Curtain Closing on Race Street

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company opens 'The Tempest,' its final show before moving to a new OTR home.

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click to enlarge Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips (left) with Jay Woffington, executive director - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips (left) with Jay Woffington, executive director
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company has generated theater buzz for the past two years with the announcement and subsequent construction of its new Otto M. Budig Theater at 12th and Elm streets in Over-the-Rhine. Its first play there, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is set for September.

But first, it has to say goodbye to its home of the past 18 years. This week, the 23-year-old company opens the final production at its longtime venue at 719 Race St. in downtown Cincinnati. It had moved into a space operated by The Movies, a onetime repertory cinema and art house. That became its base after preliminary stops at Gabriel’s Corner in Over-the-Rhine, The Carnegie in Covington and the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. 

For nearly two decades, the adapted space has hosted plays by Shakespeare and other renowned playwrights. The last work staged by Cincy Shakes at Race Street will be Shakespeare’s The Tempest (opening Friday and playing through May 20).

“I write down my first draft of the potential new season the day after we announce the upcoming season,” says Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips. “We announced our 2015-16 season on Feb. 1, 2015. On Feb. 2, I wrote down my ideas for what 2016-17 would be. The first thing I wrote was ‘Tempest, last show. Nick Rose as Prospero.’ The idea of having a founding company member say goodbye to this space using Prospero’s language — asking the audience to release him at the end — was the way to go.”

Rose was one of a group of actor friends who launched the company in 1994 as the Fahrenheit Theatre Company. He has been a mainstay as a leading actor.

In the news release about The Tempest, co-director Jeremy Dubin, another veteran artist with the company, commented, “The Tempest is considered to be the last of Shakespeare’s great solo plays. It’s both about remembering the past and looking forward to the horizon, and so it felt like a fitting and poignant acknowledgement of our history as a company and a wonderful expression of our excitement about what’s coming next.”

The role Rose is taking on is that of the magician Prospero, unjustly exiled to a deserted island with only his books and his daughter Miranda. As the story opens, his years of plotting revenge culminate when his enemies venture near the island. He conjures a storm — the “tempest” of the title — that crashes them on his shore. As it turns out, the island is not deserted at all, but a place of magic and monsters, love and liquor, retribution and redemption. 

The play is believed to be Shakespeare’s last before retiring; several speeches are often read as his final words about the magic of theater. 

“Since some of the play’s text feels like Shakespeare’s farewell to playwriting and his company, it felt like the right way to say farewell to this theater space,” Phillips says.

Phillips and several other actors joined the acting company during Cincy Shakes’ sixth season, 1999-2000. His first production was The Tempest. “The Tempest was the first production many of us did together — Corinne Mohlenhoff, Jeremy Dubin, Giles Davies, Paul Riopelle, Sylvester Little Jr.,” he says. 

Phillips is now married to Mohlenhoff, and the others still appear regularly in productions there. Riopelle and Little are in this season’s The Tempest.

As the final curtain comes down on Race Street, Phillips recalls a few things he’ll miss. “I’ve spent more time in this building than anywhere in my life,” he says. “I know the stage and the offices backward and forward. It’s been more of a home than any home has been when you think of length. 

“I’m going to miss opening nights. I rarely actually sit in the theater. Instead I tend to stand outside the door (to the auditorium) and watch the show through the glass. I’ve put more miles on the carpets outside those doors over the years than anywhere else. I’m going to miss being able to peer in in that way. When something would go wrong or something would go right, I would run downstairs and either freak out or celebrate. That’s unique to this space, something I’ll definitely miss.”

At the same, Phillips can enumerate specific moments when Race Street’s limitations hit home personally. He was acting in a production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir in 2000, before access was enabled from the stage to the rest of the building. Actors were stranded backstage for the duration of a play. 

“There was a lot of drinking involved in that show and no intermission. We were provided with empty water jugs just in case we couldn’t make it through the entire performance,” Phillips says, adding quickly they were never used.

Phillips will be grateful to leave behind a stage with “no backstage space, no wing space, no height… especially the large foundation beam in the center of our rehearsal room.”

“Those things will not be missed at all,” he says. “We’ve been growing so much — our artistic ambitions, our audience size, our place in the community, our status nationally and internationally.” 

The Tempest’s nautical imagery reminds him of a memory about the necessity to evolve. “Every time we would run into a problem because of the space, we would say, ‘We need to get a bigger boat,’” he says.

The Tempest offers a fine metaphor for the magic involved in moving on from one venue to the next. The production’s scenic design will leave audiences with an indelible final image revealing the challenges faced to bring to life plays by Shakespeare and other renowned writers. 

“We have created a lot of magic in this building over the years, including doing The Grapes of Wrath in a space that was never meant to handle that much story,” Phillips says.

Shakespeare’s moving valedictory play is a perfect capstone for this momentous transition. 

The Tempest is a great way to celebrate the magic that has been in here — and send us sailing to our next adventure.”


Cincinnati Shakespeare Company stages its final production at its Race Street theater, THE TEMPEST, through May 20. Tickets/more info: cincyshakes.com.

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