Live theater is back after a two-year pandemic hiatus. Oak Park Festival Theatre (OPFT) debuted its first outdoor stage performance in Austin Gardens since 2019 with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The play was slated for last year, but was put on hold because of strict COVID-19 restrictions that prohibited live performances.  

An elated Barbara Zahora, OPFT artistic director and director of The Tempest, addressed the audience before and after the production to welcome and thank everyone for their continued support of live theater.

The Tempest, a story of past and current life journeys that feature betrayal, revenge, forgiveness and acceptance, remains as relevant today as it did during its 16th century debut. 

“We chose this play long before coronavirus and the murder of George Floyd changed our world so significantly [making the] themes of exile, injustice, the struggle for power, self-discovery and healing all particularly resonant after the last year,” Zahora said in OPFT’s press release. “As people start to come out of their homes and find a new normal post-pandemic, we hope this will be particularly meaningful for those seeing it for the first time.”

For those unfamiliar, The Tempest is a family drama. As Act One opens, we are introduced to Prospero (Kevin Theis), the former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda (Deanalis Resto).

Alonso, king of Naples, is in cahoots with Prospero’s brother Antonio to fraudulently seize Prospero’s power and force him to flee with Miranda. Prospero successfully escapes with the aid of his advisor, Gonzalo. He and Miranda make a home on a Mediterranean island that had one human inhabitant, Caliban (Matt Gall), a lone islander whom Prospero enslaves. The island is also inhabited spirits, such as Ariel (Bernell Lassai). Prospero makes Ariel his spirit servant after rescuing him from imprisonment in a tree. 

To exact revenge on the people he feels caused his fall from wealth and power, Prospero uses magic to control nature’s elements. He conjures a brutal storm with his magic, which severely damages a ship carrying his enemies, washing them ashore on a deserted island. Among his enemies on the ship is his duplicitous brother Antonio and Alonso. During the shipwreck, the king’s son, Ferdinand, safely lands on a separate part of the island. 

Prospero’s act of magic sets in motion a love story, the deterioration of relationships and much plotting against one another to control the island. 

The talented cast brings each character to life, including a ridiculous failed attempted assassination of Prospero by the drunken duo of jester and butler. The comic proceedings culminate in Prospero’s vengefulness giving way to forgiveness and acceptance. 

The debut of The Tempest represents a welcome return to outdoor in-person theater, with enough COVID protocols to keep the audience and cast members safe.

All are welcome, “but non-vaccinated audience members will be required to wear masks when moving through the park and will be asked to observe a 6-foot social distance when not seated with their pod,” the theater company noted in its press release. 

The cast includes Jeannie Affelder as Antonia; Belinda Bremner as Gonzalo; Tony Buzzuto as Sebastian; Savanna Rae as Trinculo; Austyn Williamson as Ferdinand; Noelle Klyce as Alonsa; Emma Sipora Tyler as the Boatswain, a spirit and Adrian; Dakota Brown as shipmaster, a spirit and Francisco; and Orion Seth Lay-Sleeper as Stephano. George Zahora provided original music and sound design. Jennifer Harlee Mitchell created original vocal music and provided musical direction.  

The show runs through Aug. 21 with performances at 8 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, and 7 p.m. Sundays at Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. $35; $25, seniors; $15, students; free, ages 12 and under; $5 chair rental (or bring a chair or blanket). Tickets/more: oakparkfestival.com/tempest.

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