In ‘The Tempest’ at Round House, two actors play a dazzling Caliban


It is, quite literally, two performances rolled into one. Onto the stage they tumble — four arms, four legs, two torsos, two heads — to embody a single character: Caliban, the vengeance-seeking denizen of Prospero’s magic isle in “The Tempest.”

In the hit production of Shakespeare’s lyrical masterwork at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre — staged by the magician Teller and veteran director Aaron Posner — Caliban is portrayed as you’ve never seen him. Two ultra-limber actors — Hassiem Muhammad and Ryan Sellers — in garish body makeup merge limbs and psyches for an electric demonstration of poetry in motion.

The acrobatic moves of the story’s “savage” and misshapen monster have been choreographed by Pilobolus, the Connecticut-based dance company once described by critic Sarah Kaufman as embodying “extraordinary pliancy.” The portrayal proves to be one of the dazzling centerpieces of a production of myriad illusions that has convinced me that Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” with Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, in mind.

I caught “The Tempest” late in a run that concludes Sunday, and I found the embellishments that the directors devised — among them classic magic tricks with playing cards and levitation — leaven the play’s more plodding contrivances. They lend credence to the idea of Prospero (Eric Hissom), a ruler forced into exile with daughter Miranda (Megan Graves), having acquired supernatural powers. But no device seemed fresher than the stuff this dream of a Caliban has been made on. Muhammad and Sellers are called upon to speak the lines, in alternating words or in unison, of a two-headed island monster who contorts in ways you wouldn’t think limbs were built for.

“If you’re crawling on the ground with another body attached to you, you start to feel a certain way,” Muhammad explained in — what else? — a joint Zoom interview with Sellers. “And when you’re beating on your chest, it makes you feel a certain way. And so I think what was beautiful was the movement really, really inspired the emotional life, and inspired what we would do with the text.”

I had gotten Muhammad and Sellers together because I wanted to understand what went into playing a character so entirely in tandem. What extreme depth of trust had to be invested, what degree of psychological synchronicity created, to feel comfortable on a stage and thoroughly propelled into a dual performance? Some of the stunts the actors execute are worthy of Cirque du Soleil: At one particularly astounding moment, Sellers, standing straight, supports Muhammad as he walks, upright and backward, up his partner’s stomach and chest, before leaping off.

It’s the kind of punishing feat that requires discipline, onstage and off, with multiple sessions every week in the gym and regular visits to a physical therapist. “I mean, his back is bearing a lot,” Muhammad said of Sellers. “It’s the back part of his core. And for me, it’s the balance. It’s really weird, I can’t fall, I have no feet — ”

“I’m holding them,” Sellers added. “Yeah,” Muhammad replied, “he’s literally holding them!”

The intertwining of two bodies is an earthy rather than ethereal illusion, one that folds neatly into Teller and Posner’s enchanted-isle conceit. “To do stage magic that also helps in storytelling is hard,” Posner notes in the show’s program. He likens it to the integrated aspects of a big musical: “When is it a dance number … when does the story need to take over? … We were asking that in terms of the Pilobolus movement, in terms of the magic, in terms of the Tom Waits music, in terms of Shakespeare’s text.”

For Sellers and Muhammad, the dialogue is both spoken and unspoken. “The other day, in the middle of one of the scenes, I really hit a wall, I just think I ran out of juice,” Sellers recalled. “And Hassiem could feel it in little changes in the way that I hold my body and the way that I use my language. He could feel that I needed his help. Obviously you can’t stop and discuss it. And you know, he picked it up and he was like, ‘All right, if you can’t push then I’ll pull.’ And he made all the adjustments.”

So to be so reliant on each other, do they have to like each other? “We get that a lot,” Muhammad said, as Sellers laughed and added: “Absolutely. I think we get along.”

They actually didn’t know each other before embarking on the project and spending a week in Connecticut at Pilobolus’s studios, learning many of the moves. Teller and Posner — who 15 years ago created a magical “Macbeth” at Folger Theatre — staged this “Tempest” in 2015 in Chicago. Previously, though, according to the actors, Caliban had been portrayed by Pilobolus dancers, so the Round House character would have its own distinct personality. Muhammad’s last role was as D’Artagnan in “The Three Musketeers” at the Cleveland Playhouse; Sellers is best known locally for his longtime association with Synetic Theater in Arlington.

The language Shakespeare uses to describe the angry, servile Caliban alludes to slavery, which the directors have excised from their production. That this Caliban is played by one White actor and one Black actor, Muhammad said, added a dimension of universality that he appreciated: “The beautiful thing about Aaron’s vision, and I’ve told him this before, is the fact that we have four arms and four legs makes it not about race. I love that we have four arms, we’re clearly a monster, for very obvious reasons that have nothing to do with the color of one’s skin.”

And those arms and legs get a workout. “It’s like doing parkour,” Muhammad said, referring to the hyper-physical sport of jumping and climbing. “If you try to do it like 90 percent, you’re going to fall short. So if we’re not giving 100 percent, 110 percent every show, it doesn’t work. So it is satisfying when you come out and people are on their feet.”

As one might expect, the actors are entirely in sync on this point.

“It’s one of the few times in my career,” Sellers said, “where when I come out and bow and the audience applauds and cheers, I’m like, ‘Damn, I earned it.’”

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