Theater review: Teller’s ‘The Tempest’ ranks among Las Vegas’ most magical productions

The world premiere of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” directed by Teller and Aaron Posner on Saturday, April 5, 2014, in Symphony Park at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Las Vegas.
The Smith Center for the Performing Arts
Jacob Coakley

Five stars

The Tempest Through April 27, Tuesday-Sunday, times vary, $35-$75. Symphony Park, 749-2000.

The Tempest at the Smith Center is a dazzling, raucous and heartfelt triumph. It realizes Teller’s tattered dust bowl shipwreck flawlessly and in its staging displays the deep heart of Shakespeare’s final work.

The tale of the island-bound wizard seeking revenge on those who wronged him could easily get lost under its high-concept and spectacle. Instead, Aaron Posner and Teller stage every moment with such clarity and precision—as in their dumb show to accompany Prospero’s backstory exposition—that not only is nothing lost, the relationships are made more clear, and actors are freed to explore the deeper currents underlying the story.

‘The Tempest’ World Premiere at Smith Center

Teller’s magic is present throughout, but his respect for the material is evident. Illusions, card tricks and sleight of hand—all are in service to the story, and some, like the opening shipwreck, add a depth of emotion rarely found in any production. As the magic and the staging do the heavy lifting, the actors respond by bringing their characters to fabulous, fizzy life. When Prospero’s daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham) falls in love with the prince Ferdinand (Joby Earle), their infatuation is giddy to watch. Nate Dendy, defiant and mysterious as Prospero’s spirit servant Ariel, plays with the audience as he plays with his victims, but even after working the whole play for his freedom, his final, almost regretful look at Prospero points to whole novels of emotional territory.

All the actors in the court manage to create a world unto themselves, and Louis Butelli as Antonio delivers a searing grief that’s a perfect mirror of the hot fire of revenge that burns in Prospero. As Prospero, Tom Nelis carries himself with gravity, and somehow adds a search for forgiveness to his drive for revenge, behaving, finally, as a man trying to do right.

Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee from the Pilobolus dance company are astonishing as Caliban. Their physicality in the role—joined at all times, rolling, jumping and carrying each other across the stage—is wonderfully disconcerting. When Caliban convinces Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim) and Stephano (Eric Hissom) to kill Prospero and the two torsos of the monster each stroke and caress a different person, it’s unsettling in the best possible way.

Daniel Conway’s set—contained within a tent in Symphony Park—perfectly captures Teller’s threadbare circus aesthetic and marries its rundown tatters to a majestic shipwrecked royal court. The lighting from Christopher Akerlind is lush and emotional while remaining completely functional—not a small compliment for lighting a magic show.

And the band! Rough Magic (Miche Braden, Michael Brun, Shaina Taub and Nate Tucker) transforms Tom Waits’ and Kathleen Brennan’s music into the perfect haunted accompaniment for the show.

This production is—there’s simply no other word for it—magical.

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