On a distant island awash in magic, an airy sprite and a tortured mortal meet and form a strange friendship. Together, the two negotiate the meaning of freedom while a distant threat looms over the island: Prospero, the infamous magician from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Theatre Arcturus‘s Rough Magic takes Shakespeare’s The Tempest and gives it the Wicked treatment for the 2017 Toronto Fringe Festival, imagining a potential friendship between The Tempest‘s supporting characters Ariel and Caliban.
Oh, and aerial acrobatics. That part’s important.
We open with a nice nod to The Tempest’s tendency towards metatheatricality. Prospero’s slave Calibran, played by Phillip Psutka, addresses the audience as ‘spirits of the island’ and chastises us for not intervening before his fall from grace. Time then rewinds, and we’re treated to the story of how Caliban fell in the first place: specifically, the story of the friendship he once had with Prospero’s lackey Ariel, played by Lindsay Bellaire, before the morally dubious Duke ever arrived on the isle.
From there, we have a show that’s powerfully acted and beautifully staged. Psutka’s Caliban transforms beautifully from a wild and curious young man to a broken, angry creature. He is utterly raw and vulnerable, his groans of agony guttural and aching, his anger explosive and lost. In contrast, Bellaire’s Ariel is ethereal and calculating, unearthly in every way. Her elegant movements and subtle, shifting performance is wonderfully nuanced. Together, they form a brutal mirror of one another.
In my mind, Rough Magic can be broken down into three parts: pre-Tempest material, post-Tempest material, and—somewhere in the middle—the aerial acrobatics that Theatre Arcturus uses to dramatize both.
Caliban and Ariel’s growing friendship takes place before the backstory we get in the original play. This is where the work really shines, as it has total freedom to imagine what these characters would say to one another and how they might struggle to connect. Ariel is drawn to Caliban’s humanity; Caliban to Ariel’s divinity. Both argue over faith, happiness, and purpose, struggling to reconcile their disparate modes of life and way of thinking, but ultimately growing fond of one another. It’s sweet and compelling.
Midway, the play turns to dealing with Tempest material. Namely, Prospero’s arrival on the island and Caliban’s mother’s trapping of Ariel in a tree. The play feels a bit shackled (appropriately) during this second half, and the plot shifts to the characters reacting to plotlines and scenes from the original play. While it’s staged beautifully (in particular, Ariel’s imprisonment in the tree being represented by the same flowing fabric that had formerly represented the air), it occasionally feels burdened by the need to recount the original tale.
Which isn’t to say any of it is bad: it’s only that the first half feels so wonderfully new and unrestrained that it’s almost a shame to get back to the pre-programmed stuff. If you know the original play, you’ll know what’s coming, and the play (ironically) loses the freedom to play about as it likes. I wish the play had felt comfortable complicating the original a bit more.
The play’s big selling point, beyond the premise, is its use of aerial feats and acrobatics. A giant apparatus takes up the majority of the stage, rigged with a falling ropes and fabric that Ariel and Caliban periodically climb and swing around in. Ariel uses long, flowing pieces of white fabric that beautifully simulate the air; Caliban has a meaner rope, used to simulate an island vine. The show is utterly magical whenever the two of them are tangling themselves up in the air, whether it be Caliban’s rough boyishness or Ariel’s floating flips. This element of the show is utterly unique, and is integrated seamlessly into the narrative. It regularly stuns.
Aside from some small quibbles, Rough Magic is a beautiful show that stands out for a whole host of reasons: its acrobatic artistry, its elegant Shakespearian language, and its powerful performances among them. Consider travelling to the island yourself to experience the beauty and power of this unique show up-close.
- Rough Magic plays at the Randolph Theatre. (736 Bathurst St.)
- Tickets are $12. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Fringe Club at Scadding Court, and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- Content Warnings: Realistic Violence or Gore, Mature Language.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route. We recommend checking in with the venue box office at least 20 minutes before showtime.
- Wednesday July 5th, 10:00 pm
- Saturday July 8th, 12:00 pm
- Sunday July 9th, 08:45 pm
- Tuesday July 11th, 01:00 pm
- Thursday July 13th, 12:00 pm
- Friday July 14th, 05:45 pm
- Saturday July 15th, 08:00 pm
Photo of Lindsay Bellaire by Larry Carroll.