August 1, 2011 at 12:32 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I love to get out during the summer to see outdoor Shakespeare. I’ve been wishing and wanting for months to see the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s carnival-themed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company lets kids in for free, and I thought this might be the perfect play for my boys, who are 6 and 9 and not very good at sitting still. Many of the shows begin at 8 PM, which is too late for us, but I made it out tonight for their 6 PM show, the last of the season! I am so glad.

I meant to get there early for the pre-show carnival games and fun, but we got tied up in DC beltway traffic and only made it about 15 minutes before showtime. The kids still enjoyed some games and had a quick burger before the show began. There was face painting and a sprinkler set up for the kids (I am kind of immune to the heat here, but I think the temp was in the high 90s at the show’s start… it felt pleasant to me and all the seats were in the shade). We brought a blanket and could have sat right up front, but the boys wanted to sit on folding chairs. There are no bad seats.

Molly Moores as Titania & Jose Guzman as Oberon from A Midsummer Night's Dream, photo by Teresa Castracane

I saw Chesapeake Shakespeare do Much Ado About Nothing last year, and I described their incredible outdoor performing space at the ruins of an antebellum finishing school in Ellicott City, Maryland. For A Midsummer Night’s Dream, they transform the ruins into a circus, with a tightrope, some signs, and lights… the carnival theme is not taken too far.

The show begins with some magic tricks, but again it’s not taken too far. Oberon is dressed as the circus master and Titania is his assistant, but other than that, the carnival theme fades and we’re in familiar forest and fairyland.

Jamie Jager as Puck & Stacy Downs as Peaseblossom from A Midsummer Night's Dream, photo by Teresa Castracane

I love this play, and there were no weak parts in this production. The Athenians were hilarious, and I loved watching them running all around, progressively losing their clothes and getting more worn out, leaves in their hair, etc. Funny. It was hilarious watching their fighting and insults and fun to watch Puck and Oberon sitting up in the windows of the ruins “enjoying the sport.”

Puck is great fun in this production — a big guy with cool shades. He’s very funny.

I loved Bottom in this production, as well. My boys have seen bits and pieces of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on video, and the part they know best is where Puck turns Bottom into the ass-head that the love-juiced Titania falls for. This had my 6 year old bending over laughing.

They also loved the Mechanicals — especially Flute playing Thisby. Both of my boys were laughing like crazy whenever Flute was out. They got a big kick out of the chink in the wall (fingers held out), too. The little one kept saying, “This is Ridiculous!” And indeed, it was. This version of Pyramus and Thisby was thoroughly ridiculous… as it should be!

I’m so very glad that I got out to see this production. My 9 year old pronounced this “the best day ever!” on our way home (we also had a hike in the morning and went fishing and butterfly hunting, so there was a lot for a little boy to love today). But I was glad that their first experience watching a full-length live production of Shakespeare was such a success. Bottoms up!

David R Tabish as Bottom, Robby Rose as Snout from A Midsummer Night's Dream, photo by Teresa Castracane

If you live in the DC area, think about joining the Shakespeare Explorers Meetup Group. They get out to a lot more shows than I do. For example, they’re going to see Taffety Punk stage King John for free at the Folger Theatre tomorrow!

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Shakespeare That Sucketh Not!

July 25, 2011 at 12:05 am (As You Like It, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

I am lucky to live in the Washington DC area, where the Bard is alive and well onstage, especially in the summer. Tonight the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of The Merchant of Venice wrapped up. In a few weeks, their Free for All version of Julius Caesar takes the stage. Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has extended their carnival-themed outdoor version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and they are also doing The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Abridged. Jamie who blogs at Maryland Shakespeare has posted about the Empty Chair Theatre’s version of Titus Andronicus which sounds pretty cool. And entering the realm of the very artsy, there are several Shakespeare-inspired shows at the Capital Fringe Festival:

Hamlet Reframed: While Hamlet is off monologuing, what about the rest of Elsinore? Rather than showing Hamlet’s inner thoughts and private actions, this cropping of Shakespeare’s text focuses on how the king and queen deal with a mad and murderous prince.

