Coming through the pandemic storm with The Tempest | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Coming through the pandemic storm with The Tempest

A trash island forms the background for Oak Park Festival Theatre's outdoor staging.

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Choosing The Tempest as their first show to break the enforced theatrical silence of the past 16 months makes a lot of sense for Oak Park Festival Theatre. Shakespeare's late romance celebrates the "rough magic" of finding redemption, love, and freedom after storms both literal and metaphorical have knocked the characters on their asses. We can relate, certainly.

But at least since Jonathan Miller's acclaimed staging for Britain's now-defunct Mermaid Theatre in 1970, there has been a tendency to see Prospero's island as a metaphor for colonial exploitation. Banished from his own kingdom by the perfidy of a sibling, Prospero turns into a brooding tyrant to the "mooncalf" son of a witch, Caliban, whose mother previously controlled the land, and Ariel the sprite, who longs for freedom and hopes that doing just one more task for Prospero will bring it. Even his beloved daughter Miranda doesn't always seem capable of breaking through the carapace of Prospero's resentments. And even regaining his "rightful" place in the social pecking order by play's end doesn't seem to give him much satisfaction.

Barbara Zahora's staging for OPFT offers what appears to be at first more an environmental parable than a commentary on white supremacy and imperialism. In her opening-night preshow comments, Zahora referenced the world of the play as inspired by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—that enormous floating mass of plastic and debris in the north Pacific. Ryan Fox's set design, with its piles of boxes and plastic bags, backed by a rusted-out shipping container, certainly suggests a junkyard more than a tropical paradise.

But that's inevitably offset by the offstage world of Austin Gardens, a verdant oasis in the middle of downtown Oak Park that OPFT has called home for decades. The remarkably pleasant temperatures and mosquito-dissuading breezes opening night stood in contrast to Prospero's rough-hewn island of misfit toys. 

It's here where he summons the title storm (which also could fit with the implied climate-change sub-theme) to bring ashore his treacherous sister Antonia (Jeannie Affelder, handling the gender-reversed role with icy aplomb), Alonsa, the queen of Naples (Noelle Klyce, bringing mournful maternal warmth to another role originally envisioned as a man), and the latter's son, Ferdinand (Austyn Williamson), who woos and wins the forthright-if-flummoxed Miranda (Deanalis Resto). There's also loyal Gonzalo (Belinda Bremner), who managed to slip Prospero's book of spells to him before his banishment.

A sense of paradox and contrast is quite appropriate for this play, and Zahora's production is at its best when it leans into it. Caliban (Matt Gall) is almost literally two-faced: one side blistered, angry, and as red-hot as the rage he bears for Kevin Theis's acidic Prospero, the other smooth and placid, in keeping with the gentle dreamer who describes his native land (trash and all) as "full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not." (Gall even clutches a grimy teddy bear during this naifish meditation.) Then again, if you squint hard at his eagerness to embrace the buffoonish drunkard Stephano (Orion Seth Lay-Sleeper) as his new "master," you might be able to see an analogy to the darker side of American populism.

But for the most part, Zahora's production doesn't lean too heavily on the social and political metaphors. For me, the most successful element of both the play and this particular staging is the question of what it means to be a good father. Theis's Prospero clearly adores Resto's Miranda, but as Miller noted in his 1986 book on directing classics, Subsequent Performances, "Men in Shakespeare seem to have exorbitant expectations of the love that is to be obtained from women." He sees her immediate attraction to Ferdinand, and recognizes that it's a necessary step away from him and from the island where her emotional growth has been stunted. But as with Caliban and Ariel, Prospero doesn't seem to fully grasp how to show love that isn't couched in some sort of power play. Ferdinand can win his daughter's hand, but only on Prospero's terms. Or so he thinks.

That's where Bernell Lassai's Ariel comes in. More than just a magical helpmeet to his dominating master, he serves as a conscience, a sounding board, and, in one beautiful wordless interlude, a source of almost paternal solace as he embraces Prospero, understanding that the old man is losing his bearings even as he regains some semblance of his old world. It's an earthier take on Ariel than I've usually seen, and one that works well in a world of debris both literal and emotional.

That's probably not a bad way to think about this production overall. It's a warm embrace, a welcome back to the communal world of theater, and a reminder of our past lives before they were upended. But it also hints that whatever comes next won't be what we think it will. No matter how much we cast spells or aspersions, dream of revenge or restoration, or simply hope that love will be enough to carry us through whatever days are left, the psychic global debris remains, floating somewhere out there, calling to us.  v

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