By: Tim Treanor
Good husband, let us every one go home,
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire;
Sir John and all.
Mistress Page to her husband, Merry Wives of Windsor, Act V, Scene 5.
Every city boy, and every city girl, should spend a weekend in the country, watching Shakespeare.
It had been nearly a month since I last put electron to electron for dctheatrereviews, and the itch to pass judgment had been gnawing on me mightily. I was watching my neighbor cut the grass – an activity which always fatigues me – and I felt compelled to make an observation to Lorraine.
“He’s cutting the grass in one direction, and then turning around and cutting it in the other direction, so that the grains are going in all different directions,” I said. “I would have made a different choice.”
“Um-huh,” Lorraine replied.
Later, I was listening to our dog bark. “Annie’s barking doesn’t sound authentic,” I complained. “Really, it’s more like bark gestures.”
“That’s it,” Lorraine said, slamming down the pastafazool. “We’re going to the country, where you can review everything.”
The following Saturday we set out to Staunton, Virginia, with our friends James and Christine Beard. James is an excellent actor (Much Ado About Nothing, Headman’s Holiday) and superb writer whose one-man show, Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up to be Actors, we are producing at the Fringe Festival. Christine was of late pastry cook at the Inn at Little Washington and will assume the same position at the Fairmont Hotel, in Big Washington. I enjoy traveling with people who are smarter than I am, and taking credit for their insights. It helps to explain my marriage.
Staunton is home to the American Shakespeare Center, a rep company informed by the theatrical theories of Dr. Ralph Cohen. Cohen, who taught at James Madison University, believes that the best way to experience Shakespeare is to experience it as it was in Shakespeare’s day…boisterously, and in a way powerful enough to hold an audience’s attention notwithstanding the prevalence of strong drink, unexpected fisticuffs and other distractions in the audience. Thus at the American Shakespeare Center audience members may sit on the stage, and an actor is as likely to tickle them under the chin or sit on their lap as he is to swoon or declaim.
By the time we took off, Washington had just marinated in a four-day rainstorm, and was entering the beginning of a slow bake. The Public Attitude, never generous in the summer, was particularly venomous, and the demonization of W, Hillary, Justice Stevens and the Metro System, in particular, was in full and virulent bloom. The Post, the Times, and the City Paper were sodden with stories of senseless killings, done by men – and some women – with access to guns, rather than Meet the Press. The City was filled with a miasma of insectoid rage, and it raised the temperature an extra few degrees.
We took off down Route 66 – the minor Route 66, the gateway to upper Virginia – with a thousand other fleeing Washingtonians. This served us for twelve miles or so, until the highway’s perpetual renovations caused the traffic to occlude. The Beards, wise to the travails of this way of traveling, detoured to Route 29, and from thence to Route 81, and from thence into Staunton.
We arrived in Staunton – pronounced “Stanton”, like the relief pitcher – in a little less than three and a half hours, which afforded us enough time for refreshments at Coffee on the Corner, a small bistro near the theater. I ordered up an Everything Bagel with cream cheese and a Sobe Power, and attended as Christine gave me a guided tour of the coffeehouse’s artwork.
The Everything Bagel didn’t have everything – it was missing, for example, roast beef and microchips – but what it had was tasty enough, and the Sobe Power, although it left me feeling no more powerful, was good fruit punch. As for the art, the most impressive piece showed a woman contorted into an impossible position against a backdrop which seemed a camera’s negative of a forest. This, Christine told me, was created by the owner.
Having eaten, we repaired immediately to the theater – the Blackfriar’s Playhouse, so named after the venue in which Shakespeare’s Chamberlain’s Men played before they moved to The Globe. The Staunton playhouse, to the extent practical, resembled its ancient namesake; the groundlings sat directly in front of the stage (mercifully, on seats) while on the three sides (and two levels) of rectangular viewing area the audience sat underneath canopies. There is likewise a covered balcony above the stage. The venue resembles the Folger’s but is more intimate.
The Tempest: Rage Blow, and Crack Your Cheeks
We had signed up for a day-night doubleheader: The Tempest for the afternoon, and As You Like It for the evening. These are two of Shakespeare’s more flawed works. The Tempest was the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself, although he did lend his name to two other efforts, much as Tom Clancy does in the present day. The Tempest is full of rumination, and knits all the elements of the Shakespearian play – the struggle for power; the thrilling power of young love, magic, the comic villain, the implacably evil villain – in a single two-hour flight. Alas, for all the Shakespearian devices and heraldry, it lacks the elements: Prospero, the protagonist, is so overwhelmingly powerful there is no possibility of suspense, or even real conflict.
