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Music, magic and dance make for accessible ‘The Tempest’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Music, magic and dance make for accessible ‘The Tempest’
“The Tempest,” an adaptation by Aaron Posner and legendary magician Teller, is now playing at the American Repertory Theater. The play features music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.

The version of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” playing now at the American Repertory Theater fuses an extraordinary and colorful world filled with music, magic and dance from playwright and director Aaron Posner and Teller of the legendary magic duo Penn & Teller. “The Tempest” tells the story of Prospero, played by Broadway actor Tom Nellis, an exiled duke and magician, who, after years of living with his daughter Miranda, played by Charlotte Graham, on a magical island must unexpectedly confront the people who wronged him in the past.

Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner with magic by Teller and music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, this production has been a labor of love for both men. Posner and Teller have not only strived to bring Shakespeare’s words to life but have also worked on making the words and vision of William Shakespeare accessible to everyone through the elements of magic, dance and song.

“If I’m evangelical about anything in the world it is the accessibility of Shakespeare, and the fact that he can speak to everyone,” Posner says. “Accessibility goes deep for both of us.

“And we’ve had some fabulous responses of people saying, ‘I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before and I love this,’” he added. (Prior to coming to the ART, the production had a limited run in Las Vegas in April.)

Posner and Teller first met when Teller saw a production of “The Tempest” 21 years ago in 1993. The two united on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 1998, where Teller did some magic for the play. A decade later the two reunited or as Posner said “it was a full-on collaboration” on a production of “Macbeth” in 2008.

According to Posner, their conversation of ‘The Tempest’ has been going on for a while and the significant conversation about ‘The Tempest’ has been going on for about five years. The two have had numerous meetings and workshops and conversations in discussing how they would bring their version of “The Tempest” to life.

“Teller and I have read the play to each other a couple of times as we went through cutting it and discussing where the magic goes and where the music goes. It’s been a labor of love but a tremendous amount of work to bring it to fruition,” Posner said.

When asked about what excited him about bringing “The Tempest” to the ART, Posner says, “I think it will be helpfully fabulous for Shakespeare scholars and for people who love Shakespeare and are seeing their fifth Tempest to compare it to the others. It’s also completely available for people who’ve never seen a Shakespeare play before. For people who are coming because they’re fans of magic, or they’re Tom Waits fans, or they’ve seen Pilobolus or they love dance.”

In addition to the haunting and spare music by legendary singer/songwriter Waits and his writing partner and wife, Brennan, another element that makes this production so unique is the movement of the characters. They’ve been brought to life through the choreography of Matt Kent of the famed and internationally renowned American Dance Company, Pilobolus. Pilobolus performances are characterized by a strong element of physical interaction between the bodies of the performers and exaggerations or contortions of the human body requiring extreme strength, flexibility and athleticism, often blurring the lines between individual performers.

The audience will see these incredible movements interpreted and inspired through the character Caliban by dancers Manelich Minniefee and Zachary Eisenstat. Over the centuries, Caliban (the child of the witch Sycorax who inhabits the island), has been interpreted as a monster, an animal, and a mistreated and misunderstood man. This time around, the character will be played as conjoined twins by the Minniefee and Eisenstat. Of his first time acting role, Manelich Minniefee (who has never uttered a sound in his professional life until this show), says “that it’s about developing a language of movement between us [he and Zach].”

Before landing the role of Caliban, Minniefee did some workshops with Aaron Posner and Teller. Minniefee says “I was intrigued by it right off the bat as a dancer. I got into it through the physical.” He goes on to say that “this role for me has been one of my most challenging roles to date because I’m acting, using my voice and speaking text.” After the workshops a couple of years ago at the ART, it was apparent to Posner and Teller that Minniefee was right for the role. Of Minniefee, Posner says, “He is in his body, a performer. So, the fact that he understands that performance energy through his life and dance was incredibly important. He had all the things you look for in a great actor; which are compassion, connection, humanity, that draws us into him. He’s intensely likeable.”

What makes this version of “The Tempest” so special for audiences according to Posner is “that Shakespeare was a populist. Shakespeare was saying this is for everyone; trying to make it as funny, as dramatic, as magical, as musical as possible. He was a populist playwright and this is a populist production. We’ve been very careful and very eager to provide as many different avenues into the play as possible so it can be as broadly accessible as possible.”

The Tempest is currently playing now through June 15 on the main stage of the Loeb Drama Center of The American Repertory Theater. For more information on “The Tempest” and to purchase tickets call 617-547-8300 or go online at americanrepertorytheater.org.