King Lear: Drunken biker gang leader, King Lear, rashly banishes his thankless youngest daughter, igniting a violent turf war. As Lear rages, his conniving older daughters vie for control of the gang. It does not go well.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Purple Haze? The Lost Rock Sonnets of William Shakespeare: They’ve been broken up for nearly 500 years, but William Shakespeare is getting the band back together and releasing the most ambitious concept album since Hamlet, proving that high culture once was pop culture, and shall be again!

The Shrewing of the Tamed: Are women as funny as men? This feminist adaptation of “Taming of the Shrew” explores the politics of power, performance, sex, and laughter by taking Shakespeare’s original text and turning it on its head.

What, Lamb! What, Ladybird: Think you know Juliet? Think again. Shakespeare’s brilliant heroine is too often sidelined by the masculine world she inhabits, but this one-woman show, performed by Charlene V. Smith, puts Juliet center stage.

Whew! All this Shakespeare everywhere I look, and I hadn’t been able to see any of it. Then, the Maryland Shakespeare Festival was supposed to come to my town, Gaithersburg for a couple free performances of As You Like It. I thought, yay me! I finally get to go to a show. But guess what? Washington tends to get a little warm in July (tourists drop like flies here!). And Friday and Saturday our heat index was up in the 120s, so they cancelled the shows. I guess they did not want to have to wrestle in the damp heat!

Luckily for me, I was able to go to the rescheduled show tonight. What fun! As You Like It is such a funny show, and Maryland Shakespeare Festival does a great job of bringing the lightheartedness to the forefront of this production. They start with their “Riotous Youth” group giving an animated pre-show show explaining the plot of the play to kids (and grown-ups) in attendance. It helps set the stage perfectly.

This group did As You Like It this past spring as a Bare Bard (raw, unrehearsed) production and they have tightened it up (and rehearsed a few times!) to create the freebie show that is traveling around Maryland parks this summer. I’ve seen one of their Bare Bard’s (The Merchant of Venice) and I went to their summer freebie last year, Romeo and Juliet. They are an energetic company, exploring the original staging practices of Shakespeare’s time, while also making the plays fun and accessible to modern audiences. We are lucky to have them here.

With a minimal set and simple costumes, the actors were all wonderful comedians, from the early action with the wrestling match, the banishments to the magical forest of Arden, the great lines that everyone knows (“All the world’s a stage…”) to the craziness around Rosalind (disguised as the boy Ganymede) and her subtle wooing of Orlando, while fighting off the advances of Phoebe, and orchestrating the final happy ending with the four weddings (and no funeral!). All quite fun and fast-paced, with Touchstone the clown adding to the levity.

The title for my post comes from the T-shirt of one of the stage crew tonight. Truly, Maryland Shakespeare Festival is Shakespeare that Sucketh Not! And the price is right for this show ($0). The summer tour winds up next weekend with shows in Frederick and Denton. Try to catch it!

Celia (Erin Branigan), farthest left, and Rosalind (Teresa Spencer) watch while Orlando (Ian Sullivan) is on Wrestler’s (John Kelso) back during their wrestling match. Photo: Bill Green for the Frederick News Post

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April 17, 2011 at 12:13 am (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Tempest) (, , , , , )

Thanks to Jamie at Maryland Shakespeare for the heads up about Montgomery College’s WILLPOWER festival this week. Our community college puts on an annual celebration that includes a number of lectures and workshops about the Bard and his work. This weekend, Willpower culminated in several performances of The Tempest at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on the Rockville campus.

I am so glad I was able to attend this evening’s show. It was wonderfully magical and very well done. I really enjoyed the magical atmosphere — the beautiful set and creative lighting and staging.

The scene has shifted a bit eastward from Shakespeare’s big storm. We’re on an island in the Bay of Bengal, and Prospero is the rightful Duke of Madras, while Alonso is the King of Nepal. The set is a magical jungle of huge banyan trees and vines.

I really enjoyed the Indian theme. Ariel is transformed into sort of a Greek chorus/dance ensemble played by five actors who step up perfectly in height, with each about 3″ taller than the next. The play begins with the actors stacked so that they resemble a Hindu god with multiple arms. They do a Bollywood-style line dance during Miranda and Ferdinand’s wedding.  I enjoyed this rendition of Ariel throughout the play.

