Love for Love at the American Shakespeare Center

ascAs part of the 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center‘s Blackfriars Playhouse, the company is performing Love for Love by William Congreve. This restoration comedy is pretty silly, full of bawdy jokes, laughs, and slapstick.

Chris Johnston does a wonderful job as Valentine, an impoverished son of a wealthy merchant, who loves Angelica (played with smart aloofness by Lexie Braverman) but lacks the estate to woo her. (Writers would love this, as there are some great lines after Valentine announces that he’s going to earn his living by becoming a poet: his friend Scandal says “Turn pimp, flatterer, quack, lawyer, parson, be chaplain to an atheist, or stallion to an old woman, anything but
poet. A modern poet is worse, more servile, timorous, and fawning,
than any I have named:”) Tattle is also very funny, played by John Harrell, especially in his dalliance with young Prue (Lauren Ballard).

Perhaps the most memorable character, though, is Foresight, Prue’s father, played hysterically by Aidan O’Reilly. He’s a caricature of an astrologer, full of wonderful mocking cliches of a fortuneteller, complete with long gray hair, a wizard’s coat, and meaningless astrological jargon.

The audience last night was very appreciative, and the show certainly is a laugh riot. Just one more week in the season, though, so you’d better hurry to see it.

Heifetz International Music Institute: Keyboard Journeys

heifSunday afternoon I attended a special benefit concert in support of a scholarship fund for the Heifetz International Music Institute. The Institute, which provides an amazing six weeks of training for brilliant young violinists, violists, and cellists, also sponsors an outstanding concert series given by those students and their world-class faculty.

But today was all about the piano, and two remarkable pianists (who happen to be married to each other) performed a breathtaking program that they have called “Keyboard Journeys” because the pieces they chose cover several combinations: solo piano, four-handers, and pieces for two pianos. First, Yury Shadrin played Schubert’s Fantasie in C Major, D. 760 (“Wanderer”). I’m no judge of these things, but I have to believe Shadrin when he says it is one of the most difficult pieces ever written. (Even Schubert himself couldn’t play it, but Shadrin was just amazing.) Then Shadrin played another Schubert piece, this time joined by Tian Lu on the same piano (Fantasie in F minor for piano four-hands, D. 940).

After the intermission, Tian Lu played a Chopin Sonata and they finished with Ravel’s La Valse, M.7, transcription for two pianos, one of the most sensual pieces I’ve ever seen/heard.

What a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Besides the music, I saw lots of friends I’ve gotten to know through the Institute’s concerts.

If you’re so inclined to support the scholarship fund for this great program, go here.

On Stage: The Sea Voyage by Fletcher and Massigner

ascYesterday I saw a play I’ve never seen before–Fletcher and Massigner’s The Sea Voyage–as part of the American Shakespeare Center‘s Renaissance Season.

Based on The Tempest, which is also in this season’s repertoire, the play at first seems to be going in a different direction, but ultimately circles back to a Tempest-like resolution.

Albert, a French pirate, is shipwrecked with his mistress and crew on a mysterious island. They soon encounter two men whom they mistake for misshapen creatures, sort of like Caliban in Shakespeare’s version of the story. Eventually they find a colony of women who inhabit a neighboring island, also shipwrecked. Complicated romances ensue and eventually former identities are revealed and enemies reconciled.

Slapstick aside (there’s plenty of it, if you like that sort of thing), this is a very funny play, loaded with bawdy jokes and innuendo. And the performances are excellent from the entire cast. I especially enjoyed the love triangle among Chad Bradford, as Albert, Lauren Ballard, as Aminta, Albert’s mistress, and Lexie Braverman as Clarinda, the daughter of the leader of the “Amazonian” women. As always, the music provided before the show and during the interlude, was great.

The Renaissance Season is winding down, with only a few weeks left before the touring company returns to town for the Spring Season.


On Stage: Women Beware Women by Thomas Middleton

ascI saw the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women at the Blackfriars Playhouse last night. The third show mounted in this year’s Actors’ Renaissance Season (along with The Tempest and Measure for Measure), I expect it will improve and gain polish over the coming weeks, and I very much look forward to seeing it again.

Middleton would probably be labeled a “misogynist” today, and he certainly doesn’t cut the women in this play any slack, but then the men don’t fare much better: A sailor returns home from a voyage with his “stolen treasure,” the beautiful Bianca, and installs her in his mother’s house where she is to be kept hidden. But the Duke catches sight of her and must have her, which is easily arranged. Meanwhile, a foolish nobleman is trying to marry his daughter off to the foolish heir of another nobleman, except that the father’s brother has designs on his niece. The girl’s aunt convinces her that it’s okay to love her uncle because he’s not really her uncle (except that he really is). And when that aunt sees the sailor who is distraught because the Duke is sleeping with his wife, she manages to make him her boy-toy. All very sleazy and fun, until the Cardinal warns of the wrath of God.

