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Magic Reigns At Chicago Shakespeare Theater's 'The Tempest'

By Melody Udell in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 21, 2015 8:50PM

'The Tempest' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Larry Yando cuts an impressive figure of Prospero, the lead in Shakespeare’s most mysterious yet romantically satisfying plays—The Tempest.

Well-coiffed and cloaked in a midnight-colored velvet cape, Yando plays up Prospero’s competing personas—powerful sorcerer, wronged nobleman and conflicted father—with his usual aplomb. But even with a commanding presence like Yando at the helm, it’s difficult to keep Prospero from being eclipsed by the true star of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s mesmerizing production of The Tempest: the element of illusion.

The show’s directors—Teller (of the famous magician/comedy duo Penn & Teller) and Aaron Posner—have conceived a show that fully-leverages the fantastical, utilizing the very same magic tricks that Prospero so deftly conjures within the play. The illusions themselves, while mind-boggling, manage to meld seamlessly into the plot from the very first scene, where we witness the exiled Prospero invoke a storm and shipwreck the very people (his own brother included) who banished him to a remote island years ago.

Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s blues-infused score—beautifully performed by a quartet of on-stage musicians—and Daniel Conway’s ethereally nautical set design add to the show’s mystical aura. The appropriately eerie Nate Dendy as Ariel—Prospero’s enslaved “spirit” and fellow illusionist—contributes here, too: His ghostly, doleful presence as he guides the shipwrecked crew straight to the revenge-seeking Prospero adds a deep layer of intrigue throughout. It’s only when we encounter Prospero’s daughter, Miranda (Eva Louise Balistrieri), that the show veers into more light-hearted territory: The magic that occurs as she falls in love with Ferdinand (Luigi Sottile), the prince of Naples who washed ashore after the shipwreck, is no sleight of hand.

In more typical iterations, the emotional payout comes when Prospero decides to give up on his quest for revenge, and instead grants forgiveness to his enemies and denounces sorcery altogether: “This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff/ bury it certain fathoms in the earth/and deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.”

While still emotionally charged, Prospero’s emotional arc can’t help but be upstaged by this production's grandiosity—its defining elements that suggest there’s more magic to do, and less soul to bare. But nonetheless, The Tempest is bold and compelling; just the type of “brave new world” that helps Shakespeare resonate with contemporary audiences.

The show runs through Sunday, Nov. 8 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-5600 or online.