Here’s the story: Prospero, Duke of Milan, (David Loar), has given himself over to the study of metaphysics. While so engaged, his brother Antonio (Sarah Fallon), in conspiracy with the King of Naples (Alvaro Mendoza) usurps the throne, and exiles him and his infant daughter Miranda (Susan Heyward) to a deserted island. There, Prospero, using his command of the dark arts, overcomes the reigning witch, frees, and indentures, her spirit servant Ariel (John Harrell) and similarly enlists the witch’s son, Caliban (Jake Hart) as his slave.
All that happens before the play begins. The Tempest is the story of Prospero’s revenge. He first causes a ship carrying Antonio and the King of Naples to shipwreck, and then, using spirit underlings headed up by Ariel, confounds his old enemies, rounds them up, and – forgives them.
In the meantime, the King’s son, Ferdinand (Matthew Sincell), separated from the rest of his party through Prospero’s magic, falls upon Miranda and the two of them instantly take to love. Gently guided by Prospero, they take to a nuptial table blessed by Roman gods and goddesses (Harrell, Mendoza, and Rene Thornton, Jr.).
The only opposition to Prospero’s plans comes from the King’s drunken butler, Stephano (James Keegan) and his equally bibulous jester, Trinculo (Paul Fidalgo), who join forces – briefly – with Caliban in a plot to overthrow the Kingdom of Prospero. These inept co-conspirators are no match for Prospero, who dispatches them with cramps to spirits and hounds.
This is a hard play to make compelling. That the American Shakespeare Center succeeds is a tribute to director Giles Block, and to the company’s guiding philosophy. The play – in keeping with their general approach – is presented on a bare stage: the only prop is a series of ropes hung from the ceiling at the outset, which sailors grab and swing upon to show the rocking of the ship in the tempest.
The company thus depends on the power of the actors and the writing, with good reason. Loar presents a beautifully layered, textured Prospero, full of self-doubt and self-loathing, but at the same time thick with authority. Sincell and Heyward as the young lovers are ripe with innocent lust. Heyward, in particular, makes us get that she was raised on an island, where the only men she ever met were her father and the grotesque Caliban. “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in’t!” she says when she is finally introduced to the ship’s whole company, and Heyward’s delivery suggests a lifetime of wonderment ahead of her for Miranda.
But what elevates this Tempest into art is Keegan’s and Fidalgo’s performances as the comic villains. Keegan’s Stephano, promised reign over the island by Caliban if he would just kill Prospero, teeters between his dreams of imperial glory and his love for a butt of wine which he has recovered from the ship and perforce hidden. Sometimes the lust for power seems to win out, and he pushes Trinculo and Caliban onward. At other times his thirst controls, and he is distracted. Keegan captures the drunk’s ersatz precision with unerring accuracy. As for Fidalgo, he plays the Jester as though it was his chosen profession. As full of wild improvisation as Charlie Parker, Fidalgo – who plans to give up acting for graduate school in DC, and a career in politics, in January – reacts instinctively to Keegan’s moves, and to those of Jakes. They seem almost like a vaudeville act.
As you may have noticed, the American Shakespeare Center is not afraid to cast untraditionally. Fallon as Antonio is a revelation. Shakespeare gave a gender to his villains – Iago, say, or Lady MacBeth – and their gender informed the characterization. By casting Antonio as a woman, director Block decontextualized the character. She appears waspish, almost viral. When she plots with Sebastian, the King of Naples’ brother (Thornton again) to kill the King, she seems to be less a scheming plotter, as male Antonios I have seen in the past have been, and more implacably evil. She kills, it seems, because she is good at it, and enjoys it.
The most astonishing piece of nontraditional casting, however, is the most traditional of all – Ariel as a man. Although Shakespeare originally intended that Ariel be a male character, I have never seen him so cast. The female Ariels I have seen have been ethereal, magical, knowing, flighty. The lines in which they beg for their freedom have been underplayed, or excised, because they are spiritual beings who have transcended the reach of power. Here, Herrell’s Ariel is full of rage and pain, and his magic flows from it. He yearns for freedom as the salmon yearns to swim upstream, and when he is finally granted it, a palpable surge of affirmation runs through the audience.
