Friday, December 18, 2009

The Rehearsal and the Winter Season at the Blackfriars

My wife and I recently attended one of the few performances of George Villiers The Rehearsal at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse. The play was uproariously funny, if a bit disjointed and somewhat unknown (this is probably the first time it's been performed in the modern era). Essentially, it is a farce, poking fun at the works of Restoration dramatists such as those of John Dryden. Chris Seiler stars as Bayes, an arrogant ass of a playwright who happens upon a city gentleman (Johnson) and a country gentleman (Smith), played by Allison Glenzer and Luke Eddy (complete with affected country Southern twang) respectively. Bayes has his theatre company (the rest of the ASC Resident troupe, somewhat playing themselves) put on a rehearsal for Smith and Johnson. Seiler does a tremendous job as the leading man in this play. John Harrell & Chris Johnston are also hilarious as monarchs. The pre-show and interlude musical performances were fantastic, with Seiler again standing out, particularly in a cover of The Who's "The Seeker."
James Keegan as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol; Photo by Mike Bailey.

A couple of weeks later, we returned for performances of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Joe Mantello's play version of David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries. A Christmas Carol features the wonderful James Keegan in the role of Ebeneezer Scrooge, backed by the ASC on Tour troupe. Stand outs were Rick Blunt as the narrator, Josh Carpenter as Bob Cratchit, James Patrick Nelson as Jacob Marley, and Ginna Hoben as Christmas Past and Tiny Tim, Dennis Henry in various roles, and David Zimmerman as the Plump Sister. Keegan is amazing as the intimidating Scrooge, bullying his way through the crowd at times, casting out insults, and glaring at us with menacing scowls. Blunt, ever the comedian, delivers the narration with great effect, especially when Scrooge's bed breaks under Keegan's weight late in the play. Both actors were able to deftly and hilariously ad lib their way through. The only drawback to this play was a dull, lifeless crowd full of annoyed children who wanted to make sure others were as unhappy to be there as they were. We were also seated toward the back of the playhouse, and noticed every distraction. The musical interludes were essentially drowned out by the crowd, who only came to life during breaks. Needless to say, this was not a typical Blackfriars audience.

Later that day we saw The Santaland Diaries. John Harrell stars as Crumpet the Elf in this one man, decidedly adult show. We had our usual Lord's Seats for this show. Before the show, ASC resident actor Chris Johnston and ASC On Tour actors Aidan O'Reilly and Joseph Rende entertained the audience with some hilarious, if off-color, Christmas songs. Johnston always has a great sense of comedic timing and an overall sarcastic aura and he is one of my favorite ASC performers. Harrell then took the stage and donned the tights and uniform of Crumpet the Elf to the delight of the crowd. Harrell is the best comedic actor of the ASC veterans and he does not disappoint in this hilarious role. This was the funniest show I've seen at the ASC, and that's saying a lot. Unfortunately, this is Harrell's last turn as Crumpet as he feels he has "aged out" of the role. Next year he will take on the role of Scrooge and Rick Blunt will face the wrath of the Macy's shoppers.
John Harrell as Crumpet inThe Sataland Diaries; photo by Tommy Thompson.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Latest trip to PA

My wife and I took a trip up to Lancaster County last month. It was a very short trip, way too short. We left around 5 pm on a dark and rainy night and spent the night at a brand new Hampton Inn & Suites in Woodstock, VA. It was a wonderful hotel, and I believe we were the first guests to ever stay in our enormous room. The next day we headed north for Lancaster and stopped in to chat a while with my friend at the PA Dutch CVB. She is so nice and she gave me a gift card to Isaac's Restaurant & Deli (which is a great place, by the way).

