While a survey done by Shugoll Research shows that Washingtonians are chary about returning to theater while the coronavirus rages, one company is prepared to put live actors on the stage with a live audience in the seats – now.
The American Shakespeare Center, in tiny Staunton, Virginia, will be producing Othello and Twelfth Night at two heavily regulated venues: outdoors, on the grounds of the Blackburn Inn, and indoors, at ASC’s customary venue, the Blackfriars Playhouse.
Staunton, a city of 24,922, has been relatively free of the coronavirus (131 cases as of July 25, with no deaths, according to this website. The surrounding County of Augusta, population 75,558, has had 238 cases and 3 deaths.)
ASC has gone to considerable lengths to protect audiences from infection. The Blackfriars, which seats three hundred, will be limited to one hundred twenty-five customers. The company customarily seats some audience members on stage, but that practice will be discontinued for this run. Masks, for everyone except those on stage, will be mandatory. There will be no concessions, no cash transactions, no paper programs (there will be on-line programs) and tickets will not exchange hands. The company will clean the whole building frequently, and in conformance with guidelines from the CDC and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
The Blackburn outdoor space is sold in eight foot by eight foot plots of land, surrounded by borders of four feet in one direction and two feet in the other. You can fit two people on chairs (bring your own chairs) or four people on a blanket (bring your own blanket) in this space. You can buy a picnic or a bottle of wine, or both, from 5 to 6:30, but at 7 o’clock the forks go down, the masks come up, and the play begins.
Twelfth Night is a story of gender confusion, compounded with every other kind of confusion imaginable. A shipwreck tears Viola from her twin brother and lands her on the shores of Illyria, where she disguises herself as a young boy and enrolls in the service of Duke Orsino. The Duke wishes to win the love of Olivia, who is, shall we say, disinterested. He enlists Viola, now operating under the pseudonym “Cesario”, to press his case with Olivia. Unfortunately for all concerned, Olivia reacts by deciding she wants “Cesario” as her sweet patootie. In the meantime, Olivia has to contend with her own lunatic household, including her drunk uncle, Sir Toby Belch, who is trying to get Olivia to marry his ridiculous protégé, Andrew Aguecheek, and her officious majordomo, Malvolio, who is so overbearing the others plot to bring him down. Don’t worry, it all ends happily.
Othello is also a story of confusion, but it doesn’t end nearly as well. The title character is a great Moorish general, brought in to lead the armies of Venice against a dangerous foe. He does so, successfully, and then falls in love with and marries Desdemona, the daughter of a local Senator. This cross-racial matrimony excites great controversy, but the couple’s force of character and obvious love for each other quells the disruption. But Othello’s lieutenant Iago, enraged that he has been passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio and knowing the potential for evil that still lies on the surface, exercises his considerable skills at sewing doubt and suspicion to suggest that Desdemona and Cassio are having an affair.
ASC will perform these two shows in rep, with Jessika D. Williams – who won plaudits for her performance as Benedick (that’s correct) in Much Ado About Nothing – taking on the role of Othello. Williams, who appeared on the Doctor Who television series, surrendered her Equity card in order to take the role. Her Iago will be played by veteran ASC actor John Harrell.
It’s a coin toss as to who will play Viola in Twelfth Night – literally. Every night Zoe Speas and Mia Wurgaft will play Viola and her twin brother Sebastian, but which one is which will be determined by a toss of a coin at the beginning of the play. Brandon Carter, who will be Cassio in Othello, will play Duke Orsino and Constance Swain will be Olivia. The comic actor Topher Embrey will take on Aguecheek, and Michael Manocchio. will be Malvolio. Brooklyn-based actor Susan Suzuki makes her ASC debut as Maria, the sharp-witted servant who undoes Malvolio.
In addition to the shows at Blackfriars and Blackburn, ASC will make them available online on BlFrsTV, but details for this offering are not yet available.