April 29, 2010

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Debuts May 5 with ‘Measure for Measure’
Major repertory theater opens in Mt. Airy

James Stover (as Angelo) and Tanya Lazar (as Escalus) get ready to bring a Shakespeare classic to Mt. Airy, as directed by Alexander Burns.

Alexander Burns is on a mission. He wants to establish what he describes as “a major repertory theater at the Sedgwick Theatre in Mt. Airy.” The classics, Burns says, are “the quintessential aspect of thousands of years of drama. We’re looking very closely at those works and [asking] why have they transcended time?”

It is from that belief, that these plays are quintessential drama, that the theater he wants to become a permanent resident at the Sedgwick is named the Quintessence Theatre Group. It will make its debut, what Burns describes as a test run, May 5 through 30 with Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure.”

Burns, who’ll turn 29 on May 10, is a Mt. Airy native and graduate of Germantown Friends School. Since graduating from Northwestern University with a theater degree in 2002, he has worked as a director and assistant director all over the country. He has assisted such renowned directors as Ethan McSweeny, Michael Kahn, Robert Moss and Frank Galati. He has also directed plays in Chicago, Fort Worth, New York and Philadelphia, including several at GFS.

Currently officially a resident of New York, Burns has returned to Philadelphia to fulfill a dream he has had since his college days: to found a classical theater company. He chose the Sedgwick because it’s a beautiful space. It’s also in an area where there are a lot of people who go to the theater regularly. What remains to be seen, it’s clear, is whether or not those people will take to a theater that specializes in Shakespeare and other classics.

In a recent interview Burns noted that when he first started cleaning up the Sedgwick for “Measure for Measure,” he spent four days just removing the dust and grime that had collected since the place had been turned into a warehouse some years ago. In describing how he will approach the company’s theatrical work, he wants to do the same thing: remove the dust and grime from works that when written were all designed to be entertainment for the masses. He wants “to take classic drama and put it on the contemporary stage. Our focus is figuring out how to take these great epic works that were mass populace works in their day and make them such for our audience today.

“If we achieve our mission, we’ll inherently present these works in a way that is fundamentally different from the traditional ‘we’re doing a Shakespeare play.’ [We’ll] entice a new audience.”

Burns says that his “Measure for Measure” is going to be a two-hour evening; the essence of the play, “done well,” will energize his audience.

In future works, “The aesthetic is going to change vastly, depending on the production and the play. In terms of ‘contemporary stage,’ it’s not so much putting the play in the contemporary world but specifically looking at the characters and events of the story and how they actually relate to who we are and what our lives are now. ‘Contemporary’ is really about how to create passion and the human experience that is relevant to where we are now.”

If “Measure for Measure” is successful, Burns’ plans for his first full season is to do the first Henriad, which is Shakespeare’s three “Henry VI” plays and “Richard III.” This will be broken into three events because, Burns recognizes, a theater’s success is often as much about the event as it is about the play.

Because it was written first, this Henriad looks at Britain’s history at a later time than the second Henriad that includes “Richard II” and the two parts of “Henry IV” and “Henry V.” The first Henriad was written when Shakespeare was a young, passionate playwright.

The four plays will be broken into three parts. The first, basically “Henry VI, Part I,” is “about the loss of France and Joan of Arc. We call that the great French epic and the Joan of Arc play.

“The second one is really the War of the Roses in England when the Yorks and Lancasters are going at it.” For that, they’ll combine the second and third parts of “Henry VI.” The third one is the great coup d’etat of “Richard III.”

Burns also plans to do Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s “The Rivals” and Eugene O’Neill’s “Morning Becomes Electra” in his first full season. As he repeatedly emphasized, he wants his productions to be more relevant and more exciting than much of the classical work being done today.

“The two dangers [of work today],” he says, “are that it becomes so literal that it becomes this very naturalistic event where the audience has been trained, thanks to film and television, to need everything to be what it is and have a very naturalistic approach. Shakespeare, from the very beginning, is trying to make you consider what it represents.

“We want to undermine that association and [focus] on the primacy of the theatrical event and create moments of the sublime by taking it out of necessary realism, creating our own rules and worlds and then letting the plays ignite in them.”

The key to this is great acting, he says. “It is the pinnacle of acting to be a classicist and to fully inhabit and exist through the words. This is perhaps the hardest thing to do. Part of what we want to do in ‘Measure for Measure’ is to show that’s where we’re headed.”

Burns has had a lifelong relationship with both the classics and with repertory theater. His mother, Lisa Hemphill Burns, was a costume designer and ran the costume shop at People’s Light and Theatre Company in Malvern when Burns was a child. That theater was a repertory company that employed artists year-round.

When he was 12, his family moved to London where, for the next three years, as long as he did his homework, he could go to the theater whenever he wanted. He spent lots of time watching the classics at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre and elsewhere.

He was also actively involved with the drama program at GFS, which his mother directs.

While it will take a few years — five, he guesses — his plan is to “collect a group of 12 to 16 professional actors and over the course of the season present six to nine classical works in repertory, which means that night by night we’d be presenting different great classical works.”

He’s fully aware that the classics, particularly Shakespeare and others written in an older version of English than that with which most audience members are familiar with, often seem intimidating. “If people are coming to the theater for a passive event, then we’ve already cut off our feet. Then we as theater artists are inherently lame. We don’t fulfill our function.

“If we can present the opportunity where you can go and get lost in these passionate, epic stories, we’ll avoid the intellectual quandary. All of the Shakespeare plays are  ... interesting in terms of their emotional and character drama. I hope we can catch people with that.”

Alex Burns is an obviously bright, committed theater artist. He also seems to be realistic. That is a necessary combination if a new theater company is to succeed.

The Quintessence production of “Measure for Measure” will be performed in the Sedgwick’s inner lobby and will have about 150 seats. Performances will be Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. For more information about the theater or to purchase tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit


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