I started this post two whole years ago, but was sidetracked. Here it is with a few updates!
I love the local Shakespeare groups in the DC area. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is especially fun and vibrant. During the summer, they perform family-friendly productions at the haunted ruins of a Southern Belle finishing school. In the fall, they used to take folks inside those ruins for movable productions in the dark (they did Dracula like that a couple years ago!). Now that they’ve settled into their beautiful Baltimore home, it looks like they plan to stay there for the fall show (though it’s still bloody: Titus Andronicus!).
Two summers ago, I took my kids to see The Taming of the Shrew at the haunted ruins. Light rain was barely noticed and the actors were just happy to complete a performance (so many thunder storms in Maryland that year… and the ruins are on top of a hill). The outdoor venue is really fun for families, with blankets and picnicking encouraged and no need for kids to sit perfectly still and at attention. There are a few hundred folding chairs available, as well as space to spread out. The stage area is built on several levels in front of the ruins and the actors use window openings and the sides of the ruins for entrances and exits. There’s a lot of activity. This production of the Shrew was pure fun. The comedy was slapstick and silly, with hilarious situations and clownish antics. Great fun for kids.
Back in 2013, CSC was also still playing in community spots. I saw The Two Gentlemen of Verona in “The Other Barn” which was a surprisingly pleasant and intimate community performance space located in a shopping center in Columbia, Maryland. It’s a hike for me to Columbia, but it was well worth it. CSC is a a community-minded organization and makes a great effort to be accessible to its audience.
The performance I attended was preceded by a talk with director Patrick Kilpatrick who spoke a bit about the setting he chose for this production… it takes place in 1991, a year Kilpatrick described as pivotal to American culture… the year “everything changed.” His inspiration (if that’s what you would call it) was a combination of the William Kennedy Smith rape case and the Menendez brothers’ trial. “Proteus and Valentine are the Menendez brothers. They are William Kennedy Smith. Two kids from wealthy and powerful families who think they can have whatever they want, because for their entire lives that has been a fact.” It was an interesting way to look at the play and in fact worked really well, with the boys in their button down oxford shirts and smoking seegars.
And it was a great deal of fun watching the play at The Other Barn… the actors were within a couple feet of me. The Duke’s eight-year-old son was sitting near me on a bench watching his dad and hanging out with him between scenes… I loved the casual atmosphere. The CSC players also entertained us with some fun music before the show and during intermission. Love these performances.
This past summer I visited my favorite spot, Staunton, Virginia, once again. I stayed in a fantastic airbnb place and really enjoyed the town. I took in two performances at the American Shakespeare Center: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra. I even won a door prize… a poster signed by the cast! The shows were excellent, as always. They continue through November along with The Winter’s Tale and Henry VI, Part I (called Shakespeare’s Joan of Arc).
I saw ASC do The Winter’s Tale a few years ago in McLean, Virginia. ASC is bringing their Dangerous Dreams Tour to the Alden Theatre in McLean again in 2016. They’ll perform Julius Caesar, The Importance of Being Earnest, and The Life of King Henry V January 22-23. They have a package deal for all three shows at the Alden along with a “Brush up your Shakespeare” talk on January 21. Prices: $88 general public/$62 students and seniors/$50 McLean Community Center district residents… what a bargain, especially if you live in McLean! The DC-area Shakespeare Explorers Meetup group is participating in all the Alden events… maybe I’ll make it out to one!
I had this post mostly written a whole year ago and I’m not sure why I didn’t post it then, but here it is. Better late than never.
I interrupt my long hiatus from my Shakespeare blogging project to bring you exciting news from Baltimore! My favorite local Shakespeare company, Chesapeake Shakespeare is opening their new “Globe-ish” theater near the Inner Harbor. See this wonderful article in the Baltimore Sun for more info.