Entertaining stuff and nicely done on stage. If I had to single out one highlight in the production I would say the incestuous relationship between Hippolito (Chris Johnston) and his niece Isabella (Lauren Ballard) is especially worth watching.

Another outstanding production of the American Shakespeare Center.

On Stage: Measure for Measure at the American Shakespeare Center

ascLast night I saw the opening performance of the American Shakespeare Center‘s Actors’ Renaissance Season production of Measure for Measure. Although the play isn’t one of my favorites, it’s extremely well done.

John Harrell is his usual commanding self as the Duke who suddenly leaves town, putting his deputy Angelo in charge, knowing that Angelo will enforce strictly laws that have been mostly ignored. And so he does. Angelo–perhaps the best I’ve seen, played by Jonathan Holtzman–learns that young Claudio has made his betrothed, Juliet, pregnant. They’re as good as married, but that’s not good enough for Angelo, so Claudio is sentenced to die. The young lovers are played wonderfully by the real-life married pair of Benjamin Reed and Lauren Ballard. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella (the versatile Allison Glenzer), a novice in the church, comes to Angelo to beg for her brother’s life, Angelo falls in love/lust and agrees to spare Claudio only if Isabella will give herself to him. That all sounds terribly serious, but Lucio, played brilliantly by Chris Johnston, provides comic relief when the Duke, disguised as a friar, returns to check up on Angelo.

The play is done so well it is easy to forget that this is the Actors’ Renaissance Season, where shows are put up in a matter of days. Like The Tempest, which opened last week, the company had only about five days to rehearse Measure for Measure. Now they are running in rotation, with a less familiar play, Thomas Middleton’s Women Beware Women, opening at the end of the month.

On Stage: The Tempest at The American Shakespeare Center

ascI feel very fortunate to have such an amazing theater right here in this small town. The American Shakespeare Center provides an endless source of entertainment and a continuing literary education, and I don’t have to go to DC or New York for live theater.

Last night I saw the opening performance of the 2016 Actors’ Renaissance Season production of The Tempest. The Ren Season is a particularly exciting time at the Blackfriars Playhouse. No directors, no costumers, very little rehearsal time. The actors do it all [almost] by themselves, and the result always has extraordinary energy. The Tempest, for example, was put up in under a week, and next week the troupe will add Measure for Measure. Three more plays will come on-line in the following weeks so that by the end of the season in early April this amazing group of performers (accomplished musicians as well as actors) will be doing five shows in repertory.

So, The Tempest. It’s one of my favorites and I’ve seen it many times over the years, including quite a few stagings here at the Blackfriars, as well as a production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge that was the spectacular Posner and Teller adaptation. That was a special experience, but there’s nothing like seeing it in an intimate theater like the Blackfriars, Shakespeare’s original staging conditions and all.

We start with the chaos of the shipwreck caused by Prospero (played magnificently by Rene Thornton Jr.) followed by his education of his daughter, the lovely Miranda (Lauren Ballard, who is bubbly and perfect in this role) about how they came to be stranded on their island due to the treachery of his brother. Then we meet Ariel, the sprite who does Prospero’s bidding. The relationship between Prospero and Ariel is what provides the real charm of this play, and Chris Johnston gives Ariel appealing freshness. Johnston, a brilliant musician, turns Ariel into a musical spirit, complete with banjo (sometimes a ukelele), and is nearly heartbreaking when he gazes into Prospero’s eyes begging for his freedom. I also enjoyed Patrick Midgley as the “monster” Caliban, who is appropriately evil and pitiful at the same time, and Chad Bradford as Ferdinand, destined to fall in love with Miranda.

And it was fantastic to see many former company members return to the Blackfriars for this season. Kudos to the whole cast for a job well done.

Also, last night before the show began, Artistic Director Jim Warren announced the lineup for the 2016-17 Artistic Year, including 6 Blackfriars premiers, which is very exciting. More on that later.

On Stage: The Life of King Henry the Fifth by William Shakespeare

henryEvery year the American Shakespeare Center‘s Touring Company returns to Staunton for the month of December. They perform A Christmas Carol and support the two one-actor shows that the theater produces during the holiday season. And they give local audiences a “sneak preview” of their touring shows that they will eventually bring back to the Blackfriars stage in the spring.

