The Joy of Shakespeare

When was the last time you saw a Shakespeare play? For me, the answer is “last week.” I have the great good fortune of living just outside the small city of Staunton, Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and its fabulous Blackfriars Playhouse, which means I can see live productions of Shakespeare’s plays almost every week of the year.

Truly, though, it’s not just good fortune. It was good planning. When I was looking to relocate from the Washington DC area in late 2000, I visited Staunton and learned that the playhouse, the world’s only recreation of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, was under construction. That was enough to convince me that this was the right place for me to move. I arrived in the spring of 2001 and the theater opened that fall. To say that I have been a loyal patron of the theater from the beginning is probably an understatement. I think I missed a few productions in the early years—I was still doing a lot of travel for the World Bank on top of the reading and writing I was doing for my MFA program—but since about 2006 or so I’ve seen every play the ASC has produced on the Blackfriars stage. That’s 16 shows most years, including a broad selection of Shakespeare (History, Comedy, and Tragedy), plus plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Marlowe et al.), a few contemporary plays that in some way speak to or relate to one or more of Shakespeare’s plays (e.g., Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard), and two or three Holiday Season plays including the annual tradition of A Christmas Carol.

That means I have seen the entire Shakespeare Canon of 38 plays, something that few can say (unless, of course, you are another regular at the ASC).

The current Renaissance Season, which runs from mid-January to mid-April, is one of the most exciting times of year at the theater. The company of actors, without a director, will put up five plays with very limited rehearsal time. From an audience member’s perspective, that gives the plays a sort of energy that well-rehearsed plays sometimes lack. I had the privilege of watching a couple of early rehearsals of two of the five plays, and I was thoroughly impressed by the collaborative nature of the decision-making process. These actors are professionals, they know what they’re doing, and when they make suggestions they are taken seriously. It was a pleasure to behold.

Three plays are running currently. Both Hamlet and Richard II opened on January 20 and the third, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, opened last week (I’m seeing it this Thursday night). I love this Stoppard play, having first read it in high school in about 1970, and I still have my copy of the script we read back then. Next up are The Way of the World by William Congreve and Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston. (The theater also operates a touring company that is currently on the road with three productions: Macbeth, Taming of the Shrew, and an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.)

The wonder of this theater is a little hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. First, the space is amazing. It’s an intimate theater, where truly there are no bad seats, and it’s gorgeous, made mostly of wood. Enhancing the intimacy, it’s a thrust stage, so the performers are surrounded on three sides by the audience, and they frequently make use of the aisles for entrances and exits, bringing the action even closer to theater-goers. And that’s not to mention the gallant stools, seats that are actually on stage and so close that one is in danger of being used as a prop in the play. Second, the actors are true professionals, many of them members of Actors’ Equity, the union for actors. They are highly trained and experienced and they are a joy to watch. And third, most of the actors are also fabulous musicians, and an ASC performance includes a concert before the show and during the intermission.  (The music is so great, the resident and touring companies put together a “greatest hits” concert once a year to help raise money for the theater.)

We are extremely fortunate to have the ASC here in Staunton, and it benefits us in other ways, too. Many theater-goers are from out of town. Their presence means business for hotels and restaurants, and as a result, we have a thriving dining scene, stronger than other cities our size. I, for one, am grateful.

Full disclosure: In November of last year, I was elected to the Board of Trustees of the ASC, largely because I was a fan and cheerleader for the theater. I’m honored to serve!

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: Return to the Forbidden Planet

forbidden planetMake that: Return of Return to the Forbidden Planet.

The American Shakespeare Center did this show six or seven years ago. I remember enjoying it thoroughly, so I was looking forward to this new production. I wasn’t disappointed.

It’s a silly play, of course, so it’s essential that the actors don’t take themselves seriously. As a spoof, it’s meant to be over the top, and that’s what it is right from the beginning. It’s loosely based on The Tempest, but very loosely. Mostly it seems an excuse to string together a lot of old pop tunes, which this very musical cast does a great job with.

The whole cast did a great job: Dylan Paul is Captain Tempest and Emily Brown is Miranda, his love interest and the daughter of Prospero, the mad scientist, played by Rene Thornton Jr. Greg Phelps, who played Tempest last time around, is Cookie, the hopeless romantic, and Lee Fitzpatrick plays the Science Officer. The rest of the cast is excellent, too, and it’s wonderful that the cast is the band and the band is the cast. Everyone plays instruments–trumpets, guitars, banjo, trombones, xylophone, piano, clarinet, cello. (Chris Johnston–one of the most amazing musicians you’ll ever meet–is music director for this show and he’s clearly done a fantastic job.)

It’s a terrific show and you won’t want to miss it.

Theater: “Romeo & Juliet” at the American Shakespeare Center








From “feel good” (Anything Goes last night at the Kennedy Center) to “feel lousy” (Romeo & Juliet at the American Shakespeare Center). Quite a contrast. Last night: everyone singing and dancing for the finale. Tonight: the bodies of star-crossed lovers litter the stage, with weeping parents draped over them. A nice balance?

We all know how the play turns out, right? Romeo doesn’t get the letter so he thinks Juliet is dead, so he kills himself with poison; when she awakes from the sleeping potion and finds him dead, she stabs herself. No surprises there. But there ARE some surprises in this production of an otherwise depressing play. (No need to remind me that the reconciliation of the Montagues and the Capulets as a result of these deaths provides some hope for the future; I’m aware of that, but skeptical.)

So, for the surprises: As tragic as the second half of the play is, there’s quite a lot of comedy in the first half. I loved the scenes of banter among Romeo and his pals. And I also loved the scenes with Juliet and her nurse. One reason why the scenes with the nurse are so entertaining is that the director chose to have the nurse played by a man (Ben Curns), who is hilarious in drag. A very nice touch.

The performances generally are outstanding. Really excellent. As Romeo and Juliet, Dylan Paul and Tracie Thomason give the play tenderness. The animus comes from their fathers, primarily: Capulet played by Rene Thornton Jr. and Montague played by Ben Curns. Their wives, played by newcomers Lee Fitzpatrick and Emily Brown provide the emotion. And, as always, the music before the show and during the interlude is fantastic. I come early because I hate to miss a note of the pre-show music.

Highly recommended!