The Tempest, more than most Shakespearean plays, relies on the performance of a single actor. Loar is the equal to it. He has two difficult speeches – a profoundly expositional one at the beginning, and a rueful summation at the end. He pulls them both off, and leaves us eager for more. When he says “Now I want spirits to enforce, art to enchant, and my ending is despair, unless I be relieved by prayer…” it is impossible not to see Shakespeare’s loosening of his powers and, ultimately, our eventual loosening of our own.
We exit Blackfriar’s, blinking in sun-dappled Staunton. Though nearly eighty miles south of Washington, it seems cooler. Thick, green, leather-leafed trees are heaving oxygen into the air by the ton, and the decibel level is considerably lower than it is up north. It is as though, having heard Shakespeare’s words, we are a bit more sparing of our own. There is a startling absence of cell phones. Speaker and listener are, archaically, looking at each other. I do not know if the conversations in Staunton are less consequential than they are in Washington, but they do seem less imbued with self-importance.
We are staying at the Stonewall Jackson, a refurbished Civil War establishment not one hundred yards from Blackfriar’s. The building had fallen on hard times during its one-hundred-fifty-year history. In its most recent incarnation it had been a halfway house, but in time it was abandoned even for that purpose.
Of late a wave of serious money has rolled through Staunton, and the Stonewall Jackson is a big beneficiary. The capacious lobby, all white and gold and chandeliers, seems set to entertain a gaggle of sword-carrying, grey-clad revenants, although while I was there it was full of tourists with suitcases, much like myself. In short order, the hotel checked Lorraine and me in and dispatched us to our cozy room. This one-day pied-a-terre was made up in a vaguely antebellum manner, but it was full of modern conveniences, including an enormous comfortable bed. I put it to the test immediately.
My love affair with unconsciousness not ending until 6.30, we had less than an hour for the evening meal. We repaired to L’Italia, an establishment about two blocks from the theater, and ordered up a mealsworth of appetizers. I was of a particular mind to eat beef carpaccio – thinly-sliced beef with parmesan cheese marinated in olive oil and served on a bed of arugula – and we got also calamari, stuffed mushrooms, tomato and mozzarella, and small Caesar salads. In the old days carpaccio would be served raw, but the lawyers are in charge of everything now, so at L’Italia it is only very rare. Nonetheless, it was tasty in the extreme, as was everything else except the stuffed mushrooms, which were without discernable flavor. As 7.30 approached, we pushed ourselves away from the groaning board – I was obliged to finish Lorraine’s wine – and marched off to see As You Like It.
And I Did
As You Like It is a badly-plotted piece of work, full of unmotivated changes of heart and resolved by a most improbable deus ex machina – but it has some gorgeous characters, and some of Shakespeare’s most memorable lines. A play like this is made to order for American Shakespeare Center.
Orlando (Mendoza), the younger son of the late Sir Rowland de Boys, is banished from the home of his older brother Oliver (Thornton). Accompanied by his ancient servant Adam (Keegan), he stops briefly at the castle of the reigning Duke (Harrell), where he takes on, and whomps, the Duke’s formidable in-house wrestler (Jakes). But it appears that de Boys pere was an ally of the previous, overthrown, Duke, thus assuring that Orlando’s stay in the Dukedom will be a brief one. He does not leave without catching the eye, and the heart, of the old Duke’s daughter Rosalind (Fallon) who by reason of her friendship with the new Duke’s daughter Celia (Heyward) is a guest of the castle.
Following Orlando’s visit the Duke inexplicably turns on Rosalind and gives her the boot. Piqued, Celia decides to depart with Rosalind – and to take their demented jester Touchstone (Fidalgo) along with them. Destination: the Forest of Arden, where, coincidentally, Orlando is heading and the old Duke (Jakes again) is already holed up with a band of musically-gifted followers.
For reasons not entirely clear in the text, Rosalind (but not Celia) decides to don a man’s costume to escape, and to maintain this disguise once in the forest. Once secure, she spies Orlando declaiming his love for his absent Rosalind, and she decides to torture him by appearing in her mannish form to convince him that his love is futile. This is a device Shakespeare used more frequently than Ken Ludwig – so frequently, in fact, that one is compelled to think either that differences between the sexes were less pronounced in the sixteenth century, or that people’s eyesight was considerably worse.
