Is It a Recipe or a Formula?

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Have you ever been seduced by a recipe?

That's what happened to me with the inventive, if dissappointing, new production of Shakespeare's The Tempest at South Coast Rep.

This production’s got a phenomenal ingredient list. First, the play itself. Next, the co-directors - Aaron Posner, who's play Stupid Fucking Bird took Boston Court by storm, and Teller, of magical Penn & Teller fame. Next the collaborators - music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, movement by Matt Kent from the dance company Pilobolus, a great cast, brilliant designers - what could possibly go wrong?

Unfortunately, in both cooking and theater - it's not only the ingredients - it's how you put them together.

You remember The Tempest? Prospero's the usurped Duke of Milan, or as Shakespeare would have it Milan. He's been shipwrecked. His only companions? His teenage daughter Miranda and the creatures of the island: Ariel, his helpful magical sprite, and Caliban, the contorted native he makes his slave. As the play opens, Prospero, with his learned sorcery, conjures up another shipwreck with those who have wronged him in the past and those who will secure his daughter's future. It there's a Shakespeare play that lends itself to magic this is it.

And that's the conceit for this Tempest, Prospero's magic is going to be more than literary - it's going to result in actual tricks.

At the start, it’s exciting. A beautiful two story set fills the stage: it's a cross between a shipwreck and a travelling sideshow. On the upper deck, a trio with upright bass, percussion and a chanteuse who looks to be on loan from a vaudevillian burlesque. Before the play begins, a spotlit Ariel slinks on stage. Clad all in white with the makeup of a Butoh dancer, he starts doing card tricks. Promising, right?

A pattern begins to emerge: a little Shakespeare, a magic trick, a Tom Waits song. Rinse, repeat. For the most part - it's stuff you've seen and heard before: the floating lady, "you're innocent when you dream", you get the drill, right?

The individual parts are wonderful, the trouble is the whole thing never really gels. Just as the Shakespeare gets going . . . it's time to pause for a trick. Or if magic's your thing, there are too many words between tricks.

But more importantly, the magic of Teller begins to usurp the magic of Shakespeare. For me, what's mesmerizing about the Bard are the tricks his words work on your imagination. By making Prospero's magic so overt - so much a stage show - he's oddly reduced to just those tricks, those gimmicks. The words become an obstacle, something to wink at and hurry through.

It's ironic because so much of Penn & Teller's gig has been to expose the artifice of magic and reveal the poetry that lies underneath.

In the end, what we're left with is a sort of Shakespeare - lite. If there's someone you've been dying to introduce to Shakespeare, but who's scared by all words, this might end up being the right recipe for you.

The Tempest plays at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through September 28th.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Banner Image Credit: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey

Running Time: two hours and twenty minutes with an intermission.