The news is coincidentally slightly tied to my hiatus. I had to take a break from reading and blogging about Shakespeare while I was in graduate school and then I still found no time to blog this past year while I have been working at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
The new Chesapeake Shakespeare theater is located in the renovated Mercantile Trust and Deposit Co., a lovely brick building built in 1885. The building was one of only a handful that survived the devastating 1904 fire that destroyed much of Baltimore. Fire brigades came to help from nearby cities including Washington DC, New York, and Philly, but they found their equipment useless when they got to Baltimore.
The culprit? Each manufacturer of hydrants and fire hoses used different hose connections. The hoses from DC would not fit on the Baltimore fire hydrants. The city burned and burned while firefighters watched, helpless.
This brings me to the connection to my blogging hiatus. NIST (called National Bureau of Standards in 1904) was asked to study the Baltimore fire and make recommendations to avoid the same issues in the future. Their study found that there were 600 hydrant/hose variations used in the United States at the time.
The result was the establishment of the National Standard Hydrant and accompanying hoses, standards that remain to this day and have been adopted by many cities across the country. Ironically, Baltimore and DC still don’t have compatible hoses and hydrants, but another Great Fire is unlikely… the neighboring firefighters carry adaptors so they can fight each other’s fires.
Long live the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in its beautiful Baltimore home. I had the pleasure of seeing a (non-Shakespeare) play there soon after it opened. I can’t wait to go back.
It’s not every day that you can watch live Shakespeare performed in your backyard. So, when I saw the poster at the library announcing Faction of Fools playing A Commedia Romeo and Juliet at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn, I knew what I’d be doing last Friday night. The Arts Barn is not quite in my backyard, but it is pretty much walking distance from my house.
What fun! First let me describe A Faction of Fools. They perform Commedia dell’Arte — a Renaissance theatre style. From their website:
Commedia dell’Arte, which translates as “professional theatre,” began in Italy in the early 16th Century and quickly spread throughout Europe, creating a lasting influence on Shakespeare, Molière, opera, vaudeville, contemporary musical theatre, television sit-coms, and improv comedy. The style of Commedia is characterized by its use of masks, improvisation, physical comedy, and recognizable character types—young lovers, wily servants, greedy old men, know-it-all professors, boasting heroes, and the like. The legacy of Commedia includes the first incorporated (i.e. professional) theatre company, the first European actresses, and many of the themes and storylines still enjoyed by audiences today.
In the director’s notes, it is pointed out that Shakespeare drew on Commedia in his work. “Shakespeare knew their style, their characters, and their conventions… he borrowed liberally from their material.”
Romeo and Juliet is very much a comedy at the beginning. But comedy (in the traditional sense) ends in a wedding. In R&J the wedding comes too early, and in fact marks the play’s turn toward tragedy. The bodies start piling up as soon as the wedding is over.
The Faction of Fools’ Artistic Director, Matthew Wilson, points out:
Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized that this play is a comedy set on edge. The text is riddled with jokes and humorous excess; the characters are fantastical. Though we think of this play as ‘romantic’ or tragic,’ Shakespeare wanted his audiences to laugh. Then in the midst of laughter, the knife falls. Tragedy shows up when we least expect it, and the mournful tear is all the harsher because it has been matched with joy.
I thought this was fascinating to consider… that the audience would have been familiar with the plot formula and the standard characters and would be expecting the standard comedy structure with the play ending happily with a wedding. Instead, R&J twists that formula upside down and all hell breaks loose after the wedding. What a shock that must have been to Shakespeare’s audience! Really, what a shock, and how much more upsetting all the mishaps that lead to the awful ending.
So, the point of this Faction of Fools production is to emphasize the comedy — the Commedia — that inspired Shakespeare to write this play. There are five players who switch parts by donning masks, wigs and aprons and pulling the aprons over their shoulders to look like capes. The comedy is physical, almost slapstick, and very fun. Even as bodies appear, the tone is light, players who must take on another role are replaced by large rag dolls and onward they go to the bitter end.
It’s a fun production and would be great for kids — it’s only an hour long and there’s a bit of sword play. The Arts Barn is a nice venue — just 99 seats, so you always feel close to the action on stage. The show continues through January 26, but if you can’t make it to Gaithersburg, I found a video of them doing the same show at the Kennedy Center last year. Enjoy!
