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It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's a Shakespearean Character?

By Suzy Evans in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 27, 2009 6:20PM

2009_03_thetempest.jpgCirque du Soleil meets Shakespeare in The Tempest at the Steppenwolf. The Tempest is the company's first Shakespeare show, and instead of taking the obvious route, they teamed up with circus and performing arts school The Actors Gymnasium in Evanston, where some actors had to "learn to fly."

"Safe is not exactly what I do," said Sylvia Hernandez-DiStasi, co-artistic director of the Actors Gym and aerial coach for The Tempest. Hernandez-DiStasi is also an artistic associate at Lookingglass Theatre Company, where she has created circus-esque choreography as well. While she usually works at the Gym where trapezes and type ropes are commonplace, Hernandez-DiStasi was unfamiliar with the Steppenwolf's facilities and knew the theater was not built for advanced aerial acts. "It's more challenging, but it's also more fun because it pushes you to think in different ways," she said about working in a new space.

In order to accommodate the choreography, the Steppenwolf had to build a set where aerial movement would be possible, and the Chicago Flyhouse, a local rigging company, helped build a safe and functional set for the production. Hernandez-DiStasi said she mainly choreographed with ropes, pipes and ladders, and four characters - the three spirits and Ariel - participate in the off-the-ground tricks. However, Hernandez-DiStasi told us that other actors might join in for some floor stunts if they are willing. "It's one thing to tell people, 'We want you to be up in the air for this whole show. How do you feel about that? Oh and by the way, how would you like to stand on your head?" she said.

None of the actors is a trained circus performer, but Hernandez-DiStasi said director Tina Landau knew she wanted the actors to be agile. Although Hernandez-DiStasi was not involved in casting, she has already worked with a couple of the actors. The Actors Gymnasium teaches movement to Northwestern University theater students, and two of actors were in her class there. And while the performers might make the moves look easy, they still have their fair share of pain. "Wrapping yourself up in a rope and hanging by your foot hurts," Hernandez-DiStasi said. "That's another thing a lot of people don't really notice or understand."

Well, we think hanging by your foot sounds dangerous, but she assured us nothing bad is going to happen. "It's going to look dangerous, but it's never going to be unsafe."

The Tempest runs through May 31 at the Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre. Tickets are available on the website.

Photo of Ken Blanc and Nate Crawford welding a steel bridge. By Marc Campbell via Steppenwolf website