The skies opened up as Route 66, going west, became Route 81, going south, frustrating my vow to drive at 80 mph for the rest of the way. We had left at ten after ten, a reasonable enough start time for a two o’clock matinee which Google had told us was three hours away, but when we got in our car our GPS offered a different opinion: that the trip would take three hours thirty-five minutes. That meant that, barring catastrophe (like a heavy rainstorm) we would be squealing our tires in front of the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriar Playhouse bare minutes before the start of Richard III, and be led, huffing and panting, to our seats as the opening soliloquy began.
Well. That would affect my experience of the play, or anyone’s. But you read my reviews not to find out what my experience was but to get a good idea what your experience will be. Experience is idiosyncratic, though. I can tell you what I thought of the play and the performances and, if your tastes run roughly in my direction, that may be of some value. But what if the seat was too tight for my economy-size body, and I was in discomfort through the entire production? That will not be relevant to your slender and sylphlike self. What if before the show I ate a meal which immediately went to war against me, and I writhed dyspeptically throughout? Are my pointed remarks about the lead a sober critique of her performance, or an acidosis-induced remark? And suppose you receive bad news just before heading to the theater? (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?) Will my cheery synopsis have any relation to what you will experience at that play?
This is a simple dilemma, for which I have no good answer. The American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia has a more complicated dilemma, given that its mission is to give its audiences the same experience of Shakespeare that his audiences had, and it does have some answers. This does not mean, you’ll be relieved to know, that prepubescent boys play women’s roles and that all the privies are out of doors (a practice which the ASC’s new Artistic Director gleefully calls “Welcome to Shakespeare! Here’s your mutton!”) Only a lunatic would want to live in the 16th century; that’s why, after all, we invented the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Instead, Ralph Cohen, who founded ASC (as, initially, “Shenandoah Shakespeare”) began with what we knew about Shakespeare and his times. The most fundamental element of this is that the Bard was enormously popular, not just with England’s elite but with its blacksmiths and farmers and merchants, too. It was as if Edward Albee and Neil Simon had been transmogrified into a single demon playwright, who did some acting, too.
The American Shakespeare Center
Summer/Fall season ends December 8
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Thus the first requirement of an ASC production is that it be accessible. The Bard wrote in Elizabethan English, and ASC’s mission does not include improving Shakespeare’s language, so the company must open the play through gesture, delivery and staging. (James Beard, who was part of the company in the early nineties, once told me that one of their techniques was to have the actors rewrite their lines in their own idiom, so that they had a personal sense of Shakespeare’s meaning.)
There is another meaning to accessible, so let’s get to that right now. The top ticket prices are $46, and there are plenty of $20 tickets available. And even the cheap seats are good seats; the Blackfriars Playhouse is fifty by seventy feet, with two levels, and seats three hundred. Some of the seats are on the stage. The actors can talk conversationally, without amplification, and everyone can hear them.
In Shakespeare’s time, young boys played women’s roles. ASC does the opposite: women play young boys, trilling in captious delight, as young boys do. Thus Shuntè Lofton, playing young Richard, the Duke of York, throws up the left shoulder in playful imitation of the fearsome uncle, Richard Gloucester, the aspiring King — does so in Gloucester’s presence, in innocent celebration of a famous uncle, and as a jocular tease. Loften, an experienced and intelligent actor, knows every nuance of her character’s childish motivation, and of the tragic aftermath, and shows it on the stage. Would a 9-year-old boy (the Duke of York was about 9 at this time) be able to do the same thing? Possible. Unknown. Unlikely.
Here’s something else: the lights are always on. Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the day, with the sun the only spotlight. We are indoors (good idea; see “skies opened up”, above) but the half-dozen chandeliers are on all the time. There are no blackouts; indeed, properly speaking, there are no scenes. One event bleeds into another and actors are on the stage with each other constantly, and the plays press forward relentlessly.
