Friday, April 3, 2009

The Tempest

For those who find this sort of thing important, I attended a preview performance of The Tempest.

Among the major houses in Chicago, Steppenwolf's the one that's figured this sustainability thing out but good. They're going to continue to find a new audience for themselves, and they aren't forsaking the old for it. I still give the Goodman insane major props for the O'Neill Festival and have a certain degree of renewed faith in them, but they've established a sort of do-it-for-love, do-it-for-money seesaw, playing to two very separate audiences and finding little compatability between the two. Chicago Shakes has all but thrown their hands up, opting to see just what they can physically put on their stage. (When your main selling point for a show is how many gallons of water you fit up there, it may be time to rethink priorities.) Steppenwolf, on the other hand, has somehow managed to walk the line right down the middle, earning prestige, earning ticket sales, and earning artistic respectability all in similar amounts. I think The Tempest goes a long way towards explaining this.

On paper, the show sounds like it has potential to be a Graney-copping big budget post-modern mess. Ariel alternating between football pants and tutus while cuing up sound and music on his MacBook, spirits in red leather hoopskirts and hoods, a hip-hop infused dance number, ziplines and rope ladders above the house, and a shit ton of projections. And yet, the show feels real, feels invested, feels true, and feels a natural extension of Shakespeare's words. And it feels youthful, which is an inviting proposition. You've got Jon Michael Hill, who is quickly becoming one of my favorites to watch, running all over the place with his unsung physical precision; and Stephen Louis Grush, who is not only inhumanly talented, but who also spends almost the entire show topless, revealing a wealth of ink (and as a tattooed actor, this is a big selling point -- mark my words, directors who embrace rather than hide or ignore body art are ahead of their time); and then Frank Galati, whose balance to the proceedings not only adds the necessary sense of gravity, but calm as well -- to have said hip-hop Juno dance light fun time extravaganza lead directly into Galati and Hill on a bare stage shows a remarkable and almost unnoticed ease with both the play and the production. Maybe it's that ease that has me so convinced that Tina Landau has a show for young and old, traditional and no on her hands. This Tempest is able to roll the world it is creating and the world in which it is created into one inseparable amalgam. And, even more to their credit, the Steppenwolf crew do it as if it weren't no big thing, without ATC's "Look what I'm doing!" sensibility or Lookingglass' emotion in spite of a labyrinth of theatricality. They're doing something right -- something progressive and something that doesn't feel it has to prove itself. They're just doin' what they do, for better or for worse.

It's not to say there ain't troubles -- I hope Landau took her extra week of rehearsal to work hard and heavy on those coma-inducing Lords scenes, especially Lois Smith's Gonzalo -- but it still comes recommended as a great example of experimenting in the everyday.


Tonight I'm checking out These United States and Anni Rossi at The Hideout and Saturday is Program B of The Building Stage's Objects In Motion festival. And then... tech week! Hope you've got your Brodie tickets -- we open on April 13th and that's a lot sooner than you'd think!

Also, I don't know that I ever made an official announcement on here, but not long ago I became one of the newest company members of WNEP Theater. Hooray! My first official act as a member will be to bowl my little ass off at the WNEP Bowl-a-thon 2009. I encourage you to come drink, bowl, and be merry with me. And everyone else, I suppose. But mainly me. I also especially encourage you to show your Paul Rekk/Bries Vannon/WNEP support by clicking that link and pledging you some money to my bowling prowess. I recommended pledging per beer -- I'm much better at drinking than bowling.


1 comment:

Ed said...

Also, I hear that 500 nuns went blind sewing Olivia's gown in the Chicago Shakespeare production of "Twelfth Night!" Pass it on.

Scattered thoughts after seeing opening last night of "the Tempest"

I first saw Mr. Grush with his shirt off in "True West"- I'd wondered at the time if the tattoos were just for that particular show (done in henna or something). Apparently not. I don't like to think how painful getting that much ink must have been. Impressive, and heartening to see it isn't hindering his opportunities.

I guess what I responded to best was "The Tempest's" willingness to stay spare and sparse until the spectacle was called for- the stage is actually pretty bare, and they're doing most of their work with light and sound. Since I'm directing a fantasy piece that would have to take that approach for financial reasons even if I was inclined otherwise aesthetically (and fortunately I'm not), it's comforting to see one of the big boys do something similar.

Agreed that Lois Smith was a tough sell. She was hard to understand, seemed to ramble, and I wonder if sticking little mutton chops on her was necessary- the gender of the character doesn't really signify, especially in this production of the play. On the other hand, it's the first production I've seen where Gonzalo's great age and frailty has been emphasized to the point that it actually illuminates the character's drastically different worldview and tendency to ramble on. If only she could draw the audience in a little bit more instead of keeping us as bewildered as her cohorts on stage.

Jon Hill is a rock star. Did you know he could sing? *I* didn't know he could sing.

Frank playing Prospero had better not mean he isn't doing projects in Chicago anymore.

Thank you Tina, for your tireless work against contemporary realism. We'll defeat it eventually!