We then checked in to our room at the Hilton Garden Inn. I was not overly impressed. We stayed here because it was much cheaper than the Hampton Inn we normally stay in and we were only in for the weekend. We checked in and seemed to wander over the entire hotel before we finally arrived at our room. Our room was right across from a bank of smoking rooms and the entire hallway reeked. We went back to the desk and asked to be moved to another room. The next room had a terrible smell, akin to burnt hair and the traffic noise from highway 283 was daunting. We were then moved to another room (at least the staff were accommodating), a so-called Garden view room. This room was fine and very quiet. The bathroom however, was tiny; the smallest I've ever seen. There was less than an inch clearance between the opening door and the front of the commode! I made the mistake of fully shutting the door and couldn't get it open. Thankfully my wife was in the room and was able to get me out. If someone were traveling alone they would have been in trouble. The bathroom did feature the wonderful Neutrogena/HGI soaps and shampoos. The TV was a big, old school CRT that desperately needs replacing. The bed was OK, but I only slept at tops 4 hours each night. The breakfast was great, best part of the stay and was free thanks to being a HHonors Gold VIP. Still, the negatives outweighed the positives and I wouldn't recommend staying there.

Anyway, back to the business at hand. We had lunch at Ye Olde English Tea Shoppe. Evidently it was British day while we were there because nearly everyone there was a Brit. I'm an Anglophile, so fine with me. I had the wonderful cinnamon plum tea, and a terrific shrimp and crab quiche. On the suggestion of a Shakespearean actor from the Aquila Theatre sitting next to me, I had an amazing Bakewell Tart. Awesome! I thanked him for his suggestion and chatted with he and his fellow actress about Shakespeare and plugged the American Shakespeare Center while I was at it. We then tooled around Intercourse and Bird-in-Hand saying hi to some friends at Kitchen Kettle and buying stuff to bring back to the poor, imprisoned wretches in North Carolina.

We next visited my Amish friends Ruth and Jake. They sadly lost a child in an accident this past summer and this is the first time I had seen them since. They were in good spirits, considering. We spent a long time chatting and catching up and talking genealogy. After visiting with them for a few hours we hit the outlets and then had dinner at Bird-in-Hand. I had the great smoked pork chops-- can't beat them.

The next day, we got up and had breakfast at Bird-in-Hand. I had my usual scrapple. One observation, there were a surprising number of people in town- actually, I have never seen the outlets so full. There were times we could not get in them due to there being no parking! Anyway, we spent the day going to our favorite places such as Gordonville Book Shop, the outlets, Kitchen Kettle, Lapp Valley, and the bakeries. We visited with my friend Leroy at his farm and talked organics & whatnot, then visited with Ruth again before having a final meal at Bird-in-Hand.

Unfortunately, the next day we had to leave. We had a great breakfast at the hotel, then stopped in Staunton for lunch at Shenandoah Pizza. Great pizza and a great owner. I wanted to see Henry IV, Part I again, but we were pretty tired, so we headed home.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reviews of the Summer Season at the Blackfriars

I've seen a number of plays at The American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse over the last few months. My wife and I saw the three Summer Season plays: Titus Andronicus, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Much Ado About Nothing on August 1 & 2. As always, the plays were wonderful. We sat in the Lords Chairs and had lots of interaction with the actors. We stayed at the historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel, and only had what I would call an average stay (kinda noisy with the pet friendly policy and our room was, ahem, small at best). We also enjoyed some of Staunton's finest foods at Mill Street Grill, Cranberrys, The Pampered Palate Cafe, and The Depot Grill.

James Keegan was tailor-made for the roles of Titus and Falstaff. His performance as Titus was very powerful and his turn as Falstaff was full of predictably comedic moments. Sarah Fallon, of course, was wonderful in all of her roles, but particularly so as the evil Tamora and the witty Beatrice. Daniel Rigney, an apprentice, was hilarious as Dr. Caius in Merry Wives of Windsor, BY GAR! He and Chris Johnston were particularly snarky and vicious as Chiron and Demetrius. They had a wonderful interaction with a lady in the front row that left her as red as a tomato! The veteran performer Johnston also has a memorable turn as the odd, effete, and cowardly Slender in Merry Wives of Windsor. Victoria Reinsel, another apprentice, was great as Hero, Ann Page, and particularly Lavinia. She compares favorably in her performances to ASC veteran Miriam Donald (and that is a high compliment). Chris Seiler was as solid as a rock as Marcus and hilarious in the role of Dogberry, and his musical performances in the band before the show and during intermissions are not to be missed. Luke Eddy, who always plays a great hero, was wonderful as Lucius, but also had a great comedic turn as Dogberry's lackey Verges. ASC veterans John Harrell and Rene Thornton, Jr. turned in their typically brilliant performances. Thornton was particularly strong as the villain Aaron and the under attack Benedick. His turn as the lecherous old Shallow in Merry Wives was a sight to behold. Harrell is always at his best playing a conniving, somewhat cowardly villain (see his turn as the Dauphin in Henry VI, Part 1) and he was great as Saturninus. He was particularly strong as the frustrated Ford/Master Brook. ASC newcomer Denice Burbach has a great turn as the gossipy Mistress Page and has a wonderful singing voice in band performances. Ali Glenzer has great interaction with Keegan in the role of Mistress Quickly. She also does a brilliant pre-show cameo as Queen Elizabeth I with Tobias Shaw as Shakespeare. Shaw was strong in all three plays, but particularly so as Claudio in Much Ado.

