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Seattle Rep opens the stage to the public in musical adaptation of The Tempest

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Photo by Lindsay Thomas
Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Staging a production of any of William Shakespeare's plays is an undertaking best described as, well, Shakespearean. Aside from the practical considerations of scale and magnitude are the many layers of history, culture, and — let's be real — pretense that have built up since the Bard last put quill to parchment.

When it comes to handling Elizabethan-era verse with a 21st-century mindset, one is forced to say, in the words of the playwright, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

Thankfully, in light of the Seattle Rep's The Tempest, its first live Public Works production since COVID-19 struck, the answer to that question is: very talented and passionate ones. It takes a lot of work, vision, and boldness to take a play steeped in all those layers of history and culture and revamp it to be not merely accessible, nor merely relevant, but a whole lot of fun.

Between the acting, costuming, and musical production, the Rep succeeded in doing just that.

Directed by Hattie Claire Andres, The Tempest tells the story of the wizard Prospero, whose sibling Antonio usurped his position as the duke of Milan and banished him to sea. Prospero and his daughter Miranda have found refuge on an enchanted island full of magical spirits, where Prospero plots his revenge by conjuring a storm to shipwreck Antonio on that very island.

Assisting Prospero is the indentured spirit Ariel, and working against Prospero is the half-human, half-monster Caliban. The play ends on a joyful note as Prospero not only fulfills his promise to grant freedom to Ariel but also forgives and pardons both Antonio and Caliban.

Isaiah Johnson led the production as Prospero. With a charismatic dynamism, Johnson animated the sorcerer as a force of nature, the words of Shakespeare's monologues flowing nimbly and with life. The subtlety and force with which Johnson delivers the line "These our actors, / As I foretold you, were all spirits, and / Are melted into air, into thin air" was electrifying. That Prospero's magnificent costuming didn't upstage Johnson's performance is saying something.

Photo by Lindsay Thomas  

Rachel Guyer-Mafune playfully channeled the trickster characteristics of Ariel, at times having fun with the audience in fourth-wall-breaking interactions intended to provide useful exposition, which allowed the play to run a pleasant 90 minutes (a more standard, straightforward adaptation would easily run at least an hour longer). Guyer-Mafune's performance invoked certain qualities of Stephanie Hsu from Everything Everywhere All at Once while succeeding in infusing a unique, fresh life all its own.

But for me, it was Alexandra Tavares's turn as Caliban that exemplified the ways this production brought fun and freshness to a play that deals with heavier themes, such as imperialism, colonization, and forced subservience. Tavares captured the physicality of Caliban with an uneven stagger, half-walking and half-crawling at times. Tavares breathed speech into Caliban with an homage to Jack Sparrow, but also a more grizzled energy that still never failed to be comical when the time came for it.

At a surface level, I would be tempted to describe Caliban's appearance as a mix between a homeless shiphand and the cat lady from The Simpsons, but after just a few moments, it became clear to me that everything about the portrayal was meant to encapsulate the spirit of the play itself — complete with a healthy dose of Pacific Northwest charm.

Photo by Lindsay Thomas  

To watch all 60-plus cast members on stage during the larger musical numbers was a delight. The visual spectacle was a success largely due to costume designer An-lin Dauber's Pacific Northwest—inspired pieces, which provided the set with color, life, and energy. The designs themselves were eclectic, some of which derived from imagery of the Hoh Rainforest, the San Juan Islands, and the Washington coast. Performers from Morning Star Korean Cultural Center added to the musical and visual beauty, helping to bring to life elements of magic and the storm.

Looking back on the Rep's production of The Tempest, I'll remember most the way that the vision of public theater brings together disparate elements and weaves them into something special. Talented actors, inspired direction, and beautiful costuming all converge to conjure a "tempest" of delight within a Pacific Northwest locale — complete with cameos from hockey mascot Buoy the Sea Troll, local singer Shaina Shepherd, and even, believe it or not, your favorite chicken, pizza, and coffee joints.