In keeping with its twenty-seven-year history of presenting plays that excite, incite, and invite one to think outside the box, Manbites Dog Theater is currently presenting Spirits to Enforce, a 2003 creation by Chicago playwright Mickle Maher. While its main structure is somewhat that of the often-used device of play-within-a-play, like many things both real and pretend, what it is becomes what is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps more than any other play that I have seen, Spirits to Enforce depends entirely on what you bring to it: therein lies its charm, challenge, mystery…and critical problem.

Like its sister arts of music and dance, a theatrical production can be broken down into two parts: its underlying creation and the realization of the creator’s vision. Like an orchestra perfectly playing a poorly composed work, a director and actors can put on a stunning production of a play that may have significant issues that just cannot be overcome. Spirits to Enforce uses Shakespeare’s The Tempest not only as an eye-winking reference to all those who are in the know, but is virtually indecipherable without at least some passing familiarity with at least the basics of what many believe is the Bard’s greatest work. Therein lies the rub, and it is a hard one to ignore.

One of the many charms of a Manbites Dog production is that no matter how often you’ve been there, you never know how the staging area will be configured or even where the audience will sit. For Spirits, we walked into a set that appeared to be a room set up for fundraising. Only thing was, this was supposed to be in a submarine and each of the twelve phone solicitors was a regular person, a superhero, and a character from The Tempest. Attempts to raise funding for a performance of the Shakespeare classic are not going too well until a prospective donor suggests that they both recruit for money and present the play in their superhero guises. Snippets of actual lines from The Tempest eventually work their way into the more mundane pleadings for dollars and each of the twelve characters at some point reveal their tie-in to Tempest characters.

So, what is actually going on? For about the first eighty minutes of this ninety-minute, intermission-less play, there is little if no movement, let alone anything that can be called “action.” There are three tiers of tables, each with four persons at a phone, and there is constant overlapping conversation. I greatly admired and appreciated the enormous amount of rehearsal to reach this level of complex linguistic counterpoint, and it was indeed executed with great skill, but the constant bombardment of disjointed statements with very little talking between the actors, eventually grew very tiresome. After a while, it seemed like the old game show Hollywood Squares where “celebrities” were bellowing out bad jokes while ensconced in a cube. That’s why it was a relief, and quite endearing, in the brief love scene between Memory Lass/Miranda (Jessica Flemming) and The Tune (yes, his superpower)/Ferdinand (Jon Haas) that we had characters who finally interacted.

The middle tier had two of the characters with the biggest parts. Thaddeus Edwards was a commanding presence serving both as Ariel and the quasi-emcee of the story. Marcia Edmundson was equally powerful and, well, Shakespearean as Prospero and The Page (her power!). The incredibly versatile Derrick Ivey, a veteran of numerous shows and characters, was obviously having a blast playing The Pleaser/Antonio. My main complaint with the direction was that the level of each spoken line was nearly the same: hovering near the red zone of a sound meter. Don’t superheroes and/or characters from Shakespeare ever speak at a moderate or low volume? A few of the characters seemed almost superfluous and approaching annoying. Why would the playwright think the 13th time The Snow Heavy Branch incongruously commented on his gondola that it would be funny when it wasn’t the sixth time?

When near the end, the entire cast came down from their tables into a center stage circle to intone lines from The Tempest, it was a welcomed relief in that at least it was something different, although I can’t say I’d want eighty minutes of that either.

I found the disparity between the outstanding acting/direction and the script an enormous chasm. I fully agree with, and try to practice, the idea that the more you educate yourself on what you are spending money and time on, the more you will appreciate it, whether it’s visual arts, music, theater, or dance. After all, if you go to a football game waiting for someone to hit a home run, you’ll probably be bored and disappointed. Spirits to Enforce (the script) crosses the line to an industry insider purposely flaunting his superior knowledge. Spirits to Enforce (the production) is a superbly acted and directed ensemble piece that will leave you thrilled to see a rare experience: twelve great performances on one stage. My advice: find a copy of the CliffsNotes of The Tempest and study, then go.

Spirits to Enforce continues through Saturday, May 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.