21 November 2009

Shenandoah Shakespeare

[Below is my (lightly re-edited) 6½-year-old report on my visit to the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. At that time, the company was still known as Shenandoah Shakespeare; it has since been renamed the American Shakespeare Center. In all other important respects, however, the company is much the same now as it was in 2003 (except that the actors now include Equity members). I’m posting this report from my archives to supplement my recent column on the Blackfriars theater itself.]

My mother and I took a long weekend trip down to Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, to check out their new theater, a replica of the Blackfriars of Elizabethan London. We got away from Washington before noon on Friday, 2 May 2003, and the drive was easy and pleasant. It was a nice, spring day, and we took in the scenery along the way--nostalgic of the days when I used to drive that same route (more or less--there are some new highways I didn't have) back and forth to Lexington, where I went to college. They don't speak of the "rolling hills of Virginia" for nothing! (In the spring and summer, when it's all green; the fall, when the colors are all out; and the winter, on the few days when it's all snow-covered, this countryside looks like a gigantic picture postcard. I was delighted--and a little surprised--to see that it had not been changed by massive development--there are still farms and pastures all along the route.) We drove into Staunton about three o'clock and drove around a bit to get the lay of the town, then drove into the historic center and walked a bit. We found the Blackfriars Playhouse at the other end of the historic district (which is only about four blocks long and two or three wide).

We did two shows on Saturday: a matinee of Taming of the Shrew and the evening show was Coriolanus. We had a big lunch so we could have a light snack between the shows as the mat let out at 5 and the evening curtain was 7:30. First, let me say that the theater is exactly what it's reported to be as far as I can tell. I looks like a very faithful replica of the 17th-century Blackfriars. The exterior is only vaguely Elizabethan, of course, and the lobby is modern, but once inside the auditorium, everything is wood, mostly unpainted. The seats are all benches like in the original Blackfriars, except for a few "Lords' Chairs" on the sides. (I took those for us--I hate benches! Though they rent seat-backs that can be installed on the benches--and cushions. The latter is also like the London Blackfriars.) I'm not up on the specifics of the Blackfriars architecture, so I don't know how accurate all the details are. I don't even know if there's a real record of the architecture of the Blackfriars--there wasn't of the Globe until the original foundations were discovered as recently as the '80s. However, the appearance is convincing, even if the details are fudged. (I'm sure the backstage is less accurate. There's a tour of the theater, but we didn't allow the time to do it.) In any case, it's worth the experience for the theater alone. It was obviously carefully done and lovingly created at some expense.

Aside from the building's construction--which must have cost a great deal, I'd imagine--I was thinking while I was there they save money on their productions and staffing budget by not needing a lighting or set designer since there's no lighting and no sets. They do have costumes, however simple--and I don't know that all of their shows are this basic--so they need a designer and costumer. The unit costumes do have to be built, though they may serve for more than one production over the seasons. The Coriolanus costumes might work for Julius Caesar, too, for instance, or Titus Andronicus, and Shrew's could do for Romeo and Juliet or Two Gentlemen also. But I don't know if they do that or not.

Now the shows. First off, the company is young. I don't think anyone's over 25 or 26 (though a few look a little older--I suspect they just look that way). And they're non-union, though most have theater training from school--BFA's and MFA's--and some experience. Several have been with the Shenandoah Shakespeare several times before. Mother pronounced them "unprofessional" at first, but I think she's misinterpreting what they're doing. Their audiences are mostly kids--high school and college--and some adults who aren't theatergoers or Shakespeare buffs. It's my feeling that the company does vanilla productions--no new interpretations, no political or cultural overlays--in as straightforward a manner and style as they can. The actors all speak very clearly, without any peculiar or idiosyncratic line readings or shadings. The costumes are all based on unit designs--black pull-over shirts, black trousers bloused into boots for Coriolanus, for instance--with easily-identifiable supplements like black berets for the soldiers, tunics of various styles for the Senators, Tribunes, Generals, and so on, and different colors to identify the Romans (blue) and the Volscians (tan and green). I think all this indicates that the style is one of directorial choice, not lack of talent, imagination, or training. The cast executes this style quite well, and some are even excellent in their roles. (There are only about 12 members of the company, so they double and triple.) I thought the actor playing Prospero in Tempest, James Konicek, was very good in the part, for instance.

