Each season, the American Shakespeare Center tosses a little non-Shakespeare into the repertory mix, usually a play by a Shakespeare contemporary, or something modern that riffs off the master. This year, in the current Actors’ Renaissance Season, we’ve got both, in abundance: The Devil is an Ass, by Ben Johnson, which opens in two weeks, The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster, which has been running for a month now, and The Brats of Clarence, by Paul Menzer, which opened last night. (Also in the repertoire at the moment: Hamlet (First Quarto) and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.)
Opening nights can be risky–especially when the company has such a short time to put a play together and is doing several other plays at the same time–but last night was smashing. The play is derived from a footnote in Richard III, according to the playwright, who participated in a question and answer session with the audience after the show (and after standing ovation which this production might actually have deserved). In it, young Ned and his sister Meg appear to be young shepherds in Wales, but they are in reality the children of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV, who is murdered. And then . . . but the story isn’t all that important. What is important is that Menzer wrote this play specifically for the Blackfriars and with the ASC company in mind, and as a result the role of Edward VII is perfectly suited to John Harrell, who is outstanding. But everyone shines here, and since you probably can’t see this play anywhere else, it’s worth a trip to Staunton to catch it before the run ends on March 25.
Here’s an excerpt from ASC’s website about the show:
BACK BY POPULAR DEMAND! QUESTION: What’s the play about? ANSWER: It’s about two hours. With such an impressive premiere in 2005, this outstanding play by Paul Menzer is back as part of the 2007 Actors’ Renaissance Season. The show features original songs by veteran actor John Harrell. It’s a comical history that puts the squeeze on every convention of the Renaissance stage. Henry VIII has got a few small problems…and they all want his crown. History ain’t what it used to be in this pointlessly dirty, gratuitously violent, and altogether original comical-historical-musical account of what happened went the bloom went off the Wars of the Roses. It’s a laugh-out-loud comedy that easily could have been called A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE THRONE.