By Danielle Farrow
Rough Magic is a refreshing fantastical action-adventure, with characters from The Tempest and other classical plays as comic-style heroes and villains. Set in contemporary Manhattan, it follows the struggles of a ‘raven-haired magician’ called Melanie and her admirer Chet, ‘a child warrior’, as they fight to overcome the evil sorcerer Prospero.
Just as Shakespeare often took liberties with the stories and characters he inherited, so Prospero, Caliban and Ariel are rather different from Shakespeare’s versions, and the changes reflect some of the concerns of modern society when viewing Shakespeare’s Tempest through colonial and racial spectacles. This is in no way overt, avoids any kind of preaching or straight racial role reversal, and is able to explore some deep aspects of control and domination with a light hand.
Indeed, playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has created an entertaining piece, with a great deal of humour, some thrilling excitement and a decent look at self-belief and confidence. While occasionally pace suffered for a scene-change or two, or was not quite flowing smoothly within scenes, the performers of the Hostos Repertory Company – though somewhat varied in their acting skills – committed wholeheartedly to their roles and the importance of saving Manhattan. Both Melanie and Chet carry the story with strong performances, Chet impressing particularly in a portrayal that was both completely serious and utterly hilarious – often the best way to play comedy, and certainly a great way to make contrasting tragedy stand out and grab the audience by the heart.
There are some fine touches, such as the academic that starts the show treating the audience as students, the nightclub running Fury Tisiphone (drawn from The Oresteia), the changes wrought on Caliban and ways in which violence is handled. Sound and music highlight the action well, and the staging is simple, with a couple of chairs and tables and a few books for dressing. Right from the start, with the audience entering to see the stage full of intriguing, stationary characters, Ángel Morales’ direction is clear, always serves the story and fills the stage space excellently.
The interweaving of classical play characters and a few theatre practices into this modern adventure works beautifully, allowing some accumulation of knowledge without seeming in any way obviously ‘educational’, and all the elements of action-adventure and fantasy, along the lines of comic books and Harry Potter, are included seamlessly.
Rough Magic is fine entertainment, well-scripted and directed, with some strong performances and – with its mix of fantasy, adventure and classical allusions – it also, in a city filled with shows, offers something worth watching that is just that little bit different.