© All Content, Copyright 2013 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
I had the extreme pleasure of visiting Staunton, Virginia last month for a whole weekend of Shakespeare. Staunton is a lovely little town in the Shenandoah Valley, with mountains all around. It also happens to be the home of the American Shakespeare Center who performs there at the only replica in the world of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse.
Staunton has another replica building… this one from Stratford-upon-Avon. Indeed, there is a replica of Shakespeare’s wife’s childhood home, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, and it’s a Bed and Breakfast. And the innkeeper’s name is Juliette. And I stayed in Juliet’s Room (there’s also Romeo’s room and William’s Room).
The inn was a lovely place to stay for a wonderful weekend of Shakespeare…. and a wonderful weekend of Shakespeare, it was!
The American Shakespeare Center is a fantastic place. I first visited a few years ago when I saw them perform All’s Well That Ends Well at Blackfriars. I saw their touring group perform A Winter’s Tale last spring. This time, I made the pilgrimage to the Shenandoah Valley to see two wonderful performances at Blackfriars: The Merchant of Venice and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I also took a behind-the-scenes tour of the playhouse. Let me start with the tour.
We learned the history of the original Blackfriars’ Playhouse in London and then we got to check out all parts of this lovely Elizabethan-style playhouse, up, down, backstage, onstage and everywhere in between (be sure to watch the slideshow at the end of this post!). We saw the dressing and rehearsal rooms, the costumes and props (the decapitated man is a prop for their current show, Cymbeline). The tour was wonderful and I highly recommend making time for it if you are in Staunton.
And then there are the shows. They are a lot of fun with great live music before the show, a cash bar on the stage, and lots of energy. There are seats on the stage and audience members are also invited to sit in Juliet’s balcony up above the stage. I can’t imagine it’s a great view of the show from above, but during the behind-the-scenes tour, it was pointed out that “being seen” was a big part of attending the theater in Elizabethan times, so sitting in the box above the stage ensured that you were “seen” by the crowd.
The American Shakespeare Center uses Elizabethan staging practices… so the lights are left on and the players often make eye contact with audience members, drawing them into the action, at least verbally. Sets and props are minimal, costumes are lovely, men are sometimes cast in women’s parts (and vice versa), and the action moves along at a fast pace.
The intermission features more music… the songs often are selected to go along with the show. For example, the Merchant of Venice featured an acoustic version of the Beatles’ song Money (That’s What I Want)… which was pretty funny. And then at intermission there was a spirited take on Soul Man and a faster and faster round of actors and audience members doing the Jewish wedding dance.
The plays were lovely. They were both staightforward renditions. It reminds me very much of the performances I’ve seen on video from Shakespeare’s Globe. I wonder if the ASC intends to ever share their performances on video. It would be a treat. They are beautifully-done by talented actors in beautiful costumes.
The Blackfriars experience is intimate and fun. Because the playhouse is small and the house lights are on, the audience is part of the performance. That’s especially true of the brave souls that sit on the stage. For example, during the Merchant of Venice, Portia and Narissa played with all the men on stage when making derisive comments about Portia’s suitors. The guy sitting in front of me was also pointed to as “the German sponge” (he and his wife were still making jokes about that at the intermission!). It is quite hilarious and adds to the fun atmosphere.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona was fast and furious and of course, it features a dog (available for adoption after each show). As always, the music was fun… I remember at intermission hearing My Boyfriend’s Back. Pretty funny! Anyway, the play was fun, Proteus is a jerk, Julia is heartbroken, Proteus is an even bigger jerk, and then the play’s strange ending was kind of white-washed in this production, making it not-quite-so-unbelievable that Proteus is suddenly turning over a new leaf.
Two Gents and Merchant continue through November at Blackfriars. Also showing now are King John, Cymbeline, and The Lion in Winter. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to a weekend of Shakespeare, if you can. ASC puts on plays 52 weeks a year. I think you cannot go wrong at Blackfriars.
