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"The Tempest" captures spirit of Shakespeare, Jamestown


“The Tempest” is a win-win. That may not be true for all its characters, but it is for the Guild of the Virginia Shakespeare Festival and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. The former needed a new venue for its next Shakespeare adaptation after the College of William and Mary placed the Virginia Shakespeare Festival on hiatus this year, and the latter was looking for a means to expand its examination of history to better incorporate the arts.

Throughout September, Jamestown Settlement will play host to the bard’s tale of magic and revenge.

“I’ve always felt since I first got here, it would be a great idea to do ‘The Tempest,’ ” said Peter Armstrong, the foundation’s senior director of museum operations and education of four years. “The outside area lends itself to be a dramatic backdrop. It just looks visually stunning.”

Armstrong hails from a background in theater, and he wanted to incorporate that into the museum. He reached out to the guild in need of a venue, and “The Tempest” became a natural fit.

“The two things really aligned,” Armstrong said, adding that the guild’s ample theater expertise helped balance his museum side of the equation.

Director Jeffrey Fiske wanted to portray the show as though it’s being produced by the colonists themselves, as if it were a new and cutting edge work. The costumes and props are what you’d find strewn about the colony.

“It is a cool concept and one that’s not far from the Shakespeare tradition,” Armstrong said, noting that it was common during the playwright’s era to use everyday resources for costumes and props.

But he added that he wanted a contemporary element as well, exemplified by nontraditional casting that changes some parts and incorporates women in female roles. Some of the Jamestown Settlement staff are performing in the play as well, as main characters and as extras helping with technical spectacles, such as firing guns from ships.

“It’s a real collaboration between the two organizations,” Armstrong said.

The magic of theater

The outdoor setting opens up the opportunity to move around the settlement. Audience members are encouraged to bring their own easy-to-move chairs. The play begins onboard the settlement’s Susan Constant ship. Dancers will lead the audience to the re-created colonial fort for the rest of the play.

“It’s a real collaboration with the audience as well,” Armstrong said. “They’re part of the show.”

The play uses few lights, opting instead for natural lighting, such as that of a crackling fire.

“We’re really making it an experience,” he said. “Everything they’re doing is trying to to make it as it would have been in 1610 or so.”

The Jamestown colony boasts an intriguing historical connection to “The Tempest.” In 1609, an English Ship dubbed Sea Venture set sail for the colony, but it wrecked on the then-unknown island of Bermuda. The account of how its passengers survived on the island helped inspire Shakespeare to envision the magical setting of his tale.

That combination of history and magic mirrors Armstrong’s goal of bringing the arts to Jamestown Settlement moving forward. He hopes to continue that endeavor with partnerships incorporating music, dance, works of theater and other forms of art. It’s all part of an effort to tell the stories of Jamestown and Yorktown in a different way.

The timeless nature of Shakespeare’s work provides a natural first step toward that goal.

“You start to realize that its got a relevance to what’s happening today all the way through it,” Armstrong said, adding that people haven’t changed much in the four centuries since Shakespeare’s death. “People are people.”

Want to go?

“The Tempest” will be conjured 7 p.m. Sept. 14-16 and Sept. 21-23 at Jamestown Settlement, 2110 Jamestown Road. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for children 6-16, seniors 62 and older and groups of 15 or more. To purchase tickets, visit bit.ly/2xMo9QU. Space is limited to 150 for each performance.

Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-790-3029.

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