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Magic and comedy power an enchanting ‘Tempest’ at Round House Theatre

Caliban is a double-headed being in Round House Theatre's production of Shakespeare's “The Tempest.” (Scott Suchman)
3 min

An earlier version of this review incorrectly listed Ryan Phillips as "The Tempest's" magic consultant. He is the show's magic coordinator. The story has been corrected.

In an exhilarating production of “The Tempest” now at Round House Theatre, Caliban is a double-headed being, with two torsos and two muscular sets of limbs that hurtle him around the play’s charmed-island setting. A pair of comparably fused strengths — entrancing magic tricks and very funny comedy — triumphantly power this endeavor, adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller (of Penn & Teller renown).

Interview with Posner and Teller

The rarer component, the magic, is as eye-catching as it is suited to Shakespeare’s tale of enchantment and reconciliation, making it no surprise that this “Tempest” has had several incarnations across the country since debuting in 2014. Objects and people defy gravity under the command of the sorcerer Prospero (Eric Hissom) and his supernatural servant, Ariel (the marvelous actor and magician Nate Dendy, eerily deadpan). A storm’s menace manifests in a bowl of water, thanks to a chilling illusion. Decks of cards propagate, fly, dissemble and reconstitute after being shredded.

The magic pulls us into a world of wonder, which also brims with comedy. After falling hard for Ferdinand, Prince of Naples (a terrific Ro Boddie), Prospero’s heretofore innocent daughter, Miranda (Megan Graves, priceless), shifts abruptly into come-hither mode, to hilarious effect. The nitwits Trinculo and Stephano (Richard R. Henry and Kate Eastwood Norris) clown expansively. Sometimes comedy even suffuses the magic, as when a trick involving a cabinet-like contraption suggests a Houdini foray into Looney Tunes.

The comedy has a winning warmth, which is shared by more serious scenes as the fine acting digs into the characters’ individuality and flaws. In one very funny sequence, Prospero betrays a stodgy side at odds with his occult pursuits, nearly sputtering with indignation as he cautions Ferdinand away from hanky-panky. Not long after, in a remark about a dazzling illusion that has “melted … into thin air,” the magician’s tone hints at deep sadness about change.

There’s poignancy, too, in the restless Caliban, jointly portrayed by Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers, who grapple, fling and balance each other with astonishing athleticism. (The dance troupe Pilobolus choreographed.) But he’s also uncanny, often speaking in unison in two spooky voices. Elsewhere in the cast, the shipwrecked Alonso (KenYatta Rogers), Sebastian (Kevin Mambo), Antonio (Cody Nickell) and Gonzala (Naomi Jacobson) are admirably vivid.

Anchoring the humor and spectacle, and adding rich atmospherics, are the show’s scenic and sonic elements and Sarah Cubbage’s sharp retro costumes. Daniel Conway’s set is part cross-sectioned ship, part seedy carnival sideshow, with an upper-level bandstand. Here, cast members Manny Arciniega, Lizzie Hagstedt, Kanysha Williams and Ian Riggs provide music, most noticeably bluesy renditions of songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, which sound spot-on in this quirky, enchanted realm.

With music, magic, movement and sideshow ambiance, there’s a lot going on in this production, produced in association with Folger Theatre (where Posner and Teller’s “Macbeth” was seen in 2008). But the proceedings don’t feel overpacked or busy. Indeed, the air of profuse activity helps conjure an island that, as Shakespeare made clear, seethes with spirits and mysterious music. “The isle is full of noises,/ Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” Caliban observes. Like his stomping grounds, this “Tempest” is full of sensory richness and delight.

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner and Teller. Magic by Teller, Johnny Thompson and Nate Dendy; lighting design, Thom Weaver; sound, Andre Pluess; music director and additional arrangements, Liz Filios; original music director and arranger, Shaina Taub; properties, Andrea “Dre” Moore; magic coordinator, Ryan Phillips. Two hours 30 minutes. Through Jan. 15 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100.