Staunton has plenty to offer, as well. I kept busy all weekend, taking a history and architecture tour of downtown, a haunted ghost walking tour (boo!), and seeing the sites from the free trolley around town. I visited the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and presidential library, a wine tasting at Barren Ridge Vinyards with views of the Blue Ridge… oh and I enjoyed my quiet time at the quaint and cozy Anne Hathaway’s Cottage with its delicious breakfasts, friendly innkeeper, lovely garden and resident cats King Lear and Portia.
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
Have a couple bucks to spare? Think about supporting Bedlam Ensemble’s production of Measure for Measure by contributing on Kickstarter. They need to reach their goal of $1,500 by July 8 in order to make the play a go.
According to their Facebook profile, Bedlam Ensemble was established in 2011 in New York City. They are “dedicated to staging modern and modern spins of classical theatre works with high artistic integrity.”
Bedlam aims to nourish an open artistic community where artists are free to experiment and challenge themselves within the entertainment industry. The ensemble has a commitment to strike a balance between emerging and veteran artists; between the works of new and established playwrights, and revisiting classic pieces of work with a modern twist. Our ensemble nourishes an open and artistic environment that keeps us engaged in our community and proactive in our pursuit of excellence.
Past productions, also partially funded by successful Kickstarter campaigns, include productions of Alice and The Delirium of Edgar Allen Poe. If the Kickstarter campaign is successful, performances of Measure for Measure will begin July 25 at Access Theater in New York.
Here’s their take on the play:
Years ago, Vienna was a place where the people were pure and the city was clean and beautiful. Fast forward to today and you find a gritty, dark world filled with sex, drugs, and debauchery. To bring it back to the glory that it once was, the Duke leaves a pure man, Angelo, in charge to right the sexual wrongs he has let slide for so long. Temptation prevails, however, when a smart, beautiful, and outspoken nun touches Angelo and he offers to save her brother’s life only if she will sleep with him. Measure for Measure is a play that explores sex and power and the interplay between the two.
I have no plans to visit Manhattan this summer, but I love supporting small theater projects and this sounds like an interesting production. Pledge just a dollar if that’s all you have! I think Kickstarter is such a cool way for groups like this to raise money. I hope their show gets off the ground, and I’m sure it will. If anyone goes to see it, let me know what you think of it!
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
There are things about McLean that might not be heavenly… like congestion around Tysons Corner and the never-ending construction on the Beltway. But, today McLean was gorgeous. Spring is springing in full, flowers and bright green everywhere on a sparkly, clear day, and the American Shakespeare Center wrapped up its Almost Blasphemy Tour at the Alden Theatre in McLean.
It was a little nostalgic for me, as almost 25 years ago, when I first moved to the Washington DC area, I lived in the basement of a friend’s parents’ house in McLean and I cocktail waitressed at a lounge around the block from the Alden. McLean has changed a bit from those days and now the Alden is nestled into a lovely neighborhood of big, beautiful homes.
The America Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, is amazing — performing with original staging practices in a replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Playhouse recreated in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I had the pleasure of seeing All’s Well That Ends Well performed at Blackfriars’ a couple years ago. It’s on my shortlist of places to return to, but Staunton is about 3 hours from my house, and the logistics have not worked out. McLean, depending on traffic (which didn’t exist today) is less than a half hour.
So, I was excited that the stars aligned and I had a free Saturday afternoon to join other members of the DC-area Shakespeare Explorers Meetup group and see the ASC perform The Winter’s Tale for a matinée at the Alden.
Although the Alden is not the same experience as the incredible Blackfriars, it is a very nice and intimate venue. The ASC set the stage simply, with little in the way of set other than a curtained backdrop. Like in Staunton, they have a fun pre-show with the actors playing music and selling raffle tickets for swag (they do the same at intermission). The songs are acoustic and very enjoyable renditions of classic rock and pop songs. I heard some Joni Mitchell, Righteous Brothers, and even some Guns N’ Roses. Some (maybe all?) of the songs went with the storyline… “Sweet Child of Mine” and “Bring Back that Lovin’ Feeling” definitely apply to The Winter’s Tale!