Prospero with Ariel at the Montgomery College production of the Tempest. Photo by Peter Zakutanski and R. Scott Hengen

The costumes are beautiful, the student actors do a great job. This is well worth the 10 bucks it sets you back and I was a bit disappointed that the theater wasn’t anywhere near filled on a Saturday night. There is still one more performance of the show on Sunday, April 17 at 2 PM. If you’re in the DC area, I highly recommend that you make your way round the beltway tomorrow and experience this brave new world in Rockville. 

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A Luminous Winter’s Tale

December 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Winter's Tale) (, , )

I had a Saturday afternoon free and noticed that The Winter’s Tale was being performed nearby, so I jumped at the chance to see another Shakespeare play. I had never heard of Lumina Studio Theatre, but was impressed with their work. The enormous cast (over 50 people!) in this play was almost entirely children. And they have two separate casts performing this show over two weekends! That’s a lot of kids interested in playing Shakespeare! From its mission statement:

Lumina Studio Theatre’s mission is to provide unique opportunities for young and adult actors of all levels of experience to perform Shakespeare, other plays of the classical repertory theatre, and modern plays that focus on the beauty of language.

The setting for the telling of the tale is an abandoned theater during the blitz in London during WWII. There are air raid sirens at the start and then the people taking cover in the theater are entertained with the story.

It was a fun performance, lots of energy and excitement, beautiful costumes, very nice music, and lots of cute kids doing a great job. There were a couple little glitches. One boy fainted onstage and amazingly the other actors didn’t miss a beat, the speakers kept delivering lines, and the couple of adults on-stage carried him off quietly. I thought it was part of the play! It was only at intermission that I heard people in the audience asking if he was alright (he was).

It was fun. I may have been one of the few people in the audience not related to one of the actors, but the 150-seat theater was full for this show. Lumina Studio Theatre performs at the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland outside Washington, DC. If you are in the area, you might try to catch a performance. The show continues through December 12.

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Bare Bard

October 10, 2010 at 7:04 pm (Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Merchant of Venice) (, , , , , )

I just saw The Merchant of Venice in rare form — bare naked. No, the actors were clothed. Here’s a description from the Maryland Shakespeare Festival website:

As always in Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s signature Bare Bard experiments, The Merchant of Venice is an exercise in impromptu Shakespeare. The cast of actors will arrive in Frederick on Friday evening with their lines already memorized, and by Saturday evening, they will perform the full production before an audience—with stunning emotional realism, audience interaction, live music, choreographed dances, and unbeatable storytelling.

Let me explain: the actors met on Friday evening, had dinner, talked about the play, worked through some things on Saturday and then with no rehearsals, performed it for the first time on Saturday evening, in front of a live audience. They performed it once more on Sunday afternoon. And then the actors stayed for a bit afterward to discuss the play and answer questions. And now it’s done. History.


Seriously, this was a pretty incredible experience. It is experimental theater, more in tune with the ways of Elizabethan theater, where plays were produced fast and furiously with little rehearsal and not much in the way of props or staging. Did I say props? Ummm, the only props I can remember in the entire production were the scales and knife that Shylock carried into the courtroom preparing to take his pound of flesh from Antonio. Oh, and the three boxes that Portia’s suitors must choose from to win her hand. Bare Bard, indeed!

Did I mention Shylock? It was very interesting to see this so soon after watching the Playing Shakespeare episode devoted entirely to this character. Shylock was incredible here — played by British actor Stephen Lorne Williams, a Broadway veteran (and currently playing at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia which I posted about a few months ago). I found his Shylock filled with psychological angst from bearing a lifetime of racism.

In the discussion after the play, people talked about anti-Semitism in the play, whether this reflected on Shakespeare himself, the times, or whether we cannot know. I have not re-read the play yet, but my feeling from this production was that Shylock’s pretty much psychotic insistence on having his pound of flesh rather than twice the payment he was due, was due to a lifetime of maltreatment and disrespect. He thought he had a moment of power after a lifetime of powerlessness. Even that backfired on him. Amazing.

