"The Tempest" is playing at Round House Theatre until Jan. 29. Prospero, a central character out for revenge played by Eric Hissom. He is assisted in using illusions and magic by his collaborator Ariel, played by Nate Dendy. (Courtesy of Scott Suchman/Round House Theatre)
"The Tempest" is playing at Round House Theatre until Jan. 29. Prospero, a central character out for revenge played by Eric Hissom. He is assisted in using illusions and magic by his collaborator Ariel, played by Nate Dendy. (Courtesy of Scott Suchman/Round House Theatre)

Card tricks, disappearing characters and an illusionary twisting head are a few of the moments making audiences gasp during “The Tempest,” William Shakespeare’s 400-year-old play currently at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md., until Jan. 29. This production, a collaboration with Folger Theatre, is co-directed and co-adapted by Aaron Posner and Teller of Penn and Teller.

This version of “The Tempest” was conceived in Las Vegas approximately 10 years ago by Posner, Teller and scenic designer Daniel Conway. They created a world where magic and illusions became characters in a story about revenge that leads to forgiveness. Through many iterations, the play was reconceived for a Chicago production. The Round House Theatre production is the third version of the play with lots of fun magic.

“The Tempest” is playing at Round House Theatre until Jan. 29. Prospero, a central character out for revenge played by Eric Hissom. He is assisted in using illusions and magic by his collaborator Ariel, played by Nate Dendy. (Courtesy of Scott Suchman/Round House Theatre)

“New tricks came in for this version. There were things we tried before that we cut,” said Posner, an award-winning playwright, director and theater professor at American University. “We’re constantly looking at them, asking how we can make them better. In fact, one of my favorite tricks is brand new to this production.”

“The Tempest” opens on a ship being tossed in a storm and music from a trio adds to the storytelling throughout. Accordion player Lizzie Hagstedt sings and plays bass; vocalist Kanysha Williams also plays various percussion instruments; and Manny Arciniega, associate music director, was the lead percussionist on the evening I attended. Pilobolus dance company serves as choreographer for this production.

Prospero is a central character in the play. He is a skilled magician living in isolation on an island with his daughter and Caliban, a two-person hideous monster, who are also servants. Prospero vows revenge on those he feels have wronged him. That includes his brother Antonio. An assortment of characters joins Prospero on this revenge trek, but he did not imagine that his innocent daughter would fall in love with Ferdinand, son of one of his enemies Alonzo, King of Naples. Through numerous perils, Prospero’s heart softens, changing his stance on revenge.

Always hanging around to assist Prospero is Ariel, a spirit that uses magic and illusion more than anyone else in this production. Talk about disappearing acts! Ariel has tricks between his bracelets, under tarp coverings and even some that he delivers from spiral staircases.

The Caliban character, also called “Monster,” is really two actors who move around the stage interlocked for 95% of “The Tempest.” It’s a big show of body strength.

“The idea of having a two-bodied, two-brain person is something Teller and I invented for this production,” the co-director said.

Posner also explained the rigorous rehearsal process to bring the show to life.

 “For the production and rehearsal process, we often had three or four rooms going with movement in one, magic in another and music in another.  This is a larger, more complicated production than most.”

Make plans to see “The Tempest,” now at Round House Theatre until Jan. 29. Arrive early for a special pre-show surprise. Tickets may be purchased by calling 240-644-1100 or ordering online at RoundHouseTheatre.org.

Brenda Siler is an award-winning journalist and public relations strategist. Her communications career began in college as an advertising copywriter, a news reporter, public affairs producer/host and a...

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