The theater was (unfortunately) not filled, and the actors encouraged audience members to move closer to the stage and to fill the seats onstage. As at Blackfriars, seats for a few brave audience members are set right on the stage and these folks became active (sometimes very hilarious) members of the show. One particularly funny interaction was when a minstrel came out playing and set his hat out for tips. One audience member tossed a few coins in. The musician nudged the hat down to the next guy. Instead of putting money in the hat, he reached in and took out the change! More hilarity ensued. Very funny.
I’m not a stage-sitter. I like to sit back and watch, and it was a great show. Even though I ordered tickets yesterday, I had seats in the third row and a great view. The ASC touring actors are wonderful and the show was really enjoyable. The current tour ends tonight with A Midsummer Night’s Dream in McLean, but I will be sure to keep my eye out for next season. If you can’t make it out to Staunton, you should try to catch the ASC on tour next year, too!
A teaser, because I am so excited: My next post involves my visit yesterday with the Shakespearean Holy Grail. Yes, I had a very close encounter with a First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Stay tuned!
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
Why am I sick? Why is he greedy? Why is she a shrew? In Shakespeare’s time, these questions would have been answered using the four humors. I realize that means very little to most people today. In Shakespeare’s world, people were thought to be ruled by four bodily fluids (called “humors”) — blood, phlegm, black bile (also called melancholy), and yellow bile (also called choler). Each of these fluids was believed to have inherent qualities that when in balance brought good health. When the humors were out of balance, illness and behavioral/personality problems resulted.
Medicine focused on bringing the humors into balance. Each humor was associated with moisture and heat. So, to bring them back into balance, the physician might add the opposite quality or take away whatever was in overabundance. For example, heat would help someone suffering from too much phlegm or melancholy (“cold” humors). Bloodletting would help a person with a fever, who must have an overabundance of blood (a “hot” humor).
How do I know all this? I live in a cool place (phlegmatic?!). The Folger Shakespeare Library is, of course, a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers. But there is a whole lot more coolness in the Washington DC area. There is the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) located on the campus of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Why is this a very cool place for Shakespeare lovers? They currently have an exhibition called And There’s the Humor of It: Shakespeare and the Four Humors.
The exhibition is lovely, with books from the National Library of Medicine’s collection tracing humorism back to its roots in antiquity… Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Galen. Humorism, especially as expanded upon by Galen, was a comprehensive system and was used to explain… just about everything. From the exhibition’s website:
William Shakespeare (1564–1616) created characters that are among the richest and most humanly recognizable in all of literature. Yet Shakespeare understood human personality in the terms available to his age—that of the now-discarded theory of the four bodily humors—blood, bile, melancholy, and phlegm. These four humors were thought to define peoples‘ physical and mental health, and determined their personalities, as well.
The language of the four humors pervades Shakespeare‘s plays, and their influence is felt above all in a belief that emotional states are physically determined. Carried by the bloodstream, the four humors bred the core passions of anger, grief, hope, and fear—the emotions conveyed so powerfully in Shakespeare‘s comedies and tragedies.
Today, neuroscientists recognize a connection between Shakespeare‘s age and our own in the common understanding that the emotions are based in biochemistry and that drugs can be used to alleviate mental suffering.
I attended a lecture called “Shrew Taming and Other Tales of the Four Humors” at NLM by Gail Kern Paster, the former director of the Folger and co-curator of the current NLM exhibition. According to Paster, Shakespeare’s audience would have understood life through the lens of the four humors, and there would have been no way for them to separate the psychological from the physical qualities attributed to the humors. So, she said to read Shakespeare “humorally,” that is, with the humors in mind, brings a much deeper understanding of his work.
Paster calls the humors “a code largely opaque and unknown to us” since they have no place in modern medicine and are largely forgotten now. But she says they were pervasive in Shakespeare’s time, and taking the effort to look for the language of the humors (i.e. references to heat, cold, moisture, and dryness) helps decipher meaning in Shakespeare and adds depth to understanding his works.
