REW Feature: Local Theater


Perhaps your taste in live theater runs to The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged for an evening’s worth of laughs). Or maybe you’d prefer a musical trip to 1960’s Las Vegas with tributes to Frank, Dean, Sammy and their crooner friends. How about the Brothers Grimm fairytales woven together in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, or the musical adventures of the Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts gang? Shakespeare, Sinatra, Sondheim and Snoopy—they’ll all be on local stages in the coming year, to the delight but not surprise of Central Virginia theater lovers, who are accustomed to such rich and varied fare.

Theatrical organizations here range from non-professional community groups that put on plays purely for love of it to an internationally known Shakespearean troupe performing in a re-creation of the Bard’s own theatre. “The theatre scene here is huge, especially for a community of this size,” says Alex Citron, one of ten local theatre enthusiasts who founded the Play On! theatre in 2005. “The area has four year-round community theatres: Play On!, Live Arts, Four County Players and The Hamner Theater. The area boasts no fewer than ten theatre companies—most without permanent homes—which produce from one to four shows per year.” Let’s see a little of what’s playing in the next few months.

Play On!
The all-volunteer Play On! company begins its seventh season in Charlottesville’s IX building with a popular parody, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Not your grand Shakespearean production, it’s a fast-paced evening of laughs—Hamlet whizzes by in 43 seconds—in which three actors portray dozens of characters, often breaching theater’s so-called fourth wall by directly addressing the audience and making it part of the show. The fun happens September 7-23. 
In October, Play On! takes audiences back to Victorian London for the Central Virginia debut of Jekyll & Hyde, a Broadway musical based on the 1886 novella by Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson’s celebrated tale of horror, split personality, and double-sided human nature concerns one Dr. Henry Jekyll, a scientist whose unsuccessful attempts at suppressing the evil within him give vent to the murderous Mr. Hyde. The show runs October 6-November 11.
Nice and Easy from November 3- December 2 will spotlight the talents of Dick Orange, star and producer of two musical revues at Fluvanna County’s Carysbrook Performing Arts Center. A singer in the style of Frank Sinatra, Orange will perform songs by Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Julie Stein and other Great American Songbook composers. He will be accompanied by a jazz quartet led by pianist, Bob Benetta, another longtime area favorite, with special guests the Belle Tones, a trio in the style of the Andrew Sisters. All shows take place in the Play On! space in Charlottesville’s IX building.
Four County
Founded in 1973, Barboursville’s Four County Players can boast of being Central Virginia’s longest continuously-operating community theater and “the cultural hub of the community.”
“We’ve done big and small productions,” says Four County’s Laura Mawyer. “The way we look at it, every time we do a new production we’re just adding to the family.” Four County opens its 40-year anniversary season with Snoopy: The Musical, a lighthearted family show featuring a team of teen actors playing Charlie Brown, his dog, and his friends. “The voices that these kids have . . .” Mawyer marvels. “They stand up and sing and open their hearts.” Snoopy continues through July 8.
In 2009 Four County opened The Cellar, a 50-seat basement theater and bistro intended for more experimental theatrical fare than what it serves upstairs. The first musical to play The Cellar is I Love You, a humorous, gender reversed updating of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in modern day New York City. I Love You runs September 7-23. 
With grant money tough to come by in the current economy, Four County “is actually surviving on ticket sales,” Mawyer says, “which nobody can really believe including us.” On October 12-14 they’ll give themselves a little help with 40 & Fabulous, a one-weekend only fundraising revue featuring company veterans reprising big Broadway numbers from previous company shows. 
The theater has a few spots left in its July 9-13 summer camp for rising first to rising ninth-graders. Whether “you have a drama queen at home or if your kid just wants to develop some more confidence, it’s a great place for kids to build their own skill set,” Mawyer says. 
Live Arts
With its architecturally distinctive, concrete and titanium alloy building on Water Street just off Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, Live Arts is situated right in the geographic heart of the local arts scene. And it acts the part, offering classic and cutting edge plays plus stand-up comedy and educational classes and workshops for children, teens, and adults.
From July 13-August 4, Live Arts presents a large cast of kids and adults in Hairspray,  a Broadway musical based on the John Waters film, a cult favorite. “Hairspray is about inequality in the 50s in the setting of the American Bandstand generation, and beehives and Ultra-Clutch hairspray,” says the theatre’s executive director Matt Joslyn. “It’s nothing but pure fun.”
On August 16-19 comes the third annual edition of Playwright’s Lab Summer Shorts. This year’s show consists of nine brand new plays running from five to fifteen minutes apiece, all by area playwrights, many featuring first-time directors. A total of eighteen actors will take part. 