We bustle into the Blackfriars in plenty of time for Richard III. This place is designed to resemble the original Blackfriars, where the Bard’s troupe — originally The Chamberlain’s Men, and later The King’s men — produced regularly. No one knows for sure what that looked like, so the architect, Tom McLaughlin, toured the existing theaters in England which dated back to that time; consulted Shakespeare’s stage directions, and came up with this: a post-and-beam construction within a brick shell, made of Virginia oak, with a hammerbeam roof. There is a stage, and a section for an audience in front of it (in Shakespeare’s day, it would have been the groundlings, but today we have comfortable, cushioned seats, pew-like, with flexible backs.). On all three sides, there are two levels of audience, each going back two rows or so. The scaffolding is in warm blonde wood. I am not tutored in architecture, but the architecture looked Tudor to me.
Dr. Cohen believed that Shakespearean productions were bracketed by musical interludes, and so are ours. In Shakespeare’s time it might have been lute and flute, but not in ours; like the Shakespearean audiences, we listen to contemporary music: specifically Come on Eileen, by Dexys Midnight Runners, and other songs along that line. Zoe Speas is doing most of the singing, and she does it with a swagger and a sneer — as well she might, as in a little bit she will be playing one of the two men who murder George, the Duke of Clarence (Briana Gibson Reeves). She also plays the doomed King Edward V. Also Sir Francis Lovell. She will be in crowd scenes, too. And later she will play the title character in Emma Whipday’s adaptation of the Jane Austen novel Emma.
In this, Speas is remarkable, but not unusual. Richard III has 31 characters, more or less, and there are 12 members of the ASC repertory company. The actors flow from character to character, quickly and with authority. When Speas, for example, appears as the young Edward, you will not be moved to say “hey! Wasn’t that the guy who just cut up poor Clarence?” (or: “isn’t that a woman?”) Her commitment to the new character will be too complete, and you’ll be too caught up in the story to worry about how the sausage gets made.
Richard is a famous King because Shakespeare made him so, and we see him again, in all his fifteenth-century malevolence, in this fine production. I’ve seen versions of this play which seek to psychoanalyze Richard, and make his rage and bitterness understandable, pointing sometimes to his hunchback (now verified with the discovery of the deposed Monarch’s body, buried underneath a parking lot) as the cause of his misery. Greg Brostom’s Richard is none of that. He acts from the sheer joy of being evil; surrendering himself to ecstasy as he sticks a shiv between someone’s ribs. We start as Chris Johnston puts down his musical instrument and saunters to center stage as King Henry VI — not a character in this play, but the last Lancaster King before the Yorkist side of the Plantagenet family deposed them. He gives us some distinctly nontextual advice, involving cell phones and photographs, and then expresses his optimism about his own situation — in prison but not dead yet. As he prates on, we see Richard stalking him from behind, with a look approaching that of religious rapture on his face. As the last Lancaster feels the dagger in his back you can sense his astonishment and disappointment; Richard closes his eyes and grins. It is almost a sexual moment. If this Richard then fell upon his erstwhile foe and began to eat him, it would not be out of character — but of course that doesn’t happen; the actual play has to begin.
Brostrom’s wholehearted embrace of Richard’s evil is thrilling and magnetic — in the same sense, say, that Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter is thrilling and magnetic — and it gives the play a surprisingly comic cast, notwithstanding all the murders. Everyone either detests Richard, or plays up to him in the hope of advancement, or both — and the production makes their, and his, hypocrisy plain to us. We want to laugh at Richard, and we feel free to do it. When young Richard throws up his shoulder in imitation of his hunch-backed Uncle, his grandmother (John Harrell) raises a corrective finger — because he put up the wrong shoulder. An audience far too polite to laugh at another’s deformity bursts out in surprised, delighted laughter.
Richard is a combination of honeyed words and the good old ultra violence, and the effect of the honeyed words is made more powerful by the threat of violence. We see it as he courts Anne Neville (Lofton), whose husband and father-in-law he has murdered; we see it as he implores Queen Elizabeth (Allie Babich), the widow of his brother Edward IV (Benjamin Reed), to arrange the marriage of her daughter to him, even though he has wiped out the remainder of Elizabeth’s family. We see it as the nobles — especially Tyrrel (David Anthony Lewis) and Buckingham (Johnston) — do their sycophantic best to advance Richard’s claims, in hopes of also advancing their own. The effect is as if a cobra came into your house and rubbed affectionately against your leg. You are eager to be on his side, in the hopes that he will bite someone else. You can guess how that works out.