On October 10, after a great tomato, spinach, and provolone quiche and salad meal on the sidewalk at The Pampered Palate, we attended Henry IV, Part 1. This play is directed by ASC Co-founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen. We again sat in the Lords Chairs. This performance was my favorite production by the ASC yet. Eddy and Keegan are absolutely brilliant as Prince Hal and Falstaff in this rollicking, fun-filled, action packed play. If you have any preconceived notions about history plays being boring, thrown them out the window and check out Shakespearean history ASC style. As a matter of fact, two histories, this and Henry VI, Part 1 are my two favorite ASC productions (caveat: I'm a trained historian). Toby Shaw is tremendous as Hotspur, and John Harrell's subtle facial expressions are worth the price of admission. That guy can make me laugh without speaking a word, sometimes perhaps unintentionally. Chris Johnston, who is really asserting himself this summer as a leading talent, is particularly strong as Ned Poins and the Douglas, complete with Scottish brogue. Thornton exudes regal authority as Henry Bullingbrook and is very impressive in the understated title role. Ali Glenzer once again delights as Mistress Quickly and Burbach is strong as Hotspur's concerned wife. Big props go out to Seiler and Reinsel for convincingly speaking Welsh on stage. Seiler is great as the sneaky charlatan Owen Glendower, and Reinsel plays his daughter, married to Daniel Rigney's Edmund Mortimer. The music, performed by many of the actors, was quite good, especially the rollicking Irish folk song, "Ramblin' Rover" that had the entire crowd (trying) to sing and clap along. Such great fun!

We will be returning to the Blackfriars to see The Rehearsal late next month and then A Christmas Carol and Harrell's one man performance of The Santaland Diaries the day after Christmas.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Another weekend at the Blackfriars

I once again spent this past weekend in beautiful Staunton, VA. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Harrisonburg South, a relatively new hotel, that provides excellent accomodations and service for a very good price. I highly recommend it if you are staying in the Staunton/Harrisonburg area.

We arrived on Friday and stopped in at Cranberry's Grocery and Eatery in Staunton. My wife had a delicious piece of quiche and I had a wonderful roast beef sandwich with a cream cheese/horseradish spread and roasted red pepper on multi-grain bread. We then went to The Split Banana and had some great ice cream/gelatto. Actually, we went three times while in town! I had M&M Birthday Cake, Virginia Peanut Butter, and Sweet Cream in a waffle cone. I highly recommend checking them out- they're not Lapp Valley, but who is? For dinner we tried the Mill Street Grill. I am not a huge fan of BBQ ribs, but I had to try these as their reputation precedes them. I must say, the reputation is well deserved. I had the White Star Rib Platter: a half rack of BBQ Baby Back and a half rack of St. Louis style with fried green tomatoes and some great slaw. My wife had beef brisket with garlic mashed potatoes. Everything was great, the sauce was a bit smoky, a bit sweet, and a bit spicy. The star of the meal was a pewter crock of bread (Bavarian dark, whole wheat, and white) with strawberry butter. Tremendous! We had an excellent server, Morris, who was most helpful.

