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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Legacy of early Peninsula Players actor complete

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has opened at the Globe complex in London.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, England
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, England

PHOTO: A display in Shakespeare’s Globe theater complex honors American actor and director Sam Wanamaker, founder of the Globe, and now namesake of a playhouse built in the manner of a theater of the early 1600s. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has opened at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, adding another chapter to a legacy with colorful ties to Door County’s Peninsula Players Theatre.

Sam Wanamaker started his professional career at the Players and is legend in England for – as an American – founding the revitalized Globe theater, sometimes out of sheer dint of will. As an outdoor theater, the Globe is a seasonal attraction. Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is an indoor theater. In a way that Lambeau Field in Green Bay was made into a year-around venue, the Globe complex now operates for the full year.

I wrote about the playhouse in July after a trip to the Globe and saw the facility under construction. With the theater having opened to performances – and its architecture drawing critical comment – I put together this update.

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FLASHBACK

To see my original story, here’s the link: http://www.wearegreenbay.com/1fulltext-news/warren-gerdscritic-at-large-a-favorite-story-early-peninsula-players-actor-connects-to-world/d/1fulltext-news/rQu2ev6Lf0--eMr4qTuZkg.

Here are a few key quotes from that story:

Greg Vinkler, Peninsula Players artistic director: “I think it’s fantastic that Sam Wanamaker’s dream is being finished with the playhouse named after him. It was part of the original plan to have an indoor Jacobean theatre – for which Shakespeare originally wrote some of his plays – but was put aside for a long while. I’m very happy to see his name attached to it.”

Brian Kelsey, Peninsula Players general manager, on the documentary “Two Planks and a Passion,” which Sam Wanamaker narrated prior to his death in 1993 and still is used at the theater to inspire newcomers to the company: “When you look at an individual like Sam Wanamaker, who was just 18 years old when he arrived at the Players, we are able to show our incoming college interns that they, too, have the opportunity to make something great of themselves – just as Sam did – and the many others besides Sam whose amazing careers began as part of the Players. This is just my belief, but to me, people want to belong to something bigger – to understand that it is more than just ‘theater.’ To understand that they are part of history – perhaps they, themselves, think of the future and the history they create in their daily work and how it is just as important as Sam and the great team the Fishers (founding family) put together when they built the theater in 1937.”

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According to recent accounts in the London press, the playhouse was part of the master plan all along. The Globe opened in 1997 after three decades of planning and construction. An empty section was designated for a future Jacobean theater. Money for it was raised through contributions from audience members, trusts and Globe patrons. The cost for fitting out its interior is reported at 7.5 million pounds ($12.3 million).

The Globe is an exact replica of the theater in which William Shakespeare staged his most famous works. It is built a few hundred yards from the original site.

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a composite of theaters from the early 1600s. Oliver Heywood, an architect who worked on the new playhouse, told Megan Gibson of Time magazine, “One of the biggest challenges was that there aren’t any surviving Jacobean theaters anywhere in the country.” So the playhouse is an archetype.

The theater seats 340 in two tiered galleries and a pit seating area. The wooden room includes oak pillars. The ceiling features an intricate celestial painting based on a room in a Scottish house built in 1600.

The stage is lighted almost entirely by candles. Many are on a series of chandeliers that can be raised or lowered to change the effect. Cast members carry candles. Because of the open flames, the Globe’s executive director has joked that the theater had to develop “a very good candle management strategy.”

Rowan Moore, who writes for The Observer, notes: “It is a roofed-over space, intimate and intense, where the people in the best seats – to the sides of the stage – are in touching distance of the actors… The important element is the layout – the proximities of performers and audience, the flat stage embraced by galleries, and the absence of fly-towers or wings, which require the audience to conjure a scene not from scenery but from words and a few props. Also the oak-framed construction, which in Shakespeare’s time was simply an easy and humble way to put up a building, and which might sometimes be disguised to look like stone, but which now is striking for its smell and warmth, its irregularities and warps, for its closeness to nature.”

Rowan Moore finds both Globe theaters “surreptitiously radical” and peculiar, though “good-peculiar.”

The first production in the playhouse was “The Duchess of Malfi.” Gemma Arterton, the star of the play, spoke with Richard Suchet of Sky News about the use of candles during the play. Gemma Arterton said, “It has been challenging. That’s a responsibility we don’t usually have as actors, so we were all a little bit nervous about it. But the challenges are always something that you should embrace and use, and think of ways of using them in your performance because it does make it look so sublime.”

Richard Suchet also spoke with Zoe Wanamaker, actress and daughter of Sam Wanamaker: “He would have been thrilled and overjoyed. Another dream come true. Having this building opening now, some time after his death, is a completion of what he hoped for and dreamed of.”

The playhouse is the site of exploration into theater practices of Shakespeare’s day and the theatrical context within which he worked. The play running at present is “The Knight of the Burning Pestle,” written by Francis Beaumont and first performed in 1607. The production, while challenging to the audience, “presents a great opportunity to test out the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse as a venue for comedy,” says Sarah Hemming of the Financial Times of London. “The good news is that the intimate, candlelit theatre proves a convivial space, ideally suited to experimental theatrical mischief and banter between stage and auditorium.”

The production fits in with what Theo Bosanquet, editor at whatsonstage.com, said, “There is a broad appetite, not just amongst academics and theatre aficionados, for more authentic experience in the theatre.”

At the Peninsula Players, Sam Wanamaker is revered as a person who passed this way who dreamed an impossible dream. He made the Globe a reality, and now he is honored by a place that also dares to be different. From Fish Creek, Wisconsin, to Southwark, London, England – all the world’s a stage, indeed.

RECENT PLAYERS NEWS: Peninsula Players Theatre earlier this month received the Governor’s Award for Arts, Culture and Heritage. The citation reads: “As America’s oldest professional resident summer theater, Peninsula Players has been committed to developing the arts and artists in Northeastern Wisconsin and Door County since 1935. The theater became the cornerstone of a burgeoning performing and visual arts scene which continues to grow to this day. Since it first opened, Peninsula Players has presented over 450 plays, enhancing the lives of tens of thousands of audience members. Many talented and distinguished actors have graced the stage, establishing a reputation for an outstanding theater experience. Peninsula Players is a pillar in the local community and helped establish the region’s reputation for having one of the very best and most unique performing arts scenes in the nation.”

2014 PLAYERS SEASON: “The Tin Woman,” Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” “The Mystery of Irma Vep – A Penny Dreadful,” “Butler,” “Always… Patsy Cline.” The season starts June 17. A story about productions is at http://www.wearegreenbay.com/story/d/story/critic-at-large/24029/04UnGh2nqUKR_TJ7evBjkw

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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