And then, of course, the play is a comedy, and the players made the most of many of the comic elements. I especially enjoyed the silliness regarding the errant rings at the end. And there was a great moment where Lorenzo sang to Jessica one of the Beatles’ love songs (I think it was “And I Love Her”). Very funny.

Was it perfect? No, I mean how could it be when there have been no rehearsals. There were some requests for lines, but they were rare, considering. And I didn’t count them as flubs… there were really none. Shylock was definitely the high point of this production, but a lesser character caught my attention, too: Shylock’s servant, Launcelot Gobbo. His internal back and forth between conscience and the fiend… it was both funny and extremely insightful — the perfect role of the jester. I loved it.

If you find yourself near Frederick, Maryland, I recommend that you check out the Maryland Shakespeare Festival. I posted about these folks during the summer outdoor freebie Shakespeare season. They are playing several Bare Bard experiments this season and it is an amazing way to experience Shakespeare. As well as raw and bare, it is also up close and personal: they play in the parish hall at an Episcopal Church. There is not even a stage. The actors were literally a couple feet away from me. Amazing!

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Playing Shakespeare

October 4, 2010 at 2:41 pm (Asides, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Merchant of Venice) (, , , , , , , , )

I’ve had to take a little hiatus from my Shakespeare project, but I intend to return to my discussion of Love’s Labour’s Lost when I can. In the meantime, I have recently been enjoying a 1984 British TV series called Playing Shakespeare featuring founding director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, John Barton, and an array of RSC actors including Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Ben Kingsley, and Judi Dench. 

I studied English literature in college, so even though I knew intellectually that Shakespeare did not intend his plays to be read as literature, it’s how I naturally approach his work. Watching the plays is a profoundly different experience for me than reading them. I like both ways of enjoying a play, but have always felt I understand more when I read/analyze/mull them over as literature. The experience of watching a play is so fleeting. You have to be so completely present in the moment and it is more of a challenge for me personally to feel like I “get it.”

So, it is with great interest that I approach this TV series where a great Shakespearean director discusses the challenges and nuances of bringing Shakespeare’s text to life for modern audiences. The actors discuss their viewpoints on various issues and then demonstrate scenes using rehearsal props. It is amazing. It is such a different viewpoint and I am really mesmerized by it.

I have only watched three of the 9 episodes so far. The first episode examines the need to marry the Elizabethan acting tradition to the modern acting tradition, acknowledging everything in between. The second episode focuses on Shakespeare’s use of blank verse as a means of helping the actors learn their lines and present them correctly. This was an amazing episode to me, as I had never thought about this purpose for the verse, but the actors were all in agreement that the verse helps them immensely when they go with it and let the rhythms lead the way.

The third episode on language and character focuses on different ways of portraying Shylock and it blew me away even more than the other episodes I’ve seen. Here, actors Patrick Stewart and David Suchet, who both portrayed Shylock in RSC productions under John Barton’s direction, demonstrate their takes on various scenes from The Merchant of Venice. They are so completely different, yet Barton points out that both work with the text and that every actor brings his or her own personality and proclivities to each role. Amazing to watch.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the series. John Barton is absolutely amazing to listen to. He obviously has lived and breathed these plays for many years. The remaining episodes include Set Speeches and Soliloquy, Irony and Ambiguity, Passion and Coolness, Rehearsing the Text, Exploring a Character, and Poetry and Hidden Poetry. The series is available on Netflix and I highly recommend it!

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Not Your Grandma’s Shakespeare!

July 13, 2010 at 3:17 pm (Live Performances, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I must be butta, cuz I’m on a roll. I attended yet another live performance of Shakespeare last weekend! Gaithersburg was the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s first stop on a tour performing Romeo and Juliet at outdoor venues around the state this month. What fun!

