Curtain Call: William Shakespeare and Tom Waits Make Not-So-Strange Bedfellows

A new adaptation of <em>The Tempest</em> adds magic and movement in a way that Shakespeare might have loved

Imagine you could summon a team of warriors to vanquish the foes who had exiled you to a remote island. Who would you choose? Would you consider Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, Teller (of Penn & Teller), and Pilobolus? It is precisely this combination that director Aaron Posner selected for a new production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempestwhich opens this weekend at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. Though they might not be the best fighters, this eclectic lineup makes one hell of an interesting team.

In The Tempest, the sorcerer Prospero, after being cast away to an island for a dozen years, conjures up a violent storm. The tempest forces King Alonzo and his entourage, who are returning from his daughter’s wedding in Africa, to abandon ship and they’re stranded on the same island as Prospero. The storm doesn’t end until those who once wronged the sorcerer have repented.

Posner, who shares adaptation and directing credits with Teller, wrote Stupid Fucking Birds, which recently concluded a run at Boston Court in Pasadena. He also collaborated with Teller on an adaptation of Macbeth. His adaptation of the Chaim Potok novel My Name Is Asher Lev was named Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play by the Outer Critics Circle for 2012-2013 and was recently staged at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.

The Tempest is a play I had directed twice and interestingly, people love, but it is hard to make work,” says Posner. “Teller had been obsessed over 40 years ago with the magic relating to Prospero. We had a great experience on Macbeth and were eager to work together again. What would make The Tempest truly magical? We have a magician at the center of the story and we have a magician [Teller] who can create effects that can put the audience in the same role as the magician.”

First, the milieu in which this magic took place had to be determined. “We were inspired by a traveling tent show magician named Willard the Wizard,” Posner reveals. “Teller thought that the early 20th century magician would be perfect. That put us in a dustbowl setting. Once we had Willard, [Tom] Waits seemed like the right musical equivalent for it.”

Even though singer and songwriter Waits (“Closing Time,” “Heart Attack and Vine,” “Bad As Me”) maintains a low profile, Posner says getting him on board wasn’t difficult. “Teller had worked with Waits on Frank’s Wild Years at Steppenwolf [in Chicago]. Waits liked that what we were doing was out of the ordinary; he likes things that are esoteric and push boundaries. We are thrilled to have his permission. They [Waits and collaborator/wife Brennan] were happy to share the whole songbook and offered whatever is most helpful to make it work.”

The final piece of the puzzle involved adding movement to the show. Posner turned to Matt Kent, associate artistic director of the Connecticut-based dance company Pilobolus. In The Tempest, Prospero, encounters the half-human Caliban, who ruled life on the island before Prospero’s arrival but ends up an embittered servant to him. “Trying to understand monsters and their movements is where Pilobolus came in,” says Posner. In this production, two people perform as Caliban. “We have a two-voiced, two-bodied Caliban. The magic, the movement, and the music all rise out of the needs of the story. Something we talked a lot about was the difference between a good idea and a cool idea.”

How closely does Posner think this production might resemble the author’s original vision? “That’s an impossible question to answer,” he says but without hesitating continues, “Here’s the truthful answer. We have worked so hard to connect every trick and song to the story. Whether he would have written it this way, I don’t know. I feel very certain he would have been very happy with it. William Shakespeare would love Waits’s music. He’d be thrilled by Caliban. I’ve seen productions of The Tempest that bore no relation to what he wrote. If he saw this, he’d say, ‘This is what I meant.’”