Brostrom, nonetheless, is a superb predator, and everyone else is a superb victim. The play, and the Plantegenet family, ends when Henry Tudor (Harrell), joined by all those Richard betrayed (or their survivors), overcomes and kills the King. Tudor is here portrayed as a creature of light, smiling benevolently as he liberates England from its Yorkist yoke. That was probably how he was performed in Shakespeare’s time, as well; after all, he was Henry VII, the grandfather of Good Queen Bess. In truth, Henry was an absolute monarch who crushed individual liberties and who was supported by a system of informants who would have done Kim Jong-un proud.
This production makes an excellent choice it determining an unresolved mystery: how does Anne Neville come to fall in love with her husband’s murderer? Surely Richard’s speech, delivered as the husband laid cold beside them, would not have been sufficient. In this production, she doesn’t fall in love with him, but is led to him in tears and bitterness. (In reality, Anne and Richard were childhood friends and her first marriage was an arranged one; it is unlikely that she and her husband saw each other after they were married, as he was constantly at war).
There is another grace note to the production: the superb performance of Jessika Williams as Henry VI’s widow, Margaret. Her function in the play is to curse the York family and their allies, calling misfortune and death down upon them. One wonders why she was given the run of the place, instead of being sent to the Tower of London in protective custody. Here, Margaret calls out her most virulent curses from among the audience, making her more than a deposed monarch — making her, in fact, the very spirit of guilt, regret and shame which is twisting up the sons and daughters of York. In Williams’ calm, lucid voice they are more than curses, they are predictions, as inevitable as the great hurricane’s landfall this week.
As I left, I heard a piping voice behind me. “I love Shakespeare!” It was a young girl, about eleven, talking with a friend. You know how kids that age sometimes put on airs, to show that they’re cultured and sophisticated? She was serious, and for real. “It’s my sixth.”
Well. So I hope she gets to see Much Ado About Nothing before her first difficult romance, so that Beatrice and Benedick can teach her that the enemy of love is not difference, but indifference. And before she loses to death someone she truly loves, I hope she has heard Claudius’ advice to Hamlet at I.ii 89-108, and Hamlet’s own assessment of his father at lines 190-191 of the same scene.
The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter
See, that’s the thing about Shakespeare: he wrote in Richard III a play more than four hundred years ago about incidents which occurred a hundred years before that, and it still makes sense to us today. I wish I could say the same thing about the second ASC offering I watched, the Restoration comedy, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter. In this comedy, Brostrom reappears as the Fop himself, insufferably smug, impeccably coiffed (a pin, conspicuously, holds his hair in place) and decked out in a suit a shade of pink not seen outside the womb (Jessica Gaffney is the costume designer).
Notwithstanding that Sir Fopling is the title character, the play is not about him. It is instead about Mr. Dorimant (Harrell), a man who wants plenty of sex with different women and goes after it with machinelike efficiency. His lover is Mrs. Loveit (Williams — the Restorationists were not subtle in their naming conventions), but he is also carrying on an affair with her best friend Belinda (Lofton). Moreover, he is aiming at Harriet Woodvill (Babich), who is not only beautiful but rich, and will, to his thinking, be able to subsidize his further adventures. To facilitate his enterprise, he concludes that he needs the services of Sir Fopling, who will, he hopes, distract Mrs. Loveit and perhaps induce her to fall in love with Fopling. To surmount his second barrier — the opposition of Harriet’s mother (Speas) to his attention to Harriet — he disguises himself as Mr. Carthage (by putting on glasses) and makes it his business to charm the older woman.
