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Theater Review:

"HFOB-N-TEMPEST," TriArts/Adult Swim Ensemble at Stage Left Theatre


Anyone expecting Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" or a passive theater-going experience at "Hfob-N-Tempest" will be either sorely disappointed or wildly ecstatic. The brainchild of Noel Williams and Allison Latta of the boundary-less TriArts/Adult Swim Ensemble, this commedia dell’arte spin on the Bard’s magical romance set on a mysterious island yanks the audience into their intelligently twisted comedic sphere. But the performers are sensitive enough to make viewers feel safe even if they’re asked to hum a theme song for an evil princess or hide the matches meant to roast the gruff Queen Gert.

The evening I attended featured an animated, good-natured crowd obviously familiar with the vocal and gestural demands of commedia dell’arte. So much of the action of this 70-minute circus/teatro buffo performance piece depends on an uninhibited audience willing to improvise at unexpected moments. And, while modern audiences long jaded by the frantically physicalized antics of commedia-based clowns may roll their eyes at the work’s seemingly facile stunts, "Hfob-N-Tempest" demonstrates an intricate mastery of a complex theater vocabulary – one that marries the circus arts with quite an articulate form of slapstick.

The ensemble has created rather sketchy parallels to the familiar figures in "The Tempest." But they are not commenting on or deconstructing their source as much as using it as a guide to concoct a series of rambunctious bits. Prospero is a doddering cook named Ralph Cornwallis, trying to protect the virginity of his daughter Chastity (who wears an enormous belt of tin cans and cow bells). After preparing a corn chowder that causes the royal family’s ship to capsize (on its way to the Kingdom of Fromage), strange reversals occur – the main one having to do with effeminate curly blonde-wigged Prince Leslie who transforms himself into a clumsily macho Latin lover in ill-fitting leather pants.

We also have the plotting Princess Grace, trying to usurp the throne from her witchy mother, Queen Gert; a horny dog named Vera (a cross between Ariel and Caliban); Squab, a scrappy fellow (also Caliban-like), who tries to get his island back from Ralph Cornwallis – eventually trying to attack him with a turkey baster; and a Russian peasant couple who think they’ve died and re-awakened as depressingly un-funny ghosts.

In the end, plot is not as important as the cast’s agility – from twirling on the Spanish Web and zipping around a tiny space on trunks with wheels, to split-second quick changes. Although the artists can push the insanely creative and subversive element even more, overall, they deliver a fast-paced contemporary interpretation of an important medieval theatrical form.

Most impressive is the cast’s flawless skill at embodying their evocative masks and tackling vastly divergent multiple roles. Six performers fill the stage with what seems like a cast of thousands clanging and pratfalling their way through a live cartoon.

Williams and Latta prove to be the most versatile – especially Williams’ silent but facially animated Chastity and raunchy canine Vera, and Latta’s bunglingly self-righteous Ralph Cornwallis. Other energized performances include Meredith Weeks’ hapless, Dead End Kids’-style Squab; Allen Hope Sermonia’s puffed-up faux Spaniard; Brian Loevner’s lovably burly Sergei; and Patricia Austin’s desperate drama queen Staci.
Production/lighting designers Troy Fujimura, Simon Lashford and Carrie Loevner have fashioned an atmosphere of tangled vines and nets – apropos for artists eager to scale the fourth wall and catapult themselves into that typically hands-off territory known as the audience.•

TriArts/Adult Swim Ensemble’s production of "Hfob-N-Tempest" runs through February 16 at Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield. Tickets: $15. Call 773-866-8082, ext. 1 or log onto

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