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All the world's a stage for Serenbe Playhouse

Spotlight is on Mother Nature during rural theater's summer repertory

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Amid the fields and forests of rural Georgia's Chattahoochee Hills, the Serenbe Playhouse theater seems to grow out of the Earth itself.

For the company's world premiere production of The Ugly Duckling, audiences drive 32 miles south of downtown Atlanta to the Serenbe township. Signs direct visitors past the Farmhouse restaurant, and a dirt road winds alongside horses and donkeys. After checking in at a pavilion by a small lake, attendees may hear a rooster crow or notice a flock of Canadian geese waiting on a distant bank. Serenbe's adaptation of the classic tale of barnyard animals feels inevitable in such surroundings.

The rural community features no indoor theater, but Serenbe Playhouse artistic director Brian Clowdus turns a potential limitation into its greatest selling point. In its second season of summer shows, Serenbe Playhouse takes advantage of Mother Nature in ways other outdoor stage plays aspire to but seldom actually achieve.

In 2008, Clowdus, a young actor then based in New York City, visited Serenbe and was entranced by the community, with its elegant residences, farm-to-table restaurants and its mix of woods and farmland. "As an actor who had done summer regional theater all over the country, I thought Serenbe seemed like exactly the place for it," says Clowdus.

Clowdus approached the Serenbe Institute for Arts, Culture and the Environment, which organizes the town's artistic initiatives, with his idea to establish a theater. "They already had interest in putting together a theater, and they asked what my business plan would be. So I had to get a bunch of books about launching nonprofits," Clowdus quips.

"Once we started having conversations about starting a company, I toured Serenbe with an eye to producing plays here," says Clowdus. "There's no actual theatrical structure out here, so we do everything outdoors. We try to use existing architecture wherever possible and build minimal sets."

The company has a long-term goal to build a permanent space to produce theater year round. For now, matching plays to Serenbe's potential locations sounds like a kind of scavenger hunt. The musical Ordinary Days, which opened the 2011 summer season, took place in a courtyard and made use of the front stoops and balconies of existing buildings, as well as the property's central fountain. The currently playing adventure Shipwrecked! shares the space with the weekly farmers market and cultivates the atmosphere of an open-air market in Victorian London.

For The Ugly Duckling, a world premiere version of the Hans Christian Andersen fable, developed with local performance group Brooks & Company Dance, Clowdus became even more creative. "Our first thought was, 'Let's do it by the water.' Then it was 'Let's build the set on top of the water.' And finally we asked, 'Why not lower it into the water?'"

Consequently, The Ugly Duckling's performing platform sits in the middle of a lake, submerged about six inches, or ankle-deep on the actors. The action features no actual swimming, but Joanna Brooks' choreography frequently incorporates the water. The actors not only perform on the aquatic platform but on either side of the lake. At times, Ted (Andrew Crigler), in the title role of an outcast waterfowl, can move from a distant hill, across the water to within arm's length of the audience. The cast sprints and turns cartwheels across a performing space as big as all outdoors.

Rachel Teagle's Ugly Duckling adaptation delivers a solid message of accepting personal differences as well as some decent one-liners. At one point, Ted encounters the air-headed, fashion-obsessed Cat and Chicken, who coo over a nice pair of "Meow-lo Blahniks." Even if you don't have kids, you can appreciate the muscular choreography and the costumes' Japanese aesthetic.

Shipwrecked!, a show with a more grown-up perspective, provides a good excuse to make the drive: Terrific local actor Mark Kincaid plays the lead in a script by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies. Subtitled The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself), the Victorian-era travel thriller taps into some steampunk narrative traditions.

"Welcome to this temple of the imagination!" Kincaid booms when the show begins at dusk, his baritone resounding over the hills. With the help of five additional players in multiple roles, Kincaid's Louis acts out his eventful life story. Longing to see the world, Louis signs up for pearl-seeking expedition near Australia, survives a whirlpool and spends years on a tropical island. Over the decades, he makes a family among hostile aborigines, walks across the Outback and becomes a London celebrity.

During Shipwrecked!'s running time, the stars come out overhead and tiki torches perfume the air, perfect for a show about a Robinson Crusoe-esque castaway. The company gives a hearty performance of the action, but the play doesn't have much emotional resonance beyond a catalog of wild events, so Will Shuler's wide-eyed performance as Louis' loyal dog nearly steals the show. The play builds to a fascinating twist based on the narrator's actual life that invites a post-modern reassessment of his account.

Serenbe Playhouse's al fresco aesthetic raises challenges. "We had a major issue the weekend before The Ugly Duckling opened. That's when we'd had the crazy rainstorms, so the cast was literally in the water up to their knees." Clowdus says. The summer heat also provides a hurdle — the venue could alternately be called "Humidity Playhouse" — but the company allows the audience to bring cold drinks and provides visitors with bug spray and sunscreen.

But Clowdus finds that the natural advantages outweigh the drawbacks. "There's a negative connotation of outdoor theater as cheesy, over-the-top melodrama, but when it works, you get something you don't get otherwise. You've got real stars above you, real trees and a real lake behind you. You get to experience a sunset while watching a show."

The drive to Serenbe takes less than an hour — about the same as Lawrenceville's Aurora Playhouse, with at least the same level of quality. The Suzi Bass Awards, which support excellence in Atlanta-area theater, gave recommendations to Ordinary Days and Shipwrecked!, affirming the plays as more than simply a capper to an idyllic Serenbe day trip. At Serenbe Playhouse, the shows hold up enough to prove that the natural surroundings aren't just a gimmick.

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