New artistic director Julie Hamburg opens her first season and Live Arts’ 22nd with Clybourne Park. An “incredibly brilliant” work inspired by Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the 2010 drama set in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood “won the theater world’s Triple crown,” Joslyn says, picking up the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012. Clybourne Park is a meditation on race and heritage and culture, but it’s also “an uproarious comedy. We’re thrilled to be the first theater in Virginia to do it.”
American Shakespeare Center
Stiff and stuffy Shakespeare productions can ne’er be seen in downtown Staunton, but vividly imagined stagings in Elizabethan-era style take the boards year ‘round, thanks to the American Shakespeare Center. Performed in the 300-seat Blackfriar’s Playhouse, a handsome recreation of the Bard’s own indoor theater, ASC productions observe period conventions: house lights remain up, pacing is brisk, sets are minimal, and costumes indicate class and character. Actors play multiple parts, as many as seven in one show, and while women act as well as men, the occasional gender-bending casting is a nod to the all-male casting of Shakespeare’s day. Productions are given musical, often contemporary, soundtracks. ASC Shakespeare is direct, down-to-earth and exciting.
Although respectful but not reverent Shakespeare and other classic 17th century plays are its mainstay, ASC sometimes presents more recent work. David Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries is a December favorite for adult audiences; a rollicking version of Charles Dickens’ beloved A Christmas Carol brings out the families. 
ASC will alternate three shows this summer: Shakespeare’s drama The Merchant of Venice, his comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona and—in a Blackfriar’s Playhouse premiere—the modern theatrical masterpiece, The Lion in Winter. James Goldman’s 1966 drama, set during Christmastime in 1183, depicts struggles for power between England’s King Henry II, his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, their three sons, and their guests. 
ASC’s Staged Reading Series brings in actors from outside the company to perform little known Renaissance works, scripts in hand. Edmund Ironside by Anonymous (some think he’s Shakespeare) will be read October 28. George Chapman’s An Humorous Day’s Mirth will be read November 4. 
Bent Theatre
With a motto of “You Say It, We Play It,” Bent Theatre Improv’s intention is “to keep Central Virginia laughing.” The troupe that first popped up in restaurants and bars in 2004 now regularly appears in the Play On! and Four County Players spaces, parodying pop culture and creating comedy on the spot from live audience suggestions. They’ll be at the Play On theatre for an Improv All-Stars Show on July 6 and August 10, and at The Bridge on 209 Monticello Rd on July 20. The Bridge show is R rated. The folks at Bent also offer workshops in improvisation comedy. The next series of classes will begin in the fall. 
Earl Hamner Theatre
Over in Nellysford, the Hamner Theater is named for Nelson County’s own Earl Hamner, Jr., creator of the 1970’s hit television series, The Waltons. Soon to begin its eighth season, the Hamner produces up to five plays a year.
Where Chaos Sleeps, a new work about the troubled life of Renaissance madrigal composer Carlo Gesualdo, will run July 31-August 4. Agate Hill to Appomattox, a compilation of three Civil War narratives, will follow August 10-11.
The Hamner’s ongoing Virginia Playwrights and Screenwriters Initiative gives writers the opportunity to work with directors, dramaturges and actors to shape and perfect new material for stage and screen. The work in progress is then presented free to the public in staged readings, followed by open discussions that provide the writers with invaluable feedback. The theatre also holds Monday evening improv sessions that are free and open to experienced actors and first-timers alike. 
Ash Lawn Opera
Ash Lawn Opera, now at Charlottesville’s beautiful (and air-conditioned) Paramount Theater, puts on one musical and one opera each summer. Meredith Willson’s heartwarming 1957 Broadway hit The Music Man runs July 13-20. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1791 amusing but profound The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) runs July 29-August 7.
Arts and Dollars
Theater in Central Virginia is just one aspect of the rich artistic scene here, a scene that enriches our quality of life economically as well as culturally. “We know already that Charlottesville is a great place for the arts, and now we have proof that the arts are great for Charlottesville,” says Victoria Long of Piedmont Council for the Arts, which recently studied the economic impact of the arts in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. 
The study found that “the arts and culture industry generates $114.4 million in annual economic activity in the Charlottesville area, supporting 1,921 full-time equivalent jobs and generating $9.2 million in local and state government revenues. Arts and culture organizations spent $49.5 million during fiscal year 2010. Those dollars, in turn, generated $31.2 million in household income for local residents. In addition to spending by organizations, the local arts and culture industry leverages $64.9 million in event-related spending” (restaurant meals, parking and shopping, etc.) “by its audiences.”
“Theater in Central Virginia is a great way for people to be involved in their community,” says Laura Mawyer, noting that Four County Players, like other area arts organizations, relies on a pool of talented, enthusiastic volunteers. “You don’t have to be onstage. It’s OK if you have shy bones in your body. You can still find a place in the theater.”