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Theater Review:

"THE TEMPEST" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier

BY LUCIA MAURO

There’s a temptation with "The Tempest" – regarded as William Shakespeare’s last play – for directors to get so vigorously swept into a fantastical swirl of special effects, they cause the harsher textual nuances to evaporate.

While no stranger to spectacle, director Barbara Gaines creates a considerable series of spellbinding moments – from the opening "Moby Dick"-esque shipwreck to spirits growing into slim, robed funnels resembling gigantic pastry bags. But, in this graciously empowering production of "The Tempest" at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Gaines does not forget to maintain the stinging clarity of text or venture into the darker recesses of this farewell drama that walks a tightrope between virtue and vengeance.

In the Bard’s sorcery-laden romance, Prospero – the ousted duke of Milan – lives in exile on an enchanted island with his lovely daughter Miranda; his loyal servant-sprite Ariel; and the brutish man-monster Caliban, whom Prospero has enslaved after Caliban attempted to violate Miranda. The displaced Duke has acquired his own magical powers and conjures the title storm to wash ashore his usurping brother Antonio; the King of Naples; and other men of the court. He then proceeds to enlist Ariel to enchant them with haunting visions as part of his larger scheme of revenge.

When the King of Naples’ son, Ferdinand, and Miranda fall in love, Prospero – despite his back-breaking ploy for Ferdinand to prove his love – softens his plans, opting for firm forgiveness rather than wrathful recompense. A subplot involving two drunken clowns – Trinculo and Stephano – who team up with the embittered Caliban to kill Prospero, provides riotous laughs at the same time it candidly addresses the pitfalls of the master-slave dichotomy. In fact, "The Tempest" contains some of the most biting commentary on conquest and slavery.

But, although Gaines does not wholly avoid this subtext, she unifies the broader issues of the play – mainly the theme of forgiveness in a fresh and accessible manner that never talks down to audiences. At no point will audiences feel the need to doze (a common downside to badly directed Shakespearean productions) because every beat, every syllable, every gesture has been meticulously calibrated.

It’s as if Gaines has removed the veil of linguistic incomprehension with the sweep of a Prospero-like wand – except there’s nothing supernatural operating here. The director has obviously dissected every element of the text to make it understandable without spoon-feeding the audience. All the psychological complexities of "The Tempest" remain in tact. And, regardless of the Cirque du Soleil-inspired sprites on wires, more attention is paid to the script than to spectacle (which, incidentally, was not the case in Gaines’ recent production of "King Lear" in which the crackling "elements" drowned out the words). Here the elements mingle gracefully with the text.

She also has made some impeccable casting choices – notably Larry Yando as the disgruntled Prospero, whose vindictive behavior runs counter to his more placid soul. The grief and pained ambivalence Yando registers in his face are as moving as his lyrically spoken poetry. Jay Whittaker is an engagingly earthy-gaited Ariel, truly committed to Prospero yet anxious for his freedom. Ariel is costumed in a sparkly unitard embellished with scraps of fishing net as if he is the offspring of the stars, the wind and the sea.

Other measured performances include Cassandra Bissell as a multidimensional Miranda; Timothy Edward Kane as a loyal and not- so-squeaky-clean Ferdinand; Joe Van Slyke as a treacherous yet insecure Antonio; and James Harms as gentle nobleman Gonzalo. The spirits lend a profound and dreamy quality to the production through their ethereal interpretations of Alaric Jans’ original music.

One of the most brilliant scenes is the decidedly un-hammy "monster" incident when an inebriated Stephano discovers a four-legged beast under a blanket (really Caliban and Trinculo taking refuge from the storm). As Stephano in a deliberately shifting hair piece, Greg Vinkler fully understands the value of comedic serenity and energized stillness He is perfectly accented by Scott Parkinson’s wiry yet deadpan Trinculo and Scott Jaeck’s tragically delusional Caliban (perhaps the most balanced portrayal of the sympathetic savage I’ve ever witnessed).

Neil Patel’s minimalist scenic design, anchored by an ark-like platform, serves as an effective canvas for Robert Wierzel’s creamy gold and chiaroscuro lighting creations. Pamela L. Parker’s frosted icicle scepter for Prospero is an entrancing work of art. Costume designer Nan Cibula-Jenkins’ crisp blend of epaulets and diaphanous fabric bridges the worlds of reason and abstraction; absolutes and ambiguities.

"The Tempest" runs through June 16 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets: $40-$52. Call 312-595-5600 or log onto www.chicagoshakes.com.

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