The MSF artistic director, Becky Kemper, trained at Mary Baldwin College and the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia (home of the Blackfriars playhouse recreation I visited last month), so it’s not surprising that this troupe uses original staging practices (audience interaction, fast pace, minimalist sets, actors playing more than one character, live music, etc). From their website:

Company Aesthetic – The Festival Atmosphere & Original Practices

This is not your grandma’s Shakespeare!  Maryland Shakespeare Festival believes in playing like they did in Shakespeare’s day, and is one of seven Original Practice Laboratories in the world.  With extensive research and training by the core company, MSF works to bring Shakespeare back to life as the playwright intended for his plays, players and playhouses.  We play with (and light) the audience, including them in the story.  We include interludes (instead of intermission) filled with live contemporary music.  We create an atmosphere of play and imagination, of poetry and visceral storytelling.  The jokes are funny, the sad parts touching.  We believe Shakespeare was never meant to be a dose of cultural medicine, but a vibrant, fun, and communal event that makes a difference in our lives.  It is a central piece of our mission to bring Shakespeare out of the dark and stuffy theater and into the park where everyone, no matter their cultural or economic background, can enjoy.  For more information on what it means to perform Shakespeare using Original Practices, click here.

The show is so much fun! I arrived a couple minutes before showtime, while the cast was providing a fun and spirited preview of the play’s action. The weather was picture perfect (in stark contrast to the humid heat at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performance I attended on the 4th of July) and there was a nice crowd assembled for the freebie show at Gaithersburg City Hall.

These are professional actors, and the show is well done, even with less-than-perfect circumstances. Gaithersburg is a railroad town with the stage located maybe 30 feet from an active track and right on a busy street. There was a train with whistle blaring early in the show, but the players just stopped action briefly to let it pass. No problem! There was a guy talking on his cell phone and a heckler (maybe with Tourette’s) through the first half of the show, but the actors didn’t seem to notice. The show must go on! And it did, much to my enjoyment. I sat right up front at the edge of the grass… a great view.

The players are well cast. Juliet is believably young and naive; Romeo is her dreamy young lover. They’re a good match. Tybalt (played by a woman) is his usual annoying self. I really love Mercutio in this version. He is fiery and excitable. Perfect! He did the whole Queen Mab speech, and I was surprised at how exceedingly long it felt in performance. It’s so odd!

Like at the performance I went to in Staunton, Virginia, the players provide musical entertainment during the intermissions. They played “Sweet Caroline” (changing the lyrics to “Sweet Rosaline”) during the first intermission and during the second break I really enjoyed their acoustic version of “All Along the Watchtower”  (marred only by the guy behind me who apparently thought it was call and response and then added his very shrill and weird wildcat howls). Anyhow.

There’s free Shakespeare in parks everywhere you look this summer. Get out and enjoy some! And if you’re in Maryland, try to catch the MSF’s Romeo and Juliet at a park near you!

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Shakespeare In-The-Ruins

July 5, 2010 at 12:37 am (Live Performances, Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , )

The ghosts of Southern belles are dancing in my imagination right now. I saw Much Ado About Nothing performed in the ruins of an antebellum finishing school today. It was the coolest thing! Well, it wasn’t cool. It was nearly 100 degrees and muggy when the play started. But it was really cool!


The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performs outdoors, in the ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute in Ellicott City, Maryland (not far from Baltimore). I found this information about the ruins:

Situated on a hilltop overlooking the Patapsco River Valley in Historic Ellicott City, the Patapsco Female Institute was founded in 1837 and operated for more than 50 years as an elegant finishing school for young women. The stabilized ruins of the Greek Revival structure are open for tours, and serve as a beautiful setting for special events including Victorian teas and a summer open air theatre.

So, there were hoop skirts here. Young Southern belles during the Civil War. I bet they had dances like Scarlett O’Hara went to in Gone with the Wind. 

Anyway, what a cool place to see a play! Huge trees surround the ruins. For the 4th of July, they started the play at 5 PM so we would have plenty of time to get out to see fireworks afterward. The actors also read the entire Declaration of Independence before the performance. That was kind of amazing to hear! 

The seating is very casual and family friendly (kids get free admission to all performances). Some sat on blankets, others brought camp chairs. CSC provides 200 folding chairs, so I took one of those. We all moved around quite a lot to get out of the sun for the first 45 minutes or so. Once the shade from the trees kicked in, everything was much more pleasant. It would be really lovely in the evening. 

