“The Tempest Replica,” a hybridized mime-dance-theater interpretation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” begins with an exquisite piece of storytelling. From the first moments of this production by Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, the theater seemed to shake with cracks of lightning, rain and cries of despair. So enveloping was the storm — visually, aurally, emotionally — that you felt it in your bones.
All this was achieved through simple, minimal stage magic: sound effects, projections on a silver scrim and clever peekaboo illuminations of dancers whose slipping and sliding was uncannily convincing, as if the American Dance Institute’s stage were a ship being tossed by waves and washed in seawater.
In the original “Tempest,” with its central character of Prospero, a revenge-seeking magician, and its themes of control and freedom, captivity and release, Shakespeare gives us a lot to think about regarding the magic that is available to all of us: the powers of creativity and the imagination. On Saturday, with that terrific opening by Pite’s Vancouver-based company, Kidd Pivot, we seemed to be hurtling down a similarly fruitful, if abbreviated, path. Pite’s 80-minute miniature of the play focused on the enchantments that can be conjured through the body.
For a while, this works. The characters move with a taut, stretchy elasticity, in a sort of rubberized, postmodern, Bob Fosse style. For the first half, all but Prospero wear white — including beaky, featureless face masks — which enhances the dreamlike quality. The drama unfolds efficiently, in concise vignettes helped along with surtitles. The back story of how Prospero was betrayed by his brother and set adrift at sea with his child, Miranda, to die is told through stylized silhouettes reminiscent of Indonesian shadow puppets.
With its white backdrop and white floor, the island setting feels like a sterile laboratory where anything can happen; it is a delightfully unsettling oasis in the sea of darkness that encloses the audience.
So far, so good. But then we’re dragged through a scene-by-scene ticktock that, for all its bright-white glow and snappy, off-kilter movement, eventually becomes murky. In rising and falling waves, this “Tempest” gains and loses momentum. At one point, Miranda and her shipwreck-survivor beau, Ferdinand, break into a bouncy, high-stepping swing dance to big-band music. Too soon, it’s over, and the slow, sticky sense creeps back in. If there is music, it’s banal filler; most of the work proceeds in silence punctuated by sound effects. And those face masks? First, they looked chic and modernist; then, you feel you’re watching a fencing team take on the school play.
Telling a complicated story through mime is a large undertaking, and Pite only fitfully succeeds. Choreographers are understandably drawn to Shakespeare, but I’ve seen only one work that comes close to doing him justice: Jose Limon’s masterpiece “The Moor’s Pavane,” which squeezes a few drops of blood out of “Othello.” Just a few, and it doesn’t try to be a narrative.
When Prospero’s line to Ariel, his enslaved magical spirit, is projected on the backdrop — “But yet thou shalt have freedom” — it feels like a hopeful sign for a weary audience member. There’s more encouragement from a glorious love duet for Miranda and Ferdinand, as the two lift and swing each other, always spiraling, spinning, sweeping currents of fresh air through the stagnant space. This is where Pite’s true magic lies, in the sweep and rhythm of her choreography, which feels like jazz. It’s unpredictable, angular, running in one direction, then heading somewhere new that you never saw coming. It is moments such as this one where you might believe in Miranda’s famous line: “How beauteous is mankind! Oh brave new world, that has such people in’t!”
But Pite stays too close to her source, and this is her undoing; her choreography doesn’t enthrall us the way Shakespeare’s words do.