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 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.
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I had the pleasure of watching Don Taylor’s 1983 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (part of the BBC’s Television Shakespeare series). This is one of Shakespeare’s first plays, and although it is not among his best, I find it entertaining. This BBC version remains close to the text and is easy-to-watch.
It is a straightforward Renaissance setting with lovely vistas and blue skies. Much of the courting in this courtly-love quadrangle takes place in a garden graced by statues of Amor (love) and Fides (Latin for trustworthiness). Early on, golden cherubs shoot an arrow into the sign for amor, cluing us into Proteus’s preference for following his heart at the expense of his integrity.
The play’s action is not particularly well-drawn, but Shakespeare returns in later plays to many themes raised here, so maybe it can be viewed as Shakespeare’s internship project. Proteus is a silly boy acting on infatuation, willing to give up his true love with Julia and his lifelong friendship with Valentine, hurting everyone along the way, in his efforts to win over the disdainful Silvia. Shakespeare ties up all the loose ends at the end of this play by creating a sudden and unexpected return to reality for Proteus, while everyone he has injured instantly forgives him, and all live happily ever after. It’s a bit far-fetched.
This production is fun to watch. Proteus and Valentine are both wide-eyed boys, falling in love at first sight with pretty girls and sharing trysts and secret kisses with them where ever they can. Silvia is portrayed as the other-worldly woman on a pedestal — as she walks (lightly, in flowing gowns), flower petals are strewn on her from above. She’s the object of everyone’s infatuation.
Poor Julia, who dresses as the boy Sebastian in order to visit her wayward love Proteus in Milan, is lovely and heartbroken when she sees Proteus throwing himself at Silvia.
The comic foils in this play, Speed and Launce (along with his dog, Crab), are great fun with their quick-witted wordplay, often mocking the courtly lovers. I especially enjoy Speed, Valentine’s quick-talking and always-smiling servant, who is played here by a teenager.
Along with the set and costumes, the music in this version is lovely. From the chorus at the beginning to quiet lutes in the courtly garden, the Renaissance-inspired music is a nice addition.
The other thing I really enjoy here are the actors’ facial expressions. Valentine’s wide-eyed adoration of Silvia, Speed’s mischievous smiles, Julia’s heartbroken sadness as she listens to Proteus serenade Silvia… the actors do a great job. I think my favorite of all is the Duke of Milan (played by Paul Daneman) whose steely glare and raised eyebrow show that he knows exactly what kind of “friend” Proteus is for telling him of young Valentine’s secret plan to elope with his daughter Silvia. That is a great moment.
© All Content, Copyright 2011 by Blog Author, Or What You Will. All Rights Reserved.