The CSC provides pre-performance entertainment (jugglers, activities), but I arrived at showtime, so missed out on that. You could make quite a day of the outing. Because it was a family-oriented performance, one of the actors began by taking the kids (and any interested grown-ups) aside to explain the plot of the play (with photos) so they’d be able to follow along better. I thought that was really nice. 

They did a great job with Much Ado About Nothing. The stage is a series of platforms and ramps built into the L-shaped side of the ruins. So, the actors perform there as well as using the many doors and windows of the ruins. It gives them a lot of flexibility and they use the space well. 

Lesley Malin as Beatrice in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

This production is set during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. The acting is terrific! I enjoyed everyone. Beatrice has a lot of spunk and presence. You could see her cracking her gum in a Rosie the Riveter job. And she has that Big Band era chic… she looks great with her hair nets and stylish outfits. 

Katie Molinaro as Hero, Steven Hoochuk in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

One thing I noticed in this production that was not evident in video versions or from reading the text — Margaret during and after Hero’s jilting at the altar. Wow. So, it’s Margaret at the window with Borachio (they staged the window scene quietly here). Then the next day, Claudio humiliates Hero at the altar and accuses her of being a whore. So, all the while, Ms. Margaret, Hero’s trusted servant… is doing what? Why wouldn’t she set things straight at the wedding (blushingly waving, ummm, ahemm, excuse me, can I say something?). I don’t remember seeing her at all during the post-jilting in the film versions. 

Well, here, I watched her on the stage. It was interesting. Everyone else ran to Hero’s aid when she fainted. Margaret stood aside, by herself, nervously playing with a bouquet and quietly contemplating her navel. I kept looking at her. Why wouldn’t she speak up? But then it worked for me. Here she is, a servant. The jilting is huge: Big Drama involving the daughter of the governor and all these important people. I could see then… it would be very difficult for Margaret to own up to the truth here (although I still think she could have done it later, in private). But here, the big scene, how strange it would be for a servant to pipe up with the news that Claudio and Don Pedro were mistaken and that it was she having sex with Borachio at her mistress’s window while he called her Hero. How would she explain that here? So then, I understood Margaret a bit more. 

Only one thing bothered me during the whole show. You may have noticed that I love Balthasar’s song, as I’ve started many of my posts about Much Ado by quoting it. So, I was looking forward to hearing it performed. Guess what? Balthasar sang it in Spanish in this production! Oh, darn. 

It was really fun to watch this play, it’s so entertaining… really a pleasant outing. If you’re in the area, I recommend catching a show here at the ruins. Hamlet is running in repertory this summer with Much Ado. It’s a lovely venue. 

And I got home in plenty of time to see fireworks. Happy 4th of July! 

James Jager as Claudio, Michael Sullivan as Benedick, Theo Hadjimichael as Don Pedro in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Photo by Teresa Castracane

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Almost Heaven

June 14, 2010 at 2:19 pm (All's Well That Ends Well, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , , , , )

Almost heaven
Central Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains
Shenandoah River

What a difference a word makes. John Denver’s signature song never made any sense to me, because I knew the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah are in Virginia, not West Virginia. I’m too literal. His poetry is better than mine, eh? The story behind that song is even funnier because the country road that inspired “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is actually Clopper Road, right here in my backyard in Montgomery County, Maryland. Let’s see:

Almost heaven
Suburban Maryland
Sugarloaf Mountain
Seneca Creek and Potomac River

Nah. He had it right.

Anyway, I drove down through the Shenandoah last weekend, between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountain. It really is almost heaven. It’s so lovely. Appalachia is just around the corner, but a world away from suburban Washington, DC. I am always surprised at how I feel when I see the mountains on the horizon. The ridges are peaceful, the scenery all through the Shenandoah Valley is gentle and bucolic. There’s no traffic, people are Southern and polite. It’s a different world.

What’s it have to do with Shakespeare? Quite a lot, it turns out. The American Shakespeare Center has built the only replica of Blackfriars Playhouse, the indoor Elizabethan venue for Shakespeare’s plays (ASC also plans to build a replica of the Globe, Shakespeare’s open-air theater). You will never guess where it’s located: Staunton, Virginia, in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley.