The company does other things that are part of their philosophy. They perform under the house lights, which is one of their acknowledged tenets. ("Shenandoah Shakespeare--We do it with the lights on!" is their slogan. They make a big deal of this--it's on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and key chains they sell--and they recite it, with all the double-entendre they can muster, at the start of every performance during the little skit they do.) They don't cut the texts much, if at all. (They did the Christopher Sly prologue to Shrew, for instance.) And since the King's Men used men and boys to play women, Shenandoah Shakespeare uses men to play women . . . and women to play men. They do a little session at the start of each performance, singing original songs appropriate to the show--comic romps for Shrew and somber ballads for Coriolanus--and then end with a little skit designed to explain the Elizabethan staging techniques they use and the adjustments they make. (Of the three shows we saw, one such bit was a little lecture, but the other two were a game show with an audience member as the contestant and an improvised scene based on a premise supplied by the audience--a kung-fu scene between a new husband and his mother-in-law in this instance.) It's all done with great energy and enthusiasm, and clearly directed at a naïve audience. The company also plays to the audience a lot, and there are stools on stage where spectators are encouraged to sit during the show. The actors also use the house for some action, though I don't believe there's any evidence that Elizabethans did that. It's all designed to bring the audience into the performance and the experience, and it seems to work pretty well.

Other staging techniques align with what we know to be Elizabethan, or what we've guessed they did then. There's no set other than the architecture of the theater. There aren't even many props, and those are mostly hand-props. Obviously, there's no lighting design. Scenes will start as the previous one is ending--or at least as the actors are exiting. They do have an intermission, but there are no other gaps in the performance. (All three shows were about 2½ hours long, with the break coming at about one hour into it.) The costumes were neither period nor modern, but a sort of blend. If they use Elizabethan dress for anything, it wasn't in these three plays. I suspect they keep this simple for their audience, too. In The Tempest, they even used some contemporary clothing for the spirits conjured by Prospero. They did use masks, which I'm not sure was an Elizabethan technique. (In fact, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t.) Ariel was masked rather effectively, I thought: at one point, he raises his mask to reveal . . . another mask! In the end, when Prospero frees him, he takes off his mask to reveal his actual face. He also exits like a man, rather than the dance-like movements he'd used before.

The company did best with The Tempest, the Sunday matinee, and least well with Coriolanus. They did a very creditable job on Shrew, especially in the low comedy bits and slapstick. I attribute this in part to the fact that Coriolanus isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays to start with, and it's just not as well known or as accessible to us today. I saw it at the New York Shakespeare Festival when they were doing the marathon back in the '80s and even though I wrote about it in a journal, I don't remember much about the production. It's not a memorable play: there's no great poetry in it, no good lines, and no really stand-out characters. (It's even a little confusing, especially at the beginning.)

The draw-back for Shrew was mostly the youth and inexperience of the actors. The guy playing Petrucchio, Michael Ernest Moore, was good, but he's just not ready to play a romantic lead yet. He's just too tentative. On the other hand, Moore did a wonderful Ariel the next day.

The company are all obviously multi-talented. They all sing at least a little; they're acrobats, or at least tumblers, and do some juggling. Several play instruments, and obviously some write music since the songs they do before the shows, simulating the Elizabethan entertainments, were all original pieces. (The music in Tempest was also written by company members.) The Petrucchio-Ariel has obviously had some dance training, probably jazz, and there was a well-done mime scene in The Tempest as the ship hits the storm and the sailors heave on ropes and roll with the high seas. They can obviously also handle a little improvisation, though I don't know how much of that little scene before the opening is really pre-planned to fit any scenario the audience comes up with. (Then again, the Commedia troupes did that, too, so it's not so dishonest if they did pre-plan the scene.)

All in all, the Shenandoah Shakespeare is a very nice, energetic troupe that's at least as good as a good graduate school company or a showcase cast in New York City. They do three plays a season--but a "season" is winter, spring, summer, or fall: they change bills four times a year. They used to do four plays a season, but they do only three now. They also tour, which was their only outlet before they built Blackfriars, hitting schools and other venues around the state. They're sort of like a junior Acting Company, touring for part of the year, then returning to Staunton. Their audience seems to be both local and regional--they get folks from as far away as D.C. and Richmond as well as the surrounding counties bordering Augusta. The theater has a style that doesn't show off any clever or innovative techniques, but that's a choice for their audience I believe. If they educate the audience in the coming seasons, they may move on to more challenging interpretations. I don't think they're wrong for now.

On Sunday, we checked out of the motel and came into town. We went to the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, but they don't permit independent wandering and there wasn't enough time to do the tour, so we didn't do more than look around the outside. Then we went to have brunch before the 2:30 matinee of Tempest. As I suggested, this was the best of the three performances--not that the others were bad, of course. And, if you think about it, the same dozen actors do the three plays--three Shakespeares to boot--in rotating repertory, a different one each performance, including two on matinee days. (Shenandoah Shakespeare also do some non-Shakespeares, including other Elizabethans/Jacobeans and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, but not this season.) We saw three different plays in a day-and-a-half. That's not easy, and they did a very competent job.

[As you will have noted, some of the things at which I guessed turned out to be right and others wrong. I hadn’t done any reading about the Shenandoah Shakespeare/American Shakespeare Center when I wrote this report; I’ve learned some facts subsequently which I’ve incorporated in the Blackfriars Playhouse column.]

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