Going to the Chapel

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Going to the Chapel

The Heritage Repertory Theatre’s vacation from summer performances in 2007 may have been the quietest that Heritage artistic director Robert Chapel has been in his life.

Not that Curtain Calls means this as an insult. Chapel, who is also a UVA Drama professor, uses words like a gourmand applies gravy—find something dry or predictable and drench it with the juices that can salvage it. As a director, Chapel’s production of the David Mamet-adapted Voysey Inheritance at Culbreth Theatre could’ve sat stale and cold as a bland biscuit were it not for the glut of give-and-take that he commanded from his performers. What he delivered was a five-star ruckus, a feast of noise. Chapel took a din and—Curt tried, folks, but he can’t help himself—made it dinner.


No more empty seats: Heritage Theatre Festival and its director Robert Chapel are back after construction of the Arts Grounds Parking Garage silenced Heritage last summer.

The 2007 silence, due to construction of the Arts Grounds Parking Garage, was rare for the Heritage program as well. The summer theater series was by nature a clamorous collection of plays due to its “rotating repertory” schedule, in which three or four shows opened at the start of the season and, by the summer’s end, a different show was performed each night. In 2006, Chapel and Heritage Rep broke from the rotating repertory program and staged one production at a time, but a year-long silence is enough to make a theater-lover wonder if Heritage can still turn it up and bring the noise.

The first hubbub about the impending return of Heritage concerned the change of the event’s name to “Heritage Theatre Festival,” a move that Chapel describes to CC simply as “naming what we do to correctly reflect what we do.” Such a move seems about as exciting as Cat Stevens’ move to “Yusuf Islam” or when Tiger Woods stopped using his given name (“Elridge”), and a few news sources, in Curt’s opinion, got a little too hot and bothered about making mountains out of murmurs.

No, the real news worth broadcasting concerns Chapel’s lineup. Sidestepping Sondheim and giving Rodgers and Hammerstein the run-around, Chapel is eschewing the usual fare, sticking with a few musicals as Heritage is wont to do, but drawing from more recent shows; the oldest musical here, City of Angels, was first performed in 1989.

“With the exception of Forever Plaid, we’re doing more edgy, contemporary plays than we have done in the past,” says Chapel, who speaks with a sort of naturally propulsive energy. “And I decided that was a good thing. Also, with the exception of Forever Plaid, many of them have never been seen in Charlottesville. …They aren’t the tried and true things that everybody knows.”

Curtains up, s’il vous plait. The season opens at Helms Theatre on June 17 with I Am My Own Wife, a play about a transvestite that survived the oppression of her father and the Nazi Party’s presence in Berlin that was initially staged as a one-man play Off Broadway. On June 19, Heritage doubles the drama with the opening of the metafictional musical City of Angels, in which a writer runs out of creative juices and the characters in his detective story try to cope. Only two months after the grand drama of Voysey, Chapel is back in the director’s seat for Angels, which reads like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown combined with Fellini’s 9 1/2.

So what’s the deal with Forever Plaid, Chapel’s classic buoy afloat in a sea of uncharted waters?

“‘Well, I thought it would be good to bring an old favorite back,” says Chapel. “It’s been 13 years since we’ve done Forever Plaid. And it was, I believe, the biggest hit we ever had. We could have run that for six months in the Helms.”

The planning of each Heritage season means a few months of travel and extensive auditions for Chapel, who begins with local auditions before heading to the Southeastern Theater Conference, where he says that he saw roughly 800 actors in three days this year. Next come recruiting trips to the musical theater programs Elon University and the University of Michigan and, if necessary, a trip to New York or a scroll through his Rolodex of more than 1,000 performers to dig some more.

Curt mentions to Chapel that the director doesn’t seem to take much of a break, and he chuckles slightly before conceding.

“Once City of Angels gets up, we have a week, and then we start rehearsing for Light in the Piazza,” says Chapel, referring to the musical that opens on July 23 and closes out Heritage’s season. “Which I’m also directing.”

In fact, Chapel is already signed on to direct again during UVA drama’s fall season. Amidst the uncomfortable romantic questions of Neil LaBute’s Some Girls and the uncomfortable racial questions of  Douglas Turner Ward’s Day of Absence, what does Chapel have in mind?

“I’m going to be directing Oklahoma!,” says Chapel.

Hear him loud and clear, folks—the noise is back, and there’s gonna be trouble.

Curt’s Bloomsday break

On June 16, 1904, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom began what would most likely be the most eventful day of their respective lives in James Joyce’s Ulysses. The day also corresponds with the first date between Joyce and his future wife, Nora Barnacle, and Curt always honors the day, known as Bloomsday, by taking a vacation. This year, Curt plans to retreat to the Irish countryside, land of his ancestors, to immerse himself in the luxurious prose of Mr. Joyce. Here’s a video farewell from Curt:

Got any arts news? E-mail curtain@c-ville.com.

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