Friday, July 6, 2012

American Shakespeare Center, Staunton Virginia

Of all the Bard's plays I could have come across during my vacation in southwest Virginia, A Midsummer Night's Dream was low on the list I'd have chosen as my introduction to this unusual theater:

The Blackfriars Playhouse is designed to represent as closely as possible an indoor Elizabethan theater, such as put on the plays of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

I am glad they got this repertory company and it's home base organized when money (credit) flowed because it's hard to imagine such a venture getting funding today. It is magnificent.

Naturally indoor photography is not allowed except on particular backstage tours so I had to make do with photos from the brochure to attempt a feeble illustration of the remarkable interior of the playhouse.

The stage is a wooden rectangle projecting towards the seated patrons, a few select audience members, children in summer apparently, sit on stage and are the butt of jokes from the players, while others sit upstairs, first come first served when you walk in. Choose your bench and get an extraordinary view of the stage from above. The lights don't dim and there are no props. The actors wore colorful, elaborate Elizabethan costumes and gave it their all.

I am far too shy to enjoy audience participation and prefer to sit as far from the stage as I can, so I was safe upstairs...except the players never forgot us and made eye contact repeatedly with all members of the audience. It was impressive.

They start the performance with singing and prancing on stage to amuse the customers as they take their seats, then suddenly the performance starts, quite likely on time but I was too busy watching the singing and acrobatics to bother with worrying about their punctuality.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is an oldie but goodie, not dark of course, but amusing and silly and thus done too often in...midsummer. To see this chestnut played in Staunton was a treat, it was faithful to the script, no dumbing down of the poetry, and the players enjoyed their performance so much you'd have thought it the first not the last show of the Spring season.

They sucked me in completely and before the end tears were streaming down my face and I was gasping for air, in a way you would never expect at a performance of the too well known too well thumbed educational works of Shakespeare. A reminder that humor is not only universal but timeless.

On that basis I would say the ASC with this one play has me convinced they know exactly what the Bard was up to in his day, making people laugh and think and have a fun time out. In fact it saddens me to think of all those kids in school struggling to parse Elizabethan English with no opportunity to come to Staunton (pronounced "Stan-ton") to see this stuff as it was originally intended.

These players tour and do special performances as you would imagine so in the end they do about 300 performances a year. Imagine that, three hundred. I'd love to come in winter and sit with a coffee (mulled wine would be more authentic but alcohol is served inside so who knows) and shut out a gray winter's afternoon. Cheyenne isn't allowed inside and she staged a momentary protest the next morning outside the front doors.

American Shakespeare Company
By the way, the company recently sent a letter out to it's supporters lamenting the death of the upstairs air conditioner, a ten thousand dollar expense. It was no ordinary appeal headed by this quotation from King John:
There is so hot a summer in my bosom,
That all my bowels crumble up to dust:
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up.

I'm telling you these people live and breathe and dream the era they play.
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