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A preview of Seattle Rep's ambitious public production of The Tempest

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Photo courtesy of Seattle Rep
Photo courtesy of Seattle Rep

Curtailed by the pandemic, live theater productions have taken a major hit. This weekend, however, marks a turning point as the community nonprofit Seattle Repertory Theatre, known as "the Rep," presents its first live Public Works production since COVID's onset, a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest, featuring an ensemble cast of over 60 performers.

The show tells the story of Prospero, a powerful wizard banished to an island by a conniving sibling, and his scheme to exact revenge by conjuring a storm to shipwreck his sibling on the same island. Set in 2023, the plot weaves together romance, political intrigue, fantasy, drama, and comedy.

Production director Hattie Claire Andres — Photo courtesy of Seattle Rep  

Drawing from local inspirations
The Rep's production features music and lyrics by Todd Almond and extensively incorporates elements unique to the Pacific Northwest, making it a focal point, almost like a character in the story. Scenic designer Matthew Smucker, along with costume designer An-lin Dauber, draw inspiration from the region, using imagery from the Olympic Peninsula, the San Juan Islands, the Washington coast, and the Hoh Rain Forest.

According to production director Hattie Claire Andres, "It is set in a magical amalgamation of those places that we [the ensemble] get to imagine and create together. We have a great, mighty ensemble who are the magical creatures of this island. As an ensemble, they create the island's ecosystem."

Incorporating Public Works values
Lear DeBessonet originally conceived this adaptation of The Tempest in 2013 for the Public Theater in New York, of which the Seattle Rep is a partner, specifically to involve a large community ensemble. The cast and crew come from all walks of life and experience levels.

As a part of the Rep's Public Works program, The Tempest is a project that involves partnerships between the theater and several community-based organizations, and it incorporates the Public Works program's values of equity, imagination, and joy.

"For me as a director and teaching artist with the program, it's really refreshing," said Andres. As for the language used and shortcuts taken by theater professionals, she added, "When you have someone stopping you in the middle of rehearsal and asking you, 'What does that mean?,' it can lead to some really special opportunities to pause and reflect."

Cast member Leah Sainz-Jones, a teaching artist and actor who plays an Island Spirit and the Wedding Singer, commented on the transformative impact working this play has had on them.

"One of the biggest things that hit me as a realization or discovery in being a part of this program has been the feeling of being in a room where all bodies, all walks of life, and all experience levels are lifted up in the same capacity anywhere onstage, anywhere backstage. One of my big hopes in people coming to the theater and watching is that they also have that realization and are swept away by that."

Music director and conductor Steven Tran — Photo courtesy of Seattle Rep  

An ambitious return to the stage
The Tempest marks the Rep's first live production since 2020, and on an ambitious scale, but it has been a fun challenge for Andres. "It is a huge scale of project and production," she said. "We have 60 community ensemble members and five equity actors; our creative team is more than 20 people."

Sainz-Jones added, "This year, since we are putting on the whole production, it's been very apparent just exactly how much work and time and intention goes into [bringing a whole cast together] from both the community side and the production side, of making sure each body and each artist feels seen and supported on the stage."

The show includes cameo artists and performances. One such is Justin Huertas, whose show Lydia and the Troll graced the Rep's stages earlier this spring and whose new song in The Tempest serves as an anthem for the island spirits. Local singer Shaina Shepherd also joins in the storytelling, along with he Morningstar Korean Cultural Center, which helped create the storm, some magic, and mayhem.

Notably, Buoy the Seatroll, the mascot of the Seattle Kraken, also makes a cameo. As Andres recounted, "It was amazing to be in rehearsal with him. He's an absolute natural on stage, as you'd imagine."

The Tempest runs on August 25, 26, and 27 at the Bagley Wright Theater at 155 Mercer Street. Showtimes are August 25 at 7:30pm, August 26 at 2pm with ASL interpretation and audio description, August 26 at 7:30pm with English open captions and mask requirements, and August 27 at 2pm. A limited number of tickets are available for walk-up guests at the theater one hour before each showing. There will be a live video feed displayed in the lobby for overflow guests and those requiring such accommodations. The running time is about 90 minutes without intermission.