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The Tempest at South Coast Repertory Theatre: Merging Magic and Music

Last week, I had the opportunity to see The Tempest at South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa. From beginning to end, the show was a delightful intermingling of breathtaking staging, able acting, impressive magic tricks, and of course, timeless Shakespearean text. But as usual, it was the production’s use of music that struck me the most.

The music, written by Tom Waits and his wife and collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, isn’t just a backdrop to the play—it’s a central force that helps drive the action. In fact, the program credits the musicians (who are all on stage playing a variety of odd and beautiful instruments) as the characters “Rough Magic,” named after Prospero’s famous lines, “But this rough magic I here abjure, and, when I have required/Some heavenly music, which even now I do/To work mine end upon their senses…” This production makes good use of the text’s suggestion that there’s a relation between magic and music.

The Tom Waits music perfectly captures the existential, but still darkly celebratory mood that permeates the play. Little is needed to give the famous Prospero soliloquies that end The Tempest more emotional oomph than they already have, but some of the Waits songs, like “No One Knows I’m Gone” somehow manage to gut-punch Shakespeare and non-Shakespeare enthusiasts alike.

Symbolically, the musicians disappear at the end of the play as Prospero’s magic wanes, maintaining the music-magic unity.

I wish I could find a clip of music from the play, but in its place, here’s a Tom Waits song that appears in the production.

For tickets, visit the SCR site here.

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