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.


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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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