The Tempest

Kevin Theis (left) as Prospero and Bernell Lassai as Ariel in Oak Park Theatre's "The Tempest." 

A balmy (but not too buggy) summer evening was the perfect backdrop for my first in-person theater experience since March of 2020. It was the opening of Oak Park Festival Theatre's “The Tempest” outdoors in Austin Gardens, and just the act of being able to gather together to see a show made it special.

I hadn't been to OPFT for several years — last time I tried to go, it poured — but the quality of the production seemed about the same as I recalled. The performances ranged from adequate to admirable, and the production values were....inventive and budget-friendly.

Taking her cue from current events, director Barbara Zahora shapes Shakespeare's play to stress the themes of change and forgiveness. Especially early on, one can't help seeing Kevin Theis' brusque and angry Prospero as a tyrant, one who seizes the island from its rightful owner Caliban (Matt Gall) and frees Ariel (Bernell Lassai) from the witch, only to make him his slave. His promises to free the sprite even start to sound hollow.

Prospero's aims regarding the enemies he shipwrecked on the island in the opening scene (shades of climate change) are initially to get revenge on those who wronged him. However, he ends up juggling three fraught situations: the romance between his daughter Miranda (Deanalis Resto) and Ferdinand (Austyn Williamson), only the third man she's ever seen; Caliban's plan to kill his master with the help of drunken Stephano (Orion Lay-Sleeper) and Trinculo (Savanna Rae), and the plot to kill the king of Naples and usurp the throne.

Well, in his case, it's actually the queen of Naples, Alonza (Noelle Klyce). Zahora's biggest change to the play is the sheer amount of gender shifting, though I don't know if this is intended to make a point about parity or a practical consideration of the actors available. In any case, Antonio, the brother who ousted Prospero, becomes his sister, Antonia (Jeannie Affelder), while the kindly old advisor, Gonzalo, morphs into a woman, Belinda Bremner, though the spelling of the name isn't changed in the program. Ditto Trinculo's gender but not the name.

These switches affect how we view the characters and their relationships to some extent, but the one that's most challenging is Miranda's portrayal by Resto, who uses the personal pronouns they, he and she and identifies as queer. Shakespeare's dialogue has been changed to reflect this, and the result is strange. On the one hand, it is interesting that someone growing up in a vacuum might eschew conventional gender roles, and this makes Miranda's spirited sparring with her father livelier than it often is. On the other hand, there's no romantic chemistry between Resto's Miranda and Williamson's Ferdinand.

Naturally, Zahora has trimmed the script. Most of the cuts aren't noticeable, except for the deletion of the masque, made all the more confusing by the fact that Prospero's “our revels now are ended” speech after it remains.

The centerpiece of Zahora's design conception is to transform the magical island that Prospero controls into a garbage dump, which may be a commentary on environmental pollution but doesn't really make much sense. Rusted-out shipping containers dominate Ryan Fox's multilevel scenic design, and lots of junk is scattered about. Rachel M. Sypniewski's mostly loose, flowing costumes don't belong to any specific period, but they sort of suggest several, and Prospero has a requisite long cloak and staff. Liz Cooper's minimalist lighting design and George Zahora' original music and sound design round out the picture, along with eerie vocal compositions by music director Jennifer Harlee Mitchell and various types of movement choreography by Erica Bittner and Mark Lancaster.

To be honest, I've seen lots of productions of “The Tempest” that were better, but I would not have missed this for the world. One caution, however: Social distancing and mask requirements for the unvaccinated seemed to be enforced solely on the honor system. Also, be prepared for the very loud buzzing of cicadas — just one of the joys of being outdoors in summer.

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