Shenandoah Shakespeare may have changed its name, but it shows no signs of slowing down.
Putting Down Roots
After a dozen years rambling across the country and the world, Shenandoah Shakespeare Express is finally building itself a home. In a gala groundbreaking ceremony last Tuesday, presided over by Virginia's First Lady, Roxane Gilmore, the traveling theater company began construction on the new $2.7 million Blackfriars Playhouse in downtown Staunton. The company also recently dropped "Express" from its official name, prompting speculation that the intrepid company may be planning to slow down into a stodgy middle age.
Not so, assures Jim Warren, the quick-witted and energetic artistic director and co-founder of Shenandoah Shakespeare. "The touring arm of the company is still going strong," he says. "In fact, this year, we'll add Alaska to the list of 44 states we've visited." The company's "Scoff and Grin" tour will arrive in Richmond this weekend, offering a three-show repertory schedule at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen May 4-6.
Even with the exciting changes it is going through, Shenandoah Shakespeare continues to stick to its original mission. The company performs the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, approximating as closely as possible the staging that would have been used in Elizabethan times. That means universal lighting so that the actors can see the audience and speak directly to it. Minimal sets, brisk pacing, no intermissions and the addition of musical embellishments make the company's plays unlike any Shakespeare you've likely seen before.
The "Scoff and Grin" tour will also challenge theatergoers with a couple of plays they will probably not be familiar with. "'Richard II' is one of Shakespeare's history plays that people are scared of," says Warren, who directed the show. "There's not the same action or war that [the other history plays] have. It's essentially about a self-indulgent king who self-destructs." But according to Warren, by using Shenandoah Shakespeare's staging principles, the play really came to life: "There's a more driving plot than I realized. It's much more exciting than I originally thought it would be. Plus," he adds facetiously, "it ends with a nice death scene, which always makes people happy."
The tour also includes a production of Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus." Warren says, "Many people are familiar with the plot but not the whole play. They know it's about someone who sells his soul to the devil but that's it." Audiences can expect "a certain amount of spectacle" with "Dr. Faustus," Warren says. "The seven deadly sins come out and put on quite a show."
Though not part of its official mission statement, Warren says that his company is trying to make Virginia "the Shakespeare state." "The new Blackfriars Playhouse will draw tourists from across the country and beyond," says the director. The facility will be the world's first authentic recreation of a Shakespearean indoor theater and is slated to open in May 2001. This is the same project that was originally proposed to be built in Richmond's Oregon Hill.
"We've turned a lot of spaces into Renaissance performance spaces over the years," says Warren. "Now we're going to create a historically accurate Elizabethan-style playhouse. We are trying to uncover some of the magic that you get with Renaissance staging and [the new theater] will make it another step more