Live Action

September 17, 2015 at 9:35 pm (A Midsummer Night's Dream, Antony and Cleopatra, Live Performances, Shakespeare's Plays, The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) (, , , , , , , , )

I started this post two whole years ago, but was sidetracked. Here it is with a few updates!

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CSC-logo-300I 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!).

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performs during the summer at the haunted ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company performs during the summer at the haunted ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute (Photo by Teresa Castracane)

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.

Street musicians playing for me during a downpour in Staunton.

Street musicians playing for me during a downpour in Staunton.

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).

Sarah Fallon as Cleopatra and James Keegan as Antony in ANTONY & CLEOPATRA. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

America Shakespeare Center presents Sarah Fallon as Cleopatra and James Keegan as Antony in ANTONY & CLEOPATRA. Photo by Lindsey Walters. See this video for the actress talking about her role.

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!

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Almost Heaven, Staunton, Virginia

September 21, 2012 at 3:01 pm (Live Performances, The Merchant of Venice, The Two Gentlemen of Verona) (, , , , , , )

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).

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage B&B in Staunton VA

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.

Tracie Thomason as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Michael Bailey.

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.

Tracie Thomason as Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Photo by Michael Bailey.

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.

Wonderful.

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Good Press

April 29, 2012 at 12:03 am (Asides, Shakespeare's Plays) (, , , , )

I’ve seen a lot of good press lately for Shakespeare in the Washington Post. Yes, he is still generating lots of coverage! Today, I saw a review of a new production, a very nice travel piece, and… even a Shakespeare-related op-ed!

The new production is the Folger’s Taming of the Shrew, which I saw in rehearsal last month (I plan to blog about my awesome visit to the Folger… coming soon!). The play looks like such fun and I’m glad it’s attracting attention even before it opens.

The travel piece is about the Blackfriars Theatre at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. I just posted a couple weeks ago about seeing their traveling version of The Winter’s Tale, and I posted back a couple years ago about my trip to the wonderful Blackfriars in Staunton. If you’re anywhere near Virginia at any time and you like Shakespeare a teeny bit, GO THERE! Go to Staunton and see a play at the Blackfriars. Just Do It.

But I have to say, the piece I enjoyed most was Post blogger Alexandra Petri’s op-ed Shakespeare, A Man for All Seasons, which originally appeared on her blog ComPost as a birthday wish to the Bard. It’s a fun discussion of Shakespeare’s relevance in today’s uber-connected world. I love this line: “These are not plays we read and see together as a generation or a country. They’re works we enjoy as a species. Shakespeare offers a roadmap to the human. And he does it in verse.” Yes, he does.

Great job, Washington Post!

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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.

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