We then headed to the Blackfriars Playhouse to see "Rosencrantz and Guildentstern are Dead." This was a most excellent performance, highlighted by standout performances by Ginna Hoben, Rick Blunt, Luke Eddy, and Daniel Kennedy. Rick Blunt is a gregarious fellow who mingles with the crowd before the show- I had a wonderful time joshing with him. The next day we saw "The Comedy of Errors." Blunt, Hoben, Eddy, Dennis Henry, and Josh Carpenter were stand-out performers in this farcical tale of confusion. Later that evening, we returned to see "Hamlet." Eddy's performance as the title character was riveting. Other standouts were Aiden O'Reilly, Kennedy, Carpenter, Blunt & Hoben (reprising their roles as Rosencrantz & Guildenstern) and Jonathan Reis as Claudius. We made the mistake of asking to sit in the Queen's box for this performance: the view was terrible, and the seats uncomfortable, though it was nice to say we did it. We moved to the Lord's Chairs at intermission. I highly recommend checking out as many plays as possible at the American Shakespeare Center. I've already booked my seats for the fall season, and the 2010 Actors' Renaisance Season for next year. I'm also going to see "A Christmas Carol" and "The Santaland Diaries" this December. All I can say is, if they show it, I'm going to see it and I urge you to do the same (and give a donation if you can). 

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Staunton, VA, the Shenandoah Valley, and the American Shakespeare Center

This blog is usually devoted to issues about the Amish and travel in Lancaster County. However, I have been making some recent pligrimages to beautiful Staunton, VA. Staunton is a wonderful town. I have been stopping in Staunton for years on my way to and from PA to eat and because they have a great Martin's Food Market where I can get a wide variety of Turkey Hill products and a great Sheetz for me to top off my tank. I had not been to any of the wonderful attractions that Staunton had to offer until February of this year when we decided to actually just take a trip to Staunton.
We had tickets to see Henry VI, Part I at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse. My wife is a huge fan of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, (me not so much, until now) and Shakespeare. We have been talking for years about coming here to see a play. In fact, we had tickets in November to see one but got sick and couldn't make it. Upon arrival we parked in a deck adjacent to the Playhouse and the beautiful, historic Stonewall Jackson Hotel.


We went through the Hotel and then walked around Staunton to get somewhat oriented to the town. The town offers a lot of neat, eclectic shopping and dining options. We made mental notes of places we would like to go and then headed back to the Playhouse. After we were admitted to the Playhouse we took our seats among the Lord's Chairs. The Playhouse is a re-creation of the Blackfriars Theatre in London, Shakespeare's indoor theatre. The Lord's Chairs, are exactly that, comfortable individual chairs on stage level to either side of the stage. If you would like to get even closer to the actors, you may take your place on stools on the stage. Our seats had a personalized letter from one of the actors thanking us for attending. Before the performances, the actors play music. These songs are typically humorous and are always well done. At the time of the performance, actor Thomas Keegan came to the stage and explained the basics of performances at the Playhouse and rules and regulations (plays are performed with the lights on, no photography, no outside food and drinks, etc.). The play then began. 
I had never seen or read Henry VI, Part One, but I enjoyed the performance immensely. Stand-out performaces were Miriam Donald as Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc), Christopher Seiler as Talbot, Rene Thornton, Jr. as Richard Plantagenet, Alyssa Wilmoth as Henry VI, Benjamin Curns as the Duke of Gloucester, and John Harrell as Charles the Dauphin. I can't wait until next year to see Henry VI, Part II. After the play two actors were at the door with a hat for donations. Like many non-profits, the American Shakespeare Center is suffering during these hard economic times and is attempting to raise $450,000 by May. We thought the play so great we donated a small token of our appreciation to Sarah Fallon, an actress at the ASC. 

After the play we decided to eat at The Dining RoomWe arrived around 4:30 and were the only couple there, but it started filling up closer to 5. The Dining Room is decorated in a type of art deco style. I ordered a caramel appletini and it was one of the best cocktails I have ever had (I'm not a big drinker). The apples were fresh pressed as I saw the bartender doing it. I had cocoa dusted scallops (large, about 10-12) over white chocolate risotto with sauteed spinach. It was amazing. My only gripe was that we were not given bread while other diners were. Anyway, my wife had an amazing entree of crab cakes. For dessert we had a wonderful Bananas Foster and a Creme de Menthe coffee. I highly recommend The Dining Room and will return anytime I am in Staunton. We then tooled around town a bit more, checked out the train depot, and headed to our hotel south of Harrisonburg. We stayed at the Hampton Inn Harrisonburg South, a brand new hotel and quite a gem. 