I made the drive down to Staunton this weekend to catch a show. I saw All’s Well That Ends Well on Saturday night. It was so much fun! Believe me, this is not highbrow, snooty Shakespeare. This is not like any other theater experience I’ve ever had. It’s really light-hearted and fun… sort of a casual, festival atmosphere with the players milling around before the show selling raffle tickets (they raffled a T-shirt with Shakespearean insults signed by cast) and drumming up business for the bar set up on the stage. All the while, musicians (also actors) are playing modern music from the balcony above the stage.

ASC production of Hamlet 2005. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

The ASC uses Renaissance staging practices. Their website describes what they do. The theater remains lit throughout the play and the actors interact a bit (not an annoying amount) with the audience. I sat in the third row from the stage — great seats, but I don’t think there’s a bad seat in the house. There are even seats on the stage for the truly brave (they do become part of the show). People are also invited to sit in the balcony directly above the stage. So, the players play to all four sides of the stage. 

Blackfriars Playhouse stage. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

There is no set, no curtain. The players simply enter and depart from three doors at the back of the stage. If you’ve seen Shakespeare in Love, you have an idea of how the Renaissance stage was set up. It’s basically a platform with doors in the back wall. It’s so simple and yet it works amazingly well during the performance. I didn’t miss the set.

The costumes are lovely, the acting wonderful. Really, these actors are engaging and witty and fantastic. They are fully in control and at ease with the material and they bring the play to life. There is no way to miss the meaning of the sex jokes here… the actors work them for all they are worth, and it is very bawdy and funny. Everyone was laughing. (Romeo and Juliet is also currently showing in repertory and I would love to see what they do with Mercutio!). 

Ginna Hoben as Helena and Aidan O'Reilly as Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Mike Bailey.

The play moves along briskly, but I understood all the dialogue. There was not a weak spot anywhere in the play for me although because I did not have a chance to read the text beforehand, I was not always 100 percent up with the convoluted action (I was not totally clear on the “trick” at the end that enables Helena to consummate her marriage to Bertram while pretending to be Diana… my own lack of attention and not any fault of the actors that I didn’t totally get it!).

Unlike Shakespeare’s time, when only men could act, this company uses both male and female actors. But I noticed some role reversals. There was a woman playing a man’s part early in the play and after the intermission a (tall, quite masculine) man playing (very humorously) Diana’s mother. By the way, the intermission is more of the festival atmosphere, with again, musicians belting out fun tunes (memorably, “Got My Mojo Working” and “When Will I Be Loved” — all crowd pleasers and very entertaining), drinks getting dispensed from the onstage bar and players walking around chatting and encouraging everyone to have fun.

Thanks to Jamie at Maryland Shakespeare where I first heard of Blackfriars. I loved this experience. If you are in the DC area or anywhere nearish, get thee to Staunton! It is a cute little town and only 2.5 hours from the DC beltway (I meandered and took my time… see below if you want my recommendations for driving routes).

It is well worth the trip to see a play in this theater. I personally wouldn’t even care which play I went to… it’s the experience and atmosphere of Renaissance-style theater that’s the draw to Staunton. (Not the only draw… it’s a quaint little town with shops and restaurants and the surrounding area has plenty to do.) I think this would be a very good way to expose kids to Shakespeare. I saw quite a few children (older, well-behaved kids) in the audience, including in the on-stage seats. Because of the festive atmosphere and quick movement of the play, I’d say this is a great experience for kids age 10 and up.

The spring season is just about finished and the summer season starts soon with Othello, The Taming of the Shrew, and Wild Oats. In the winter, they do experimental “Actors’ Renaissance” performances with little rehearsing, more like conditions in Shakespeare’s day. Sounds interesting! If you can’t make it to the Shenandoah Valley, keep an eye out for these folks on the road. They are good. The 2010-2011 Restless Ecstasy Tour with As You Like It, Macbeth and Measure for Measure may be coming to a theater near you.

But try to get to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. I know I plan to return!

