duke they unseated 12 years earlier is given a tension driven by the power of the performances of the men at its center. Frank Galati as Prospero has a large, imposing presence and an authority that convinces us his Prospero is a man of great power and determination. There's no doubt as to his ability or willingness to exact vengeance on his brother and the others who drove him from power and banished him to the island. He's in control at every moment, and all are appropriately awed. When Prospero finally becomes able to forgive the cabal that banished him, his redemption is all the more powerful because of the darkness that has been shown to be within him.

Jon Michael Hill's Ariel is a wiry and shrewd spirit, doing Prospero's bidding, whether manipulating the castaways while he's invisible or controlling their actions from above the stage with the help of an Apple Macbook. With just a touch of contemporary urban street smarts, he's an indomitable force that would never be taken so lightly as the standard-issue literary fairy. Ariel is assisted by three similarly athletic Spirits—two shirtless young men and a halter-topped young woman (Eric James Cassady, Miles Fletcher and Emma Rosenthal) who gymnastically support his magic. Hill sings, too—belting Josh Schmidt's settings of Shakespeare's poetry well enough to be cast in a musical. (Schmidt, as sound designer, can also take credit for the sonic boom of a thunderclap that opens the show).

Prospero's power and vengeance are underscored by the shackles that tether Caliban, a native of the island confined by Prospero after he tried to rape Prospero's daughter Miranda (Alana Arenas). K. Todd Freeman, dressed in rags and made up with big scars across his bare chest, makes this monster a truly threatening figure.

Providing comic relief is Steppenwolf's Tim Hopper, all dressed up in vaudevillian clown garb as the jester Trinculo. He and Freeman do a clever physical bit in which, all caught up in each other, they're thought by the conniving butler Stephano (Yasen Peyankov) to be a four-monster. Craig Spidle makes a troubled King Alonso, flanked by Steppenwolf's Alan Wilder as his brother Sebastian and James Vincent Meredith as Prospero's evil brother Antonio. Stephen Louis Grush, who played the duplicitous prep student in Steppenwolf's Good Boys and True and William Petersen's quiet assistant in Dublin Carol, gets to be the romantic lead this time. He's an innocent and genuine Ferdinand, the son of King Alonso who is bewitched by Ariel into falling for the charming Miranda, warmly played by Ms. Arenas.

That leaves us with one more cast member to mention, no less than Lois Smith, the heroine of last season's The Trip to Bountiful at the Goodman, and star of many film, stage and TV roles. She brings her trademark humanity to make a trouser role of Gonzalo, the councillor who in his kindness gave Prospero and Miranda the ability to survive their exile on the deserted island. The cast seems to include almost every Steppenwolf company member that didn't get to act in (or write) August: Osage County.

The Tempest is not only Steppenwolf's first Shakespeare in its 33 years, but it's also a visual spectacle that is quite a departure from the realistic, character-driven pieces that are more typical of the company. The simple and suggestive set of ramps, platforms, catwalks and trap doors designed by Takeshi Kata is only made into the island through Jane Cox's lighting design and projections by Stephen Mazurek onto what appears to be a huge mainsail. The action mostly takes place in the imagination, though, and a surreal engagement party conjured up by Prospero that includes a towering princess and giant tulips descending from the flies is a highlight. The performers fly above the stage under the direction of Aerial Choreographer Sylvia Hernandez Di-Stasi. James Schuette's costumes give the piece a relatively recent period look—gaudy 20th century purple suits for the shipwrecked royalty and a muslin coat of later 19th century cut for Prospero.

We've known Steppenwolf for its acting, and its scenic design—often of move-in quality homes or apartments like Todd Rosenthal's Tony-winning three-story house for August: Osage County—is always top notch. Now Tina Landau has proved Steppenwolf can do some mightily magical stagecraft as well. She's brought it all together in a production that I'd guess might even humble Shakespeare if he could come back to see it.

The Tempest will run through May 31, 2009. Performances are Tuesdays through Sundays at 7:30 p.m. (Sunday eve. performances through May 3 only); Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3:00 p.m., Wednesday matinees on May 6, 13, 20 & 27 at 2:00 p.m. Ticket prices are $20-$70. Twenty $20 tickets are available at Audience Services beginning at 11:00 a.m. on the day of each performance (1:00 p.m. for Sunday performances). Half-price rush tickets are available one hour before each show. Student discounts available. For tickets, contact the box office at 1650 N. Halsted, 312-335-1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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