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  WINDY CITY TIMES

THEATER REVIEW The Tempest
2009-04-15

This article shared 3127 times since Wed Apr 15, 2009
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Playwright: William Shakespeare. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Phone: 312-335-1650; $20-$70. Runs through: May 31

BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE

We open with a bang—a crash of thunder, to be specific—to find ourselves in the midst of a furious ( but fortunately, dry ) storm at sea. Sailors scramble over the ship's rigging above our heads as its terrified passengers, clad in slickers and sou'westers charge down the aisles to the forward deck—er, stage.

After so spectacular a prologue, however, Shakespeare inflicts on us two long expository scenes, pursuant to launching not one, but four distinct plot lines invoking four vastly different modes of discourse. With storefront troupes, this usually brings the pace to an abrupt halt for the next three or more hours, while for generously funded companies, it constitutes an invitation to drown the text in expensive cinematic furbelows.

Oh, but not Steppenwolf, essaying its first Shakespeare play after 33 years of single-minded adherence to an aesthetic based in visceral empathy. Director Tina Landau's framing devices encompass a wealth of special effects: IMAX-sized video projections, Magritte forests of flowers, actors flying on slide-of-life wires off balconies and boxes, exposed catwalks, trapdoors, winches and turntables on a constructivist set where the house lights burn as bright as those onstage for much of the action. But none of these gimcracks would hold our attention for more than an instant if they were not folded seamlessly into a fluid panorama of multisensory motifs that zip along like a waltzing roller-coaster, sweeping us—most comfortably—along with it for a vigorous two and a half hours while remaining firmly anchored in its text's intellectual integrity.

This dazzling array is not without its individual contributions: Frank Galati's unsurpassable phrasing. Lois Smith's cross-gender portrayal of the elderly Gonzolo. Alana Arenas and Stephen Louis Grush's full-blooming chemistry as the young lovers ( the latter sporting Yakuza tattoos that we are to assume are the fashion in Neapolitan court circles ) . The raw psychological depth brought by K. Todd Freeman to the sci-fi role of Caliban. Jon Michael Hill's iconic performance as an Ariel who oversees the action from his computer-equipped lifeguard's chair, when not garbed in Tina Turner drag for a carnival-float ride, or crooning as sweetly as Smokey Robinson, or embracing his newly-won freedom with a joyous cry that we want to cheer aloud.

Other Wagnerian interpretations of classical repertory in recent memory may have collapsed under their own weight, but Landau's vision succeeds in both concept and execution, making this arguably 2009's first bona fide blockbuster hit.


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