Of course, his plans glang aglay. Sir Fopling is willing to take on his commission, but he is already in love — with himself, which he shows by talking incessantly and, when not talking, singing in a wavering voice. Nonetheless, Mrs. Loveit shows him some interest, and Dorimant discovers, to his surprise, that he is not pleased with the prospect of losing her. To borrow a phrase from another time, he wants it all. And while Lady Woodvill is initially taken in by Mr. Carthage, all masquerades must come to an end. You can guess how this one works out.
So does George Etherege, writing for his Restoration-era audience, reach out and touch us, three hundred and forty-two years later? I don’t think so. Like most Restoration comedies, The Man of Mode is about the follies of the rich: specifically, predatory sex mixed with greed. (The Restoration was that of Charles II, a notorious rake and the son of the Stuart King Charles I, whose body Parliament had separated from his head).
Restoration plays make fun of the rich, but affectionate fun; the audience is supposed to look at Dorimant and say aren’t you a little devil? (Harrell, interestingly, plays him as an impatient man, eager to get to the next conquest, as though he is marking boxes on a checklist). As for the Fop, were he transported to the present day his mannerisms would be considered effeminate, and we would think him to be a crudely-drawn gay man. But homosexuality was not acknowledged in the Restoration age, so the Fop was just the Fop. Even when the play is performed this well (perhaps especially when it is performed this well) it remains a period piece, without meaning outside the confines of the stage.
We last came to Staunton (pronounced “Stanton”, like 2000 pounds of Stan) in 2006; it was to escape the miasma of petty Washington, and to submerge ourselves in something slower, cooler, and more important. The miasma of Washington is incomparably worse now; you could not escape it on Mars. But Staunton is a little more vibrant than it was, too. The American Shakespeare Center has become affiliated with Mary Baldwin University, and James Madison U is just up the road. Downtown is humming with bookstores and coffeeshops, and the nearby Stonewall Jackson motel — where we stayed, as we did twelve years ago — was hosting a wedding and a fifty-year reunion, as well as us.
The restaurant we ate at twelve years ago, L’Italia, is closed now, so we repair to The Mill Street Grill, which doesn’t accept reservations. They assured us that if we showed up at 5.30 there would be plenty of room, but we did, and in fact it was stuffed to the gills. After some impressive theatrics we are able to secure places at the bar, where I order a very tasty crabmeat-stuffed trout and a drinkable Gewürztraminer; Lorraine has a superb prime rib, a portion of which she lets me eat, for purposes of this review.
After a good night’s sleep, a tasty (and quite affordable) breakfast at the Stonewall, and a very interesting interview with ASC’s new artistic director — more on that later — we repair to the Blackfriars to watch Emma, Emma Whipday’s stage adaptation of the eponymous Jane Austen novel.
Emma Woodhouse (Speas) is an early version of the antiheroine, and it is probably Austen’s boldest novel, in that it puts her in all her deficiencies at the center of the story. Emma is full of sweet airs and good intentions, and she cares for her aging father (Lewis), but she is supernally arrogant, and oblivious to the sensibilities of others. Having introduced her governess (Williams) to their amiable neighbor Weston (Reed) — an introduction which ultimately resulted in matrimony — Emma envisions herself to be a matchmaker, and resolves to work her will on others, whether they welcome it or not. She latches on to her simpleminded friend Harriet Smith (Lofton), who she is bound and determined to match with the dour vicar Elston (Harrell), notwithstanding that Harriet is in love with the farmer Robert Martin (Brandon Carter), who loves her back.
Emma, for unknown reasons, has resolved not to marry, but she is not above a flirtation with Frank Churchill (Brodstrom), Weston’s son from his first marriage. When Weston’s first wife died, Frank moved to his aunt and uncle’s house (and took their name) in order to have a two-parent household. He seldom comes back — his aunt is very ill — but he is in town now, and he seems to take a shine to Emma. Their favorite pursuit is to make catty remarks about Miss Bates (Babich), their neighbor, and her adored niece Jane Fairfax (Meg Rodgers).