Paster focused her talk on the humors associated with three Shakespearean characters: Shylock, Ophelia, and Katherine Minola (bonny Kate, aka the Shrew). These characters were selected for the NLM exhibition because they displayed evidence of the “darker emotions” associated with melancholy and choler (much more interesting than boring phlegm which corresponded to a lack of activity).
The humors were thought to literally make you who you were. Because humorism was so all-encompassing, Shakespeare couldn’t help but to write with the assumption that his audience understood the context, implications and references to these things that simply go right over our heads today. However, we can watch for triggers that indicate Shakespeare is speaking humorally… often when he is describing emotions in physical terms.
The Greek physician/philosopher Galen expanded on the humoral system and added a whole host of other things to consider including the environment, place of birth, gender, age, etc. Paster noted that “The power of Galenism is it is so multifactorial… pick your factors and you have an explanation.” So, for example, the taming of Kate in The Taming of the Shrew involves manipulating a number of Galenic elements like diet and activity level to deal with Katherine Minola’s overabundance of choler.
Paster’s talk was fascinating and introduced me to a whole layer of “stuff” in Shakespeare that I had never before heard of. I have to say, I will certainly be on the lookout for humoral references from now on, even if I understand them imperfectly. The thing that amazed me most is that this system was used for about two thousand years, and it is only in the last 150 years or so that it has been almost completely erased. Bloodletting continued well into the 1800s. Think about how much things have changed!
If you live in the DC area, you may want to take a trip to Bethesda to view the exhibition at the NLM. It will be on display at the History of Medicine through August 17, 2012. While you’re there, be sure to take in the very nice (and much bigger) exhibit on Native American medicine (you really need a couple hours to do it justice). The Shakespeare exhibition includes a traveling exhibit that will be touring the country. If you can’t see it in person (and even if you can, actually), check out the excellent website they have put together. For teachers, there are extremely well-done lesson plans for middle and high school, as well as a college-level teaching module. Maybe you will get as interested in humorism as I have!
© All Content, Copyright 2012 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.
Enjoy this hilarious video, courtesy Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
Happy New Year! And be sure to donate to your local Shakespeare company, so we can live in a world of light beer, fried chicken wings AND Shakespeare!
The Fall colors really popped out today and I played hooky from all the work I shoulda coulda woulda been doing. So, instead, I went to see Anonymous, which I will blog about soon. And, in a Shakespearean double whammy for the day, I took in a really fun performance of Kiss Me, Kate done by Rockville Musical Theatre.
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve seen a show on Broadway, but I was getting those good pre-show vibes while I was listening to the musicians warm up. I just kept feeling transported to New York and was all excited waiting for the show to start (of course, the tix were a lot cheaper in Rockville than Times Square!).
The show is fantastic! I can’t remember if I’ve seen Kiss Me, Kate before. If I did, it was decades ago. The story is so cute, set in post-WWII Baltimore and involving the relationship between the actors Lilli and Frederick as they play the roles of Kate and Petruchio in a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew.
It’s great fun how the 1940s storyline mirrors and weaves in and out of the play within the play (and they stage quite a lot of The Taming of the Shrew!). The actors do a wonderful job, the leads have beautiful voices, and the dance numbers are well-done (I especially enjoyed Too Darn Hot).
The Cole Porter tunes are familiar and fun and the musicians are excellent. I was surprised to see one of my kids’ pediatricians as the musical director… that’s what I love about community theater! And while I was impressed with this production all around (singing, dancing, music, acting, costumes, sets), what I like best of all on the Rockville Musical Theatre’s website is their “Oh S#%t Awards” for the biggest goofs during each production. I got a good laugh out of that (but did not notice anything tonight that would earn the award)!
Anyway, great fun and I highly recommend it to anyone in the DC area. Kiss Me, Kate continues this weekend and next at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in Rockville. Tickets are $20 and I was pleased to see a good crowd there tonight! Head on out, folks. It’s Wunderbar!
© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.