Here are my route suggestions from the DC area to Staunton, VA: I’m sure the fastest way is I-66 to I-81. I bet it would take less than 2.5 hours from Tysons. I wouldn’t know because I didn’t go that way!

I took the beltway to I-66 to Front Royal exit 13. Left at the exit and then right onto Route 55. Then to US-340 south through the valley between the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountain, travelling through Luray (a nice stop to see the caverns!). Very nice countryside. I cut west on Route 33, left on 276 Cross Keys Rd, right on 256 Weyers Cave Rd, left on Route 11 south to Staunton. Only bad part of this route was the beltway and 66. As usual, I was in stop-and-go traffic past Manassas. It took me 3.5 hours from Montgomery County with very heavy traffic for the first hour.

Or from Montgomery County, Maryland, take Route 28 west through Darnestown to left at fork onto White’s Ferry Road. Take White’s Ferry across the Potomac (quite a fun little excursion to yesteryear if you’ve never done it before and you get to see the Confederate Stars and Bars flying proudly with the Maryland state flag!). Left on Route 15 south toward Leesburg, then Route 7 west to Winchester and hook yourself up on Route 11 south, the Valley Turnpike, which you can drive scenically all the way to Staunton (through many cute little towns). The only traffic you’ll hit on this route is in Leesburg, otherwise it’s clear sailing. I took this way home, and thought it was really nice. I stopped too many times to know how long the driving part takes. I would guess at least 3.5 hours, depending on how long you have to wait for the ferry. There are many Civil War markers, Confederate statues and battlefields along the way… the Shenandoah Valley was in the thick of things back then.

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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Saturday Night Live!

April 18, 2010 at 12:03 am (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I finally got out to see a real live performance! I’m so excited. I live in Montgomery County, Maryland near Washington DC, and although there are wonderful Shakespearean performances happening around me all the time, I am not able to get out to see them! Hope springs eternal, and I continue to keep my eye out for opportunities. I’ve been reading blogger Maryland Shakespeare who gets out a lot more than I do; he lets me know about all the great shows I’m missing!

Anyhow, I do get out once in a while, and because I like cheap and convenient theater, I am a longtime subscriber to Montgomery Playhouse, a local community theater group that performs just about in my backyard. And imagine the karma happening here when the last performance of the season, Catch Me if You Can, was dropped and A Midsummer Night’s Dream was scheduled instead! (I wasn’t actually blogging yet or thinking about blogging yet when they made that announcement, but still, it worked out well for me. And the timing is perfect since I’m taking so long with each play and I’m still in the middle of my meandering thoughts on A Midsummer Night’s Dream!)

So, how was it? Wonderful! I loved it. Really, they did a great job. They set the scene in a modern high school. Some male parts are played by women (Egeus is Hermia’s mother rather than father, for example) but other than that, they stay true to the text.

This is low-budget community theater, but all the players do well, the set is nice, the costumes appropriate. There were a few garbled and hurried lines, but I am pretty darn familiar with the play at this point, so it didn’t bother me a bit. For the most part, they are stellar—delivery clear and they do a great job getting the meaning across.

The actors involved in the love quadrangle include three local college kids and one high schooler—they do just fine. I enjoyed seeing them deteriorate through the night—clothing in increasing disarray, bruises and cuts showing up, school uniforms falling apart.

The fairies are well done. Titania is sexy and voluptuous while Oberon is quite sophisticated and I loved his slightly affected British accent. Puck is very funny. I really enjoyed Puck and Oberon munching on popcorn while they watch the “sport” play out with the Athenians.

This is community theater, after all, so it’s fun to see someone I know in real life up on the stage. The director of my son’s preschool plays Peter Quince (just “Quince” in this version). She does a great job, as I’ve seen her do in previous plays. All the mechanicals are very funny. I enjoyed their silly posturing and they do a fine job with Pyramus and Thisbe.

I loved the whole production and it was so much fun to see a live performance. If you live in the DC area, try to get out to see the show. It’s at the Rosborough Center in Gaithersburg through May 2… nice cushy seats and affordable prices. Support local theater!

© All Content, Copyright 2010 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.

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