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Pandemic is prologue for Oak Park Festival Theatre’s timely ‘Tempest’

‘I think we got the right show’ for the time, director says of the outdoor production.

Kevin Theis stars as Prospero in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of “The Tempest.”
Kevin Theis stars as Prospero in Oak Park Festival Theatre’s production of “The Tempest.”
Maia Rosenfeld

Back in 2019, long before the world seemingly fell apart, the renowned Oak Park Festival Theatre decided to put on a production of “The Tempest,” one of Shakespeare’s greatest works, which tells a story of compassion and grace and forgiveness. Now, nearly two years and countless challenges later, the production finally is set to make its appearance on stage in 2021.

And perhaps, it has never been more timely.

“I feel like so much of Prospero’s journey in the play is what we are going through at this very moment,” explains Barbara Zahora, director of “The Tempest” and artistic director of Oak Park Festival Theatre, of the production’s lead character. “We have collectively been through something that has been traumatizing and, in some cases, made us full of rage and even vengeful. I think it’s going to be kind of cool to lean in and watch someone else dealing with the exact same thing.”

Zahora is the first to admit that over the course of the tumultuous months of the pandemic, she and her team questioned if they should move forward with “The Tempest.”

“We asked ourselves if we should change what we were doing since the world was changing so much,” Zahora remembers. “With the murder of George Floyd, the world was starting to look inward and at who they were and how they were dealing with harmful practices. But for us, ‘The Tempest’ just kept resonating. [Pauses] I think we got the right show. I think we’ve got the right people. We just needed to wait for the right time.”

And that time is now.

“It is joy … It is sheer joy,” gushes Zahora as preparations continue for the production that will begin on July 17. “I mean, yes, part of it is terrifying because it’s been a while and we’ve got some other factors in play as a result of the pandemic that we’ve never dealt with before. And then there’s a little added pressure when you’re one of the first out of the box and you want to make sure you make it better than what people have been watching on Netflix.”

It’s been nearly 18 months since audiences have been able to witness live theater. And for the actors, actresses, stagehands and lighting people whose passion was taken away from them like a thief in the night, this experience is being met with more excitement than trepidation.

“I just love this play mostly because it deals with one of the most difficult things that human beings have to do, which is forgiveness,” explains actor Kevin Theis, who plays the powerful wizard Prospero. “For me, the hardest thing that a person could ask of themselves is to forgive someone who is intentionally hurting you. But Prospero does it, and to me, it’s the most important part of the story.”

The production will serve as the first time a socially distanced audience will get to gather for an Oak Park Festival Theatre production since the pandemic began. (Note: Unvaccinated audience members are required to wear a mask when moving about the park, and socially distanced seating “pods” will be featured. Check the theater website for updates on protocols.) And for Zahora, the moment is sure to bring a sense of healing for everyone on the stage, and off.

“There’s something about being able to share something with a group of people at the same time,” says Zahora, who was able to bring back nearly 80% of the cast and creative team that had already been established back in 2019. “You can’t replace it. I feel like every day I’m dealing with like a new idea or new change just because of the changeability of the world.“

Adds Thies, “Then you add the elements that come from doing the production outdoors. The wind is blowing and there’s clouds overhead and it’s as if God becomes a scene partner.”

One thing that the pandemic hasn’t changed is “that moment,” the goosebump-inducing piece of every production that reminds us all why we thrive on live theater.

“There are many amazing things that happen in the course of the production, but toward the end, there’s a moment where we take it all away,” expresses Zahora. “And I kind of want to see what happens with our actors and the audience when there is a stripping away of what we no longer need. And it’s so beautifully written in the text, where we’re literally walking the circle of magic backwards, and I can’t wait to see what happens. I just can’t wait.”