Last night I caught one of those previews, their production of The Life of King Henry the Fifth. I’ll have to wait a couple of months to see the others, but this one is definitely a winner.

It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, anyway, I suppose because young Henry, so recently the mischievous Prince Hal, is in full command, a good guy who also has to be ruthless to survive. He’s also got one of the great inspirational speeches in all of Shakespeare as he leads his soldiers in the Battle at Agincourt, ending with these lines:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

That scene chokes me up when it is done well, as it was last night by Ross Neal as Henry. The whole cast was wonderful, with some of the highlights being Andrew Goldwasser as Fluellen and Tim Sailer as the Dauphin. The scene between Katherine (Zoe Speas) and her attendant (Jessica Lefkow) in which Kate practices her English in anticipation of her betrothal to Henry was also excellent.

One of the wonderful things about this play, for me, is its structure, in which the Chorus guides the audience between England and France and back again and also encourages them to use their imaginations.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Taking the part of the Chorus is Josh Innerst who gives that voice energy, popping back in from time to time to keep the audience aware of where they are, and finally bringing the play to a close, but also slipping in and out of the other roles Innerst must play. As Chorus, he occasionally plops into an empty seat in the audience and watches the action unfold onstage. Very well done.

Music is a big part of the ASC experience, and this company is excellent. Not only are there some very fine singing voices–no point in naming names because that covers just about everyone in the cast–but also skill at several instruments, including trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass, flute, drums, and accordion.

It’s a terrific show, and I look forward to its return in the spring, along with The Importance of Being Earnest, Julius Caesar, and Arms and the Man.

Theater: All’s Well That Ends Well at the American Shakespeare Center


This production is nearly perfect, with excellent performances from every member of the cast. I don’t remember when the American Shakespeare Center last performed this one, but everything about it seemed fresh to me, from the costumes, to the music, to the characterizations. It’s a so-called “problem play,” but it was extremely entertaining.

Helena, played by Tracie Thomason, the ward of Countess Rosillion, played by Allison Glenzer, is in love with the Countess’s son, Bertram, played by Dylan Paul. When Bertram goes off to the French Court to make a name for himself, Helena finds a reason to go, too. By curing the King of his “fistula,” she earns the right to choose a husband from among the nobles at Court. She picks Bertram. But he’s not happy about this because Helena, the daughter of a physician, is of a lower class.

This doesn’t say much for Bertram, who reveals himself to be a jerk in other ways. But Helena’s not through with him . . .

Paul and Thomason were terrific as Bertram and Helena, and it’s an interesting pairing because they also play Romeo and Juliet this season. In that play, he’s all over her. In this one, he’s just not that into her. It makes for a nice dynamic for those of us who’ve seen both productions.

In this play, John Harrell is wonderful as the King and Rene Thornton Jr. is very funny as Lafew, as is Greg Phelps as Lavatch the Fool.

I’ve now seen all three shows in the Summer Season, and they’re all fantastic. I can’t pick a favorite, so I’ll just have to see them all again.

Theater: “Stupid Fucking Bird” by Aaron Posner

I seem to have developed a renewed interest in the theater. Years ago, in graduate school, I read a lot of drama, although I didn’t see so many productions. When I was teaching freshman composition, we also read some plays and watched a few filmed productions, and I enjoyed discussing these with the students: Chekhov, O’Neill, Stoppard, and others.

And, of course, I am a regular at the American Shakespeare Center. A play by a modern playwright is an anomaly there, though. Mostly they do plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

But I’m headed off to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in a few weeks to attend the playwriting workshop. And in preparation for that I have been writing a play. It occurred to me recently, then, that I really ought to see some modern plays. I thought of running up to New York, and I may still do that later this summer or in the fall, but the opportunity arose to visit DC this week, and so I’m turning it into a theater adventure. First up was a trip to Woolly Mammoth for their production of Aaron Posner‘s Stupid Fucking Bird.

Loved it. The theater is a wonderful, intimate space. And the play, which is a very loose adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, is exciting to watch. One thing that I found fascinating was the play’s awareness of itself as art, with self-referential moments sprinkled throughout, such as where the characters speak to the audience not as imaginary participants in the play but as audience members at a play. The dialogue is funny and poignant, the characters all quite vividly drawn. It surely helps that the performances were all outstanding, too.

After the play, the group I was with sat down with the playwright for a talk. (I went with the Northwestern University Club of DC and Posner is a graduate of NU’s Performance Studies program.) That was fascinating for me and I enjoyed hearing him talk.

The play only runs until the 23rd of June, so catch it while you can.

I’m heading to another show in DC tonight . . .