The Duke, enraged by what has gone on, decides Orlando is the culprit and dispatches the hero’s older brother Oliver to do him in. But Orlando and Oliver reunite and join sides – you might say de Boys are back in town. Much romance and hilarity ensue, as they say, and the Duke’s opposition eventually crumbles, painlessly, offstage.
The company handles this difficult material with ease. By making it clear that Orlando sees through Rosalind’s masquerade immediately – and that this makes it even more pleasing to Rosalind – director Jim Warren and the actors, Mendoza and Fallon, explode the play’s most implausible element. Fallon is superb in these scenes – it seems as though lust comes off Rosalind like a fine mist.
Where there is an implausible development which the company cannot make sensible, they do not ignore it but they do not dwell on it. There is great comedy and sudden wisdom in this play, and it is those moments which the American Shakespeare Center celebrate. Much of the humor is in the side plots: Phebe (Celia Madeoy), a shrewish shepherdess, falls in love with Rosalind, believing her to be a boy, and thus flings aside the affections of the dolorous Silvus (Harrell again). Touchstone seeks the hand of the Monty Pythonesque Audrey (Matthew Sincell). And Oliver, reformed, sees redemption in Celia’s face.
A surprisingly modern character named Jaques (Loar) supplies much of the play’s human insight. His presence in Arden is never explained; he simply appears and announces himself. He is a cynic and somewhat of a depressive, but he is honest enough to admit the pleasurable self-satisfaction of both postures. When he says – in Loar’s phrasing, gleefully – “I can suck melancholy from a song as a weasel sucks eggs” I am compelled to remember that verse from the great Fran Landesman song:
Down makes some dangerous suggestions
Taunts you with those sweet depressing questions
You can tell yourself to quit
But you really must admit
That there’s something irresistible in down
It is Jaques who delivers one of Shakespeare’s most memorable speeches, about the seven ages of man. Loar does it here diffidently, as though he were explaining how beef carpaccio should be made. Thus it sounds all the more inevitable, and chilling.
As You Like It features a great deal of music. Cohen has done significant work in identifying the music prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, and has used his best judgment as to what music was actually used in the original productions. The result sounds natural and unforced.
It was a sliver before ten when we left the playhouse – too late to rock-n-roll, but too early to go to bed. We thus repaired to the Stonewall Jackson’s commodious bar. There we ran across several of the day’s performers. In spite of their workload – each had played at least two roles, and Keegan had played eight or nine – they all seemed to be full of mellow good cheer. I was impressed – as I am frequently impressed in the company of actors – with their generosity of spirit. They were eager to tell me how much they enjoyed working with each other. This is immensely different than my experience in the City, among the bureaucrats with whom I work. There, every conversation is a series of infomercials, with the speaker doubling as the product.
Shenandoah Shakespeare is as much a discipline as it is a company. Actors study context as well as text, and, once cast, are generally obliged to rewrite their own dialogue in contemporary and familiar language. This assures that the actor knows his text in the same way Burbage did, and gives the actor a certain ownership interest in the piece.
There is a traveling company, called Shenandoah Shakespeare, which goes all over the country, as well as a company based in Staunton, and some actors serve an apprenticeship on the road before settling in Virginia. A spacious rooming house sits across from the theater and several actors make it their home. Nothing is guaranteed, however; actors must audition for each show, and an uncast actor is an unpaid actor.
The next morning we had the morning meal at Mrs. Rowe’s (pronounced as in “fights”), a well-recommended eating establishment on the outskirts of town. I had the crispy, delicious pumpkin pancakes, which were so large and meaty I could not finish them. (I asked her to put them in the refrigerator for my next visit.)
All weekends end, though, and eventually, in silence, we pointed the Beards’ car North and got in. The air grew hotter, and stiller. And noisier. We heard the sound of construction, and then a sound like buzzing locusts. Somebody cut us off. Somebody gave somebody else the finger. We were back in the City. The weekend was over.
The Tempest plays through December 2 and As You Like It through December 1 at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. For times, prices and reservations, go to www.americanshakespearecenter.com. The website for the Stonewall Jackson hotel is www.stonewalljjacksonhotel.com. L’Italia is at http://litalia-restaurant.com and Mrs. Rowe’s is at www.mrsrowes.com. I haven’t been able to find a website for Coffee on the Corner but it is at 140 E. Beverley Street, 540.887.0041. The City of Staunton’s website is www.staunton.va.us.