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:
Seneca Creek and Potomac River
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.
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.
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!).
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.
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