“Tempest Redux” punctuates The Bard with unexpected bursts of physical drama

By Christina Campodonico

Jack Stehlin plays Prospero in a version of “The Tempest” that puts heightened emphasis on  physical movement Photo by Enci Box

Jack Stehlin plays Prospero in a version of “The Tempest” that puts heightened emphasis on physical movement
Photo by Enci Box

Shakespeare’s plays are known for their linguistic leaps — playful puns, rhythmic rhymes, beautiful sonnets and eloquent soliloquies — but when director John Farmanesh-Bocca does Shakespeare, he adds even more acrobatic stunts.

In his “Tempest Redux,” an interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” now playing at the Odyssey Theatre, the monster-slave Caliban tumbles and rolls; the ethereal spirit Ariel leaps and turns. On the mysterious island where magician and ousted duke Prospero orchestrates an elaborate plan to shipwreck old foes and restore his daughter Miranda to her rightful place in society, flips are as commonplace as twists of tongue.

But how exactly does one choreograph to a Shakespearean play, or for that matter “redux” it?

“That is really the ultimate question, isn’t it,” muses Farmanesh-Bocca. “How do you choreograph to words? How do you choreograph to Shakespeare without it being dance for dance sake? …

“But that question you just asked has been a 15-year journey for me,” adds Farmanesh-Bocca, who founded his Not Man Apart Physical Theatre Ensemble, which has previously “reduxed” Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” and “Pericles,” to figure out such conundrums.

For “Tempest Redux” Farmanesh-Bocca is working with lead Jack Stehlin (Prospero) and his New American Theatre, but these questions haven’t gotten old for the NYU and Juilliard-trained director, who approaches every “redux” he does — a combination of movement and drama with some scene, setting and casting shifts — with fresh eyes and intense curiosity.

“We pretend we found the play under a rock and that we’ve never seen this play before and immediately try to get away from old tropes associated with that play. … You just examine it bare bones,” explains Farmanesh-Bocca. “What happens is you get in there and you get under the hood and you discover a lot of really, really cool things.”

Then they “‘visceralize’ it,” he says. “We do movement narrative alongside the words.”

In physical theater, that could mean reaching for a glass of juice on a table or picking up cereal with a spoon while reciting lines, but it could also mean chucking someone’s body across the stage and catching it while also delivering a monologue.

“All movement forms are welcome,” says Farmanesh-Bocca. “Everything is incorporated and movement becomes such a heightened language in physical theater that it cannot be mistaken for regular theater — regular theater being two chairs and a table and somebody does a play, right? So it’s really the crossover of straight plays, musicals and formalized dance. We throw everything in the kitchen sink. Basically everything in the kitchen sink becomes physical theater.”

Yet for Farmanesh-Bocca “reduxing” a Shakespeare play does not simply mean adding movements to Shakespeare’s words, or “physical Cliff Notes,” as he says, but integrating those words with movements so that the story comes alive through a completely natural and necessary bodily language.

“Shakespeare’s words in most plays, they have caesura in them, they have little birthing moments or estuaries in the stream, where you can choose something fanciful and wonderful and have a dance, and with ‘The Tempest’, it’s not so much that I took time out to have dances as much as I found a lot of places on this crazy island to incorporate movement. Again, not for the sake of incorporating movement, but for every jump, every leap, every reach of the body it is only to further continue the story,” says Farmanesh-Bocca. “We try to make everything as essential as possible and it’s not an easy task.”

For “Tempest Redux,” Farmanesh-Bocca has streamlined the play even further by paring down the cast to ten and expanding certain roles to accommodate more players. Some actors play multiples roles, while some parts are played by two or three actors. With two actors, Caliban (Willem Long and Dash Pepin) transforms into a two-headed, shape-shifting monster. Ariel, played by three dancers (Shea Donovan, Brianna Price and Emily Yetter), is able to swirl about the stage like a trio of ballerinas.

Farmanesh-Bocca has also arranged his cast so that new character dimensions, alignments and conflicts are exposed. He considers Prospero not a royal, but a refugee and uncovers even more foils between characters.

Shakespeare purists may find Farmanesh-Bocca’s take on “The Tempest” a little unorthodox, but Farmanesh-Bocca is more interested in cracking the play wide open in order to keep the Bard’s stories alive, rather than simply obeying expected Shakespearean conventions.

“While we’re honoring the words and honoring the tradition of the play, we’re also breaking a lot of other rules at the same time,” says Farmanesh-Bocca. “Breaking rules are the tradition.”

“Tempest Redux” continues its run at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays through April 23
at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Tickets are $15 to $34. Call (310) 477-2055, ext. 2 or visit odysseytheatre.com.