"The Tempest" rages in a new open air venue at Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — The narrative foundations for Shakespearean productions are centuries-old, built in the mind of William Shakespeare (or perhaps others) during the late 16th and early 17th centuries. But the physical ones don't have to be.

Shakespeare & Company opens its new outdoor venue, The Roman Garden Theatre, for performances of "The Tempest" this week after nearly a year of preparations. By creating a stage surrounded by green and, on one side, a building, the company hopes to restore its legacy of outdoor performances in a traditional Roman garden setting, according to artistic director Allyn Burrows. After Shakespeare & Company formed in 1978, the company performed outside for more than two decades at The Mount, where it still maintains a presence, before moving to its current Kemble Street location for good following the 2001 season.

"I really wanted to get back to that feeling because the audience didn't just come for the Shakespeare; they came because of the symbiosis that Shakespeare has with the outdoors," Burrows said during a telephone interview.

Burrows would know. Beginning in 1989, he spent 18 straight seasons at Shakespeare & Company, regularly acting outdoors to audiences exceeding 600 people on a sloped lawn, he said. In 2001, he played Oberon in "A Midsummer's Night Dream," the company's farewell performance at The Mount. (The company has since performed several times at Edith Wharton's home, including this summer's outdoor production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in The Dell behind the former stables). During those years, the company used a large stage behind the main house and beneath the pine trees.

"We could drive pickup trucks from back in the woods. We could have sword fights that involved as many as 45 people in them. We had backdrops where we could raise huge pieces of canvas as sets, so it was really — it was an extraordinary experience," Burrows said.

Burrows returned to Shakespeare & Company this fall in a part-time role before assuming his full-time artistic director duties in January. Upon arrival, he formed plans for a fully open air theater on the company's Lenox grounds.

"I thought I'd take advantage of my honeymoon period here as the new artistic director," he said of the idea.

With 287 seats surrounding a multi-platform stage, the theater cost just over $20,000 and was underwritten by a board member, according to Burrows. The bulk of the expense was the seating; the first two rows are chairs, while the last two rows are bleachers with cushions. Burrows said that the company ordered prototypes of different chairs and tested them in the office.

"We did a lot of trial and error," he said.

Deciding on which play should serve as the theater's inaugural production was easier. While other works were considered, Burrows said "The Tempest" was a particularly good fit because it's set on an island and the action unfolds nearly in real time.

"It's a daytime play," said Burrows, who is directing the play.

In what some believe is the final play Shakespeare wrote on his own, Antonio overthrows his brother, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, and assumes control of Milan, banishing Prospero and his daughter, Miranda, to an island, where Prospero gains magical powers. He uses those powers to exact revenge against those who betrayed him.

"[The theater] was fitting also because you have the backdrop of this building, this antique building right behind you, and it represents two worlds, this play. Prospero was thrust out of basically an urban world, the industrial world, and he lands on this remote island," Burrows said.

This production is set on Sable Island near Nova Scotia. ("It's got 'The Tempest' written all over it," Burrows said.) The year is 1893. "It was a time of economic distress, and it was also a time of invention, and an inventor — or magician, as Prospero is, would've been under suspicion for all the technology that he could produce," he said.

"The Tempest" is about magic, revenge and, ultimately, the power of love. While a recent Friday rehearsal indicated that actors will make sufficient use of their surroundings to serve these themes, descending from ladders propped against the building and circling the island-shaped platforms, the play's very title raises a question pertinent to the company's new exposed stage: what happens if it rains?

Burrows said he feels confident, due to technological advances, that the company will know when a downpour is 30 minutes or less away. If it comes, the production will move to the nearby open-sided tented Rose Footprint. But the director didn't sound worried about any potential weather issues, instead looking forward to encountering such surprises. "What better place to perform outdoors than in the Berkshires?" he said.


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