William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is one of the prolific writer’s most popular and recognizable plays, but even a four-century-old script can seem innovative and new to lovers of the tale — and that’s exactly the case with Round House Theatre’s adaptation of the Bard’s story.
“The Tempest” follows the character Prospero, played by Eric Hissom, a sorcerer who messes with people’s minds. He uses his magic to conjure a storm and torment the survivors of a shipwreck, including the King of Naples and his treacherous brother, Antonio, all in the name of revenge.
Adapted and co-directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (the silent half of magicians Penn & Teller), the reimagined version of “The Tempest” makes strong use of the magic that drives the story, taking advantage of Teller’s experience as one of the foremost magicians in the world.
“Teller and I conceived the production over the last 10 years,” Posner says. “It’s a complicated production, built partially off an early 20th century style of magic — the traveling tent show magicians, inspired by Willard the Wizard, a traveling tent show magician in the South.”
While often productions of the show use magic as a metaphor, it was important to the co-directors to show the magic on stage.
“There are 20-30 moments of magic in the show, with tricks incorporated into the narrative of the action,” Posner says.
Another interesting facet of this version of the play is the show incorporates the music of Grammy winner Tom Waits and mind-bending moves from notable modern dance company, Pilobolus.
“We made it even more musical than usual with about a dozen of Waits’ tunes and a live band on stage, creating even more energy into this world,” Posner says. “We also have the strong movement vocabulary, mostly for Caliban our monster, portrayed by two movers.”
Hissom has done numerous productions of “The Tempest” over his career and was thrilled that this production was so different, bringing the magic to the forefront and making his character a bit more vulnerable.
“Prospero finds himself in a late-in-life transition and there’s some pressure to make some changes on behalf of his daughter to help her find a place in society,” Hissom says. “I feel like I’ve seen glimpses of this in other productions, but I haven’t seen Prospero be vulnerable. Because he’s a wizard and seems powerful, it can be a trap to play it with invulnerability, and I see it differently.”
He also enjoyed learning the magic and connecting it with his acting choices.
“The intention you give toward what the metaphysical event is what sells it,” Hissom says. “It takes all of the artists to make it work right — all of these designers and production folks weigh in and help make the magic come to life.”
Nate Dendy plays Ariel, a spirit that serves Prospero, and he’s been doing magic for most of his life, which was necessary for the character the way the co-directors designed him.
“The kind of close-up magic he does in the show, no actor could learn in a rehearsal period; it’s stuff you’ve had to be doing for years and years,” Posner says. “Prospero’s magic relies on acting and a variety of techniques, but we built the show so the magic could be done by an actor. That’s not the case with Ariel, where we knew we had to have someone who was a full-on magician.”
Both Posner and Teller are evangelical about not doing Shakespeare for Shakespeare scholars, but doing it so everyone can enjoy.
“If you don’t know and love Shakespeare particularly, this is a very accessible production and we worked hard to make the story super clear,” Posner says. “The magic, music and movement is designed to be fully entertaining and pull people through the narrative. It’s a rich, complicated story, but designed for people to have a great time in the theatre.”
“The Tempest” runs through Jan. 29 at Round House Theatre in Bethesda. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit roundhousetheatre.org.