While the rest of the Richmond arts world casts its view over a vast international landscape, local theater companies seem unusually focused on a single foggy island in the North Atlantic. Five productions with openings during the next seven weeks are set wholly or partially in England.
It starts with Swift Creek Mill’s slamming-door farce, “See How They Run,” opening Sept. 18 and wraps up with Chamberlayne Actors Theatre’s “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure,” premiering Oct. 24. Virtually the only escape from the posh lilt of an English accent will be the clipped German guttural of the lead character in TheatreLab’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (opening Oct. 24).
Setting aside the possibility of a nefarious plot by unemployed language coaches, what could explain this acute Anglification of local stages? The directors struggle to pinpoint a reason.
“I don’t think it’s calculated,” Rusty Wilson says. “Maybe there’s something in the water?”
Wilson will be at the helm of “Sight Unseen” for Cadence Theatre (opening Oct. 16), which follows a famous American painter while he ventures to England for his first international retrospective. There, the artist confronts his past and his sense of self.
“Uh, maybe because we’re rolling up to the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta?” is director Jan Powell’s email response, written while in the midst of her own international sojourn in Norway.
As the artistic director for the combined Henley Street and Richmond Shakespeare companies, Powell has an abiding interest in all things historical, but her suggestion grossly overestimates American excitement about the famous precursor to the U.S. Constitution. She is, however, an inspired choice to direct “Equivocation,” a play that uses a fictional plot involving William Shakespeare to satirize modern politics. Her company works with Virginia Repertory Theatre to produce the show that opens Sept. 26.
H. Lynn Smith, who was in the middle of casting “Sherlock Holmes” when we spoke, took a more studious rationalization for the Brit fixation.
“There is a historical parent-child relationship between America and the United Kingdom, and that relationship influences the cultural interaction as well,” she says. “Typically, children want to be like their parents so we look to them for inspiration.”
While this might be construed as a kind of cultural inferiority complex, Smith sees it as a good thing. “As we continue to build our own culture,” she says, “we can reach out from this rich foundation that includes hundreds of years of tremendous literature.”
Central to this foundation are such iconic characters as the enigmatic Sherlock. “It is frightening to take on Holmes,” Smith says. “But I feel more comfortable now that there are at least two very different takes on the character in popular culture,” she says, citing the American television series “Elementary” and the British series “Sherlock.”
That she doesn’t mention Robert Downey Jr.’s big-screen portrayals is an encouraging sign that there will be few anachronistic explosions in her stage version.
Beyond its cultural heritage, England also provides a convenient foreign setting that can heighten or enhance certain themes. Wilson says this is a crucial aspect of “Sight Unseen.”
“Having [the play’s main character] Jonathan go to England pumps up the fame factor; it’s clear that he’s famous on an international scale,” the director says. “He also has to encounter a European sensibility, which comes into play when he’s interviewed about anti-Semitism and other racial and ethnic issues.”
“There is a certain romantic thing about travel and going to foreign lands,” Wilson continues. “And England is just foreign enough.”
This romanticism most certainly would prompt the setting of plays in even more exotic locales if providing subtitles wasn’t such a technical barrier.
Powell says that setting “Equivocation” in the past as well as in a foreign country gives the playwright an enhanced level of dramatic freedom.
“The removal of certain issues to a far time and place allows the audience more freedom to make connections with today’s parallels,” she says. “The historical setting is more subversive; if the play was smacking you on the head as modern political theater, I think one would be more likely to resist.”
There are any number of reasons to set a show in England. But comedies such as the farcical “See How They Run” and the sophisticated “Design for Living” — offered by Richmond Triangle Players starting Sept. 24 — beg a couple of questions: Does everything on stage sound classier or funnier in a British accent? Or are we Richmonders just enamored of foreign accents?
That might seem true, except that not all of the shows opening this fall are set in England. There’s the aforementioned “Hedwig.” And Virginia Rep’s show opening at Hanover Tavern on Sept. 12, “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” is a bio-play about the famous sex therapist, Ruth Westheimer, who speaks in a thick German accent. Hmm.