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Superhero Shakespeare in Spirits to Enforce

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A favorite of audiences, The Tempest is perhaps even more beloved by actors and writers for its delicious wordplay and its meditations on the magical craft of manifesting ideas, dreams and memories through art.

That's "The Tempest by William Shakespeare"—a line repeated frequently by the phone-banking superheros in SPIRITS TO ENFORCE, Mickle Maher's 2003 theatrical homage to both the play and its special place in the esteem of players and audiences.

If The Tempest's spirit-filled island world can be found in some seascape in your heart, you'll want to see Manbites Dog Theater's production of Spirits. It's a cunning example of artistic appropriation and deconstruction that actually results in something new and valuable. The playwright's approach, free of irony and snark, delights throughout.

Maher seems to have taken The Tempest apart to see how it worked and then put it back together with the pleasingly modern addition of a dozen superheroes to Prospero's island. This explicit equation of contemporary superheroes with the manipulative spirits of earlier literature is brilliant, returning our minds again and again to the idea of using unusual talents to do good and fight evil, and putting a fresh spin on the concept of artist-as-shaman. Here, the superheroes have donned telemarketing headsets in their submarine lair, raising money for their production of The Tempest.

Yes, Spirits is art about art—about bringing form out of chaos—as well as about good and evil powers both spiritual and human. It also contains much riffing on questions of identity. No other local director would have been able to so effectively control all these components while teasing out the beauty and hilarity from the confusion. But Jeff Storer directs his superheroes with the large heart and superb timing that make his work capable of conjuring powerful transformations, both on the stage and in the seats.

Storer's cast is led by Marcia Edmundson as Cecily Grey/The Page/Prospero (secret identity/superhero identity/Tempest character—all the actors are triple-cast). She's lovely. And what a thing, to see a second female Prospero (after Julie Fishell's at PlayMakers) within a season!

Many usual suspects fill out the cast. There are no weak spots, but special plaudits go to Thaddaeus Edwards as Ariel. Jon Haas, better known for his video design—including some clever work here—also stands out, and Jessica Flemming makes a sweet Miranda. Derrick Ivey gets to smile a lot as The Pleaser—and he did the cool set. With excellent lighting by Andrew Parks and sound design by Shelby Hahn, this journey into the mystery of theater pleases all the senses.

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