After a decade of performing in the spacious, if slightly scruffy, black-box space tucked behind the Pentagon known as the Clark Street Playhouse, the Washington Shakespeare Company will have to look for a new home, probably before the end of next season.
The Arlington County-owned property has been traded to a private developer in a land swap.
"It's, in a way, a relief," Artistic Director Christopher Henley says. "A lot of uncertainty has been removed. We have now a much clearer idea of the future."
That future might include a temporary, space-sharing arrangement with another theater company in another Arlington County-owned space -- the Gunston Arts Center, for example, or the building Signature Theatre will vacate next year to move into its new digs at Shirlington Village. The county recently received approval to purchase the old Signature space.
WSC is high on the list of possible tenants, says Norma Kaplan, chief of the county's cultural affairs division and its arts incubator program, which offers performance spaces to small theater companies for a percentage of the box office. WSC also pays for upkeep of the playhouse. "They do very good work. They're experimental, they're a little edgy. I think they're very good for Arlington," she says.
Henley says he is receptive to using Signature's old space, but is concerned about it not being Metro-accessible. Mostly, though, he'll miss the creative flexibility afforded by the Clark Street Playhouse, despite its rusticated infrastructure.
"I think a lot of people who experienced theater in that space will be sorry to see it go," he says. "It was such a warm, alive, electric place for things to happen. . . . There are a lot of spaces that just seem uninviting and antiseptic, or just not particularly suited to being a theater space, but that was."
Scenic designer Giorgos Tsappas, whose most recent work at Clark Street was "Medea," appreciates the high roof, which offers "a chance to give height to your set and even to do multiple stories, if you want, or even to exaggerate any of the set elements and make them taller than they're supposed to be."
The news about WSC losing Clark Street elicited a flurry of postings on a Washington theater insiders' Web site, theaterboy.net. A few (mostly anonymous) criticized the way WSC is run -- late payments to actors and crew, uncomfortable backstage conditions, and poor housekeeping.
Henley says the payment situation has improved this season. As for the rest, he cites the caliber of the work the non-Equity troupe has been doing on an annual budget of less than $250,000, including such productions as "The Maids," "Marat/Sade," "Strange Interlude" and "Titus Andronicus."
"It's very hard producing plays of that scope with limited resources, and that's the trade-off," he says, "that sometimes the garbage doesn't get emptied as frequently."
WSC's current show at Clark Street is Peter Shaffer's New World saga, "The Royal Hunt of the Sun," through Aug. 28.
'Hell' and a Woman's Scorn
One smartly dressed woman in the audience made what looked like a subtle thumbs-down gesture at the end of Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell" Wednesday night at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which closes Sunday.
Whether she objected to the style of the 90-minute black comedy or its politics was not clear, but the play, which Shepard wrote before the 2004 election, does seem to warn that America is headed down a road to paranoia and fascism.
In it, a Wisconsin farm couple hides an old friend who seems to suffer the aftereffects of either an experiment or torture -- he emits sparks. A grinning government agent comes after him and threatens the couple for their lack of overt patriotism.
"It's not subtle, it's in your face," says festival director Ed Herendeen.
Herendeen, who staged "The God of Hell," says it is "turning out to be one of the most popular plays we've ever produced" in the festival's 15 seasons. He says the "buzz of conversation and energy" after the show is "just overwhelming."
The play ends with the farmer's wife ringing a big back-porch bell. Theatergoers' interpretations range "from that was the Liberty Bell, to that was a warning call, to that was a wake-up call to America," Herendeen says.
Shepard is one of the few playwrights who doesn't participate in rehearsals at Shepherdstown (where his "The Late Henry Moss" was produced in 2002). Herendeen has met with the Pulitzer Prize winner a couple of times backstage in New York and San Francisco, but he has directed Shepard's works without a lot of additional input from him.
"I've got a pretty good ear for Shepard, at least I think I do," Herendeen says. "I've got a high respect for his tempo, his rhythm, his use of language." And, he adds, it helps that "the play comes out of actors' mouths very easily, right from the first reading."
* Playwright Sarah Ruhl, whose "The Clean House" runs at Woolly Mammoth through Aug. 14, will join a post-show discussion tomorrow night with director Rebecca Bayla Taichman. Patrons who have already seen the play and others can come for the discussion only. The performance ends at 10 p.m. Visit www.woollymammoth.net.
* The National Theatre will be the third stop of the just-announced national tour of "Monty Python's Spamalot," June 7-July 9, 2006. The show will hit Boston and Chicago first.
* American Century Theater will hold a "staged singing and reading" of 1943's "One Touch of Venus," music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ogden Nash and S.J. Perelman, Thursday through Sunday at Gunston Arts Center. Call 703-553-8782 or visit www.americancentury.org.
* Actors Theatre of Washington will present its all-male production of Christopher Hampton's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" Aug. 5-Sept. 4 at the new Busboys and Poets Cafe, 14th and V streets NW. Chris Henley will play the Vicomte de Valmont. Visit www.atwdc.org.