Marya Sea Kaminski Steps Out with a Tempest for Our Times

Taking the reins at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski summons Shakespeare for her directorial debut of her innovative adaptation of  The Tempest, January 24-February 24, 2019. Her production next conjures a wintry world in the O’Reilly Theater following the Regency merriment of Pride and Prejudice and the gritty realism of Sweat in her first season and the company’s 44th year.

In a conversation at the Public in November, the former associate artistic director Seattle Repertory Theatre said, “I love this play and I put it in the season as I felt–for my first play here–that I should bring an old friend with me.”

Kaminski has already demonstrated her commitment to community and “theatre as a civic act” through ample casting of Pittsburgh-based artists this season. Now the director brings McKeesport native and Carnegie Mellon Drama alumna Tamara Tunie to portray Shakespeare’s deposed Duke and magician Prospero. (TV audiences may know stage and film actor Tunie best  for her role as medical examiner Dr. Melinda Warner on NBC’s “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”)

It’s no coincidence that Kaminski arrived at some bold choices while planning her Tempest at the height of the #MeToo movement. She took into consideration the public discussion about gender and how power is wielded.

“I decided to take the jump to an all-female cast to take the gender out of it,” says Kaminski, who is completing auditions in early December. “I wanted to have freedom around the themes.”

In addition, some 20 young women from Pittsburgh Youth Chorus will perform as both school children and the “spirits of the island” throughout the run.

Tunie steps into a complex role that is indeed being played more often by women. In announcing Tunie’s casting, Kaminski said:  “In addition to her robust stage experience, Tamara will bring an incredible presence and authority to the role of Prospero. Though Tempest is Shakespeare’s most magical play, this adaptation will also bring a depth of humanity and grace that is a trademark of all Tamara’s work.”

Kaminski’s imaginative frame may provide a stronger connection for audiences than a four-century-old text might suggest. Here, Tunie’s Prospero is a first seen as a contemporary woman in treatment for advanced breast cancer in “a Pittsburgh-like setting”.

In this Tempest, the betrayal is not political but personal. Prospero’s family has abandoned her alone as she battles a disease that annually claims an estimated 41,000 lives among American women. Kaminski’s research included research at oncology treatment and surgery centers at Allegheny Health Network.

Kaminski ponders what it takes for “a parent to open up a brave new world for your kid” as her Prospero must for daughter Miranda amid a serious health crisis.

“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero when she puts her books aside near the play’s end. “And our little life is rounded with sleep.” Appropriately, Kaminski’s Tempest begins with a dream ballet “loosely set in Pittsburgh.” When Tunie goes out the window of her hospital room into a blizzard, “we move into a fever dream that is largely Renaissance inspired.”

“The impulse to explore the wintry setting led us to Iceland…a strong inspiration for us. It’s a very spiritual place, where they believe in magic,” she says. “The setting is beautiful, towering and in some ways epic but in Prospero’s mind.” said the director. Seattle Repertory’s L.B. Morse, resident designer, is creating the set and projections. An original score by Andre Pleuss, who designs the sound, underscores the action.

“I wanted a classical silhouette,” Kaminski says. With costume designer Nephelie Andonyadis, she found inspiration for in Versace’s use of brocaded fabrics and high collars.

The bittersweetness of Prospero’s farewell to his books and conjuring might be offset by what Kaminski considers a trap in the original text–“that Prospero knows everything that’s going to happen. I feel like there may be more dramatic tension through a couple of small changes. The way to freedom is actually not through vengeance but through forgiveness.”

“A spiritual journey,” her Tempest will be a “fleet” production that drops distracting exposition and focuses on the core relationships–“like a prayer…from fury to forgiveness.”

Indeed, Kaminski credits her father, “a scholar and book collector”, with her first encounter with The Tempest. Their weekly bookstore excursions during her childhood in upstate New York allowed her to take home as many books as she could read.

“There was one day we walked out with only two books–my first Thesaurus and my first The Complete Works.” Her father stressed “one was all I ever need to write and the thesaurus for all I’d ever need to write. He pointed me toward Tempest and Midsummer—the sort of more magical plays.”

As for moving from the page to stage with Shakespeare, “I blame the English Speaking Union,” Kaminski exclaims of discovering Queen Catherine’s eloquent trial monologue in Henry VIII to enter the ESU’s student contest.

“I was just thrust into this world where Shakespeare was at the center of the conversation,” Kaminski says, crediting the competition experience as “very formative.” She never looked back as she later stood in the groundlings’ yard during the Shakespeare’s Globe first season and recognized: “Oh, this is what Shakespeare can do.”

Now, the Public provides Kaminski a canvas on which to draw many worlds. Her work at Seattle Repertory included a focus on breaking barriers between the community and theatre. This Tempest is indeed reflective of the Public’s mission. Kaminski is passionate about exploring of ways to bring audiences here closer to plays through more inclusive experiences as she works with her co-leader at PPT, Lou Castelli, managing director.

“I would love the Public to be the entryway for folks–audiences members who may experience a broad spectrum of plays.”

Just as she involved more than 100 community members when she staged The Odyssey at Seattle Repertory, Kaminski aimed to put “Pittsburgh citizens” on stage in her first production here and invited the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus members.

By the time this season ends, she will have conceived PPT’s next season line-up, having directed two productions. Kaminski next stages Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime as this season’s finale.

The 18th PPT production of a Shakespeare play since 1974, The Tempest is on stage January 24 through February 24 at the O’Reilly Theater at Pittsburgh Public Theatre. Tickets are $30-$80 with special discounts including $16.50 tickets for full-time students and those 26 and younger. A Family Fun Pack offers varied perks for $120. For details, visit PPT online or call 412-316-1600.

Yvonne Hudson, a Pittsburgh-based writer, publicist, actor, and singer, joined PITR as a writer and adviser in February 2016. She began performing and writing during high school in Indiana, PA. The Point Park journalism grad credits her Globe editor for first assigning her to review a play. Yvonne is grateful to Dr. Attilio Favorini for master’s studies at Pitt Theatre Arts, work at Three Rivers Shakespeare Festival, and believing in her Shakespearean journey. When not working with nonprofits, this lifelong chorister sings with Calvary UM Church’s annual Messiah choir. Having played Juliet’s Nurse for Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks, Yvonne is now seen in her solo shows, Mrs Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson: The Poet Lights the Lamp. Goals: See all of Shakespeare’s plays in production and memorize more Sonnets. Fave quotes: “Good deed in a naughty world,” “Attention must be paid,” and “A handbag?” Twitter @msshakespeare Facebook: PoetsCornerPittsburgh  LinkedIn

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