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: 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 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.