A Rose Takes Root

When the Globe Theater opened in London in 1997, no one knew what to expect. Critics smelled a gimmick in the heavily hyped reproduction of Shakespeare's famous stage and worried that the venue would be more concerned with tourist pounds than artistic merit. Theatergoers felt disoriented. "The audience felt it was a bit of a theme park and thought, 'What's required of me here is to throw vegetables or leave my mug of beer on the stage'," as the groundlings of Shakespeare's time might have, says Giles Block, a director at the Globe. But after a few years of adjustment, the theater has become one of the most popular in London, pulling in larger and younger audiences than any other playhouse--and winning rave reviews from critics.

Now a theater ensemble is hoping to repeat that success across the Atlantic, in the Berkshire mountains of western Massachussetts. Shakespeare & Company, a respected troupe founded by expat British actor and director Tina Packer, hopes to break ground soon on a five-year project to reconstruct the Rose theater, an open-air playhouse that stood just across the street from Shakespeare's Globe and staged the works of the Bard's contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. To this day, it remains the only theater from that time period to have been excavated: its remains were found in 1988 after a downtown office tower was torn down to make way for a new building on the site.

The team of archeologists, builders, historians and architects that worked on the Globe has been reassembled to re-create the smaller Rose. Earlier this month they met at Shakespeare & Company's sprawling 63-acre estate in Lenox, Massachusetts, amid crisp fall weather and changing leaves. For them, there's more at stake than an adventure in architecture and fund-raising: the Rose, much like the Globe, they say, will reinvent the theater experience for its patrons. The orchestra, or "yard," will be standing-room only, surrounded by three stories of galleries and, above them, the sky. As in the 1600s, no electricity will be used to illuminate the stage--only natural light and, possibly, torches for special evening events.

Many critics believe that is the only way to experience Elizabethan plays. University of Reading English scholar Andrew Gurr, a consultant on both the Globe and Rose theaters, mourns the demise of such "three-dimensional" spaces, which, he says, have given way to flatter, more cinemalike venues. The change goes back to 1642, when Oliver Cromwell's Parliament shut down London's playhouses (Puritans thought theaters were a breeding ground for sin). When Charles II reopened them 18 years later, he incorporated aspects of the Italian theater that had been influential in France during the time of his exile: the proscenium arches, opulent scenery and footlights that still dominate theater design today.

The Rose team is reassembling the 13-sided structure in meticulous detail--a project that will cost between $20 million and $25 million. Builders will ship 450 tons of English oak from Britain for the hand-cut timber frame. Instead of nails, they will rely mainly on joinery and pegs. English labs are running tests on animal hairs found at the archeological site to determine precisely which creatures loaned their fur to bind the building's plaster mix.

One element they won't be able to reproduce is the hectic schedule of an Elizabethan theater. Because demand for plays in the late 1500s and early 1600s was so great (the population was largely illiterate, and London was booming as an urban center), the Rose cast staged a different play each day, six days a week. Says Gurr, "That memory capacity is something modern actors can't possibly imitate." And, while the Rose was open year-round (the crowd of 1,500 was packed so densely there was no chance of feeling a draft, even in winter) the new Rose will most likely have a season that runs from June through September. (Modern fire laws, too, will allow only half the capacity.) Still, the theater's physical authenticity is what audiences are likely to notice. Says Block, "I've never heard such tremendous applause as at the end of Globe shows." The Rose, too, should be able to overcome a couple of thorns.