CAMBRIDGE — A few seasons ago, American Repertory Theater offered the Shakespeare Exploded festival, including an immersive, demented, and largely wordless reimagining of “Macbeth” (“Sleep No More”) and a rafter-rattling R&B-musical version of “The Winter’s Tale” (“Best of Both Worlds”).
Despite its stylistic edge, the ART’s new production of “The Tempest” doesn’t blow up Shakespeare’s play so much as bring it alive in new garb.
The show at the Loeb Drama Center through June 15 was conceived and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller, the silent half of the Penn & Teller team. Inspired, they say in interviews, by photos of a Dust Bowl-era traveling carnival, they bring the magic that Shakespeare alludes to in his text — and more. Card tricks, appearances and disappearances, and a lovely, solemn levitation are all part of the show, along with a gorgeous three-story set, a two-headed Caliban, and songs from the catalog of Tom Waits.
Despite – or because of – all that showmanship and some trimming of the text, the story emerges with clarity and vigor.
Prospero, Duke of Milan, was usurped by his brother Antonio and set adrift at sea with his young daughter Miranda, fetching up on a desolate island previously inhabited by a powerful witch. Years later, having become an accomplished sorcerer, Prospero conjures the titular storm to shipwreck Antonio and his confederate Alonso, the King of Naples, on the island along with their entourage, so he might have his revenge. But love at first sight between Miranda and Ferdinand, the king’s son, helps Prospero see the light and forgive, renouncing magic.
Tom Nelis’s tightly wound Prospero declaims with power, but seems more like a Type A entrepreneur coldly plotting a boardroom coup than a magic-dealing exile possessed by a drive for revenge. That saps some of the emotion from his late-play change of heart, when he sees that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.”
The casting and conception of Prospero’s spirit sidekick, Ariel, is always a key to a production of “The Tempest,” and Nate Dendy is terrific both at the magic and conveying the character’s complex relationship of bondage and loyalty to Prospero. Both insinuating and reserved, he brings to mind a talking Teller as well as Alan Cumming.
Charlotte Graham starts out leaning in a bit too hard as Miranda but finds the right pitch once she and Joby Earle’s Ferdinand meet. Their romance brings needed heart to the production, even though the show casts Ferdinand as comically boyish and nervous.
The hardest-working men in theater now without a doubt are dancer Manelich Minniefee and actor Zachary Eisenstadt. They team up more intimately and more acrobatically than any two performers in memory to play Caliban, the witch’s monstrous son, who is also in service to Prospero. Clad only in loincloths, they interlock arms and legs to vault and twist over, under and around each other, all while delivering their lines with comic force. Designed with the dance troupe Pilobolus, where Minniefee was a longtime member, this is a trick as compelling as any of the magic.
The main comic subplot follows the drunken adventures of the butler Stephano (audience favorite Eric Hissom), who has rescued a cask of wine from the shipwreck, and the jester Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim). Here Stephano is a gonzo type in shades and a long white coat, making wisecracks that Shakespeare never wrote (“You’re in the band!”) and doing comic bits with audience members.
Onstage Americana bands are all the rage these days, at least at the ART, from “The Heart of Robin Hood” at the Loeb during the holidays to the recent Liars & Believers show “Icarus” at Oberon (also inspired by a Dust Bowl carnival, come to think of it). “The Tempest” features a combo called Rough Magic that occupies the second story of the set to perform selected songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, plus incidental music and an endless variety of spooky or comic sound effects. Singer-instrumentalists Shaina Taub and Miche Braden in particular add immeasurably to the dreamy atmosphere.
“The Tempest” was produced in association with The Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas and ran in a tent in that city for much of April. Despite all its razzle-dazzle, though, it exists very much on its own island.