Cattiness — and a class-based worldview — are Emma’s primary characteristics. She can’t abide the thought that Harriet will step down in class to marry a farmer (notwithstanding that Harriet is an orphan, and thus of unknown provenance), so much so that she threatens never to visit Harriet again if she does so. She is frequently upbraided for her thoughtless cruelty by her friend and neighbor George Knightley (Johnston), but the fact is that this classist view permeates the world of the novel (and the play) in a way that’s hard for us to understand now. For example, Elston eventually marries Augusta (Reeves), who refers to her husband as “Mr. E.” This at the time was an unpardonable familiarity, but we wouldn’t get it now, so director Stephanie Holladay Earl has Reeves belt out her lines Sophie Tucker-style, immediately interrupting all other conversations so that we understand how rude she is.
Emma is simply too self-absorbed to take other people’s needs and feelings into consideration, and her matchmaking is catastrophic. Why do we like her, then, and why is Emma the favorite of many (myself included) out of Austen’s five-novel oeuvre? Because intentions count: Emma, though humanly flawed (and how!) wants to do the right thing — as opposed, say, to Dorimant, who wants to do the wrong thing, and wants to do it right quick.
The story of humans blundering their way down a path to good resonates down the ages, while the story of boys being bad is only temporarily amusing — which is why Austen is beloved two hundred years after her death, whereas Etherege is known mostly in academic circles. (And Richard III is compelling not because of Richard’s evil but because of his victim’s efforts to cope with it.)
The three plays vary in their resonance and power, but the cast is universally excellent and facile in each. Some actors — I am thinking specifically of Brostrom and Speas — take wildly different roles on in each production, and they succeed swimmingly. Others — and here I am thinking of Williams and Johnston — are almost preternaturally resonant in whatever roles they take on. And it was a delight to see Harrell, who twelve years ago, I saw take on the role of Arial in The Tempest.
Our weekend in the country done, we head back north through the rolling Virginia countryside. The Humana Festival and Oregon Shakes are too far from DC for regular visiting, and New York City requires a large investment of time and money. A weekend at ASC, which is at least as much fun as any of them, can be had for four hundred simoleons or less [$400 includes $180 for the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, other accommodations start at $50]and is only a three hour trip (Google was right, and my GPS was wrong) from the wilds of Southern Maryland. For you it will probably be even less.
Richard III, by William Shakespeare, directed by Jenny Bennett, choreographed by Lauren Ballard (who was also the properties master), featuring Greg Brostrom, Shunte Lofton, Benjamin Reed, Allie Babich, Zoe Speas, Meg Rodgers, Katie Little, Briana Gibson Reeves, John Harrell, Jessika Williams, Chris Johnston (who was also the music captain director), Brandon Carter, David Anthony Lewis, and David F. Meldman. Victoria Depew is the costume designer, Jeremy West is the fight director, Brandon Cook is the technical director, and Sarah Dale Lewis, assisted by Adrienne Johnson Butler, is the stage manager . Produced by the American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, by George Etherege, directed by Christopher Marino, choreographed byLauren Ballard (who also served as properties master), featuring John Harrell, Chris Johnston (who also served as music captain director), Brandon Carter, David Anthony Lewis, Benjamin Reed, Meg Rodgers, Briana Gibson Reeves, Jessika Williams, Shunte Lofton, Brandon Carter, Zoe Speas, Allie Babich, Katie Little, Greg Brostrom, and David F. Meldman . Costume designer: Jessica Gaffney . Technical Director : Brandon Cook . Stage manager: Sarah Dale Lewis, assisted by Adrienne Johnson Butler . Produced by the American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
Emma, adapted by Emma Whipday from the novel by Jane Austen, directed and choreographed by Stephanie Holladay Earl, featuring Zoe Speas, David Anthony Lewis, Chris Johnston, John Harrell, Benjamin Reed, Jessika Williams, Shunte Lofton, Allie Babich, Brandon Carter, Meg Rodgers, Greg Brostrom, Briana Gibson Reeves, Katie Little, and David F. Meldman . Costume designer: Jenny McNee . Technical Director: Brandon Cook . Properties master: Lauren Ballard . Stage manager: Sarah Dale Lewis, assisted by Adrienne Johnson Butler . Produced by the American Shakespeare Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.