The next day we visited several Civil War Trails sites in the Shenandoah Valley. We visited Dayton, VA, an Old Order Mennonite community, then headed to Harrisonburg to see the Turner Ashby Memorial, the battlefields at Cross Keys, Port Republic, Piedmont, Waynesboro, Buchanan, and Hanging Rock. 

We returned to Staunton in late March to see two more plays at the ASC: "The Revenger's Tragedy" and "The Changeling." Again, these performances were excellent, particularly those by Benjamin Curns, Sarah Fallon, Gregory Jon Phelps. John Harrell as Lussurioso in "The Revenger's Tragedy" was comic genius. I'm so sorry I missed his turn in "The Blind Beggar of Alexandria." Curns stole the show as the lead in both of these plays. We again dropped a donation in the hat after both of these wonderful performances. The music performed before the performances and during intermissions is as entertaining as the plays themselves. The informational "rap" by Curns, Keegan and Phelps before "The Changeling" was hysterical. I would pay just to see that. 

On this visit we had two great meals, one a return to The Dining Room, and the other at the Depot Grille where I enjoyed one of the best steaks I've ever had. We also visited the Shenandoah Heritage Farmer's Market near Harrisonburg. It reminded me of a poor man's Kitchen Kettle Village. It was quite nice and had some pretty neat stuff. 

We've made plans to see the Stark Raving Sane Tour during Easter weekend and then three more plays in August. I can't recommend seeing a play at the Blackfriars Playhouse strongly enough, and please, if you can spare a buck or two, please do to ensure that this great resource continues. Also, check out the great, informational podcasts by Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen and the actors at the Blackfriars on iTunes or at the American Shakespeare Center Podcast Central

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Inn at Kitchen Kettle Village

On my most recent vacation to Lancaster County, I stayed four nights in room 904 of the Inn at Kitchen Kettle Village. I have been visiting KKV since I was three years old, but this was my first overnight stay. This room is on the backside of the Inn, above Village Quilts. This building used to house The People's Place, one of the earliest Amish/Mennonite interpretive tourism sites in Lancaster County, and a neat place for a Lancaster/Amishophile like myself. Anyway, the place is awesome. The only drawback is that the rooms in this particular building are upstairs (a lot of stairs), so you have to haul your luggage up the steps, so if you have physical limitations, you may be better served in the cottages or the Strawberry Street Guest Quarters. This room had a four poster massive heirloom quilt thrown king bed. There were awesome Kitchen Kettle goodies like fudge candies, KKV crackers, and KKV jellies (these were replinished after a couple of days), as well as two bottles of water each day in the fridge. The bathroom was very large and featured luxury amenities (oatmeal soaps and Egyptian cotton towels). The room also featured a nice Samsung TV (not flatscreen), a Sony Dream Machine, a microwave, a walk-in closet, quilt wall hangings, and an overstuffed red comfy chair. On top of it all, this room was quite inexpensive after discounts (less than $80 a night). We were also given vouchers for free breakfasts in the Kling House Restaurant (Fench toast with bacon or sausage, pancakes w/ bacon or sausage, or two eggs with homefries and toast) or $3 off any breakfast menu item. You were also given nice travel mugs for free coffee every day that you could take home when you checked out. You were also given a reserved parking spot right at the door. What an awesome hotel stay! I can't recommend this place enough!

While there I met much of the KKV braintrust. I would like to give a shout out to Lisa Horn, Joanne Ladley, and Mrs. Pat Burnley (co-founder of KKV) for making my wife and I feel like super VIPs. Mrs. Burnley, whom we had met a few months ago, even gave us a lemon whoopie pie which was awesome! I also wish to give major props to Lauren in the Kling House as well as the hostess (I'm sorry, I didn't get her name) for going the extra mile in getting me an awesome early 90s KKV poster called "Lancaster Preserved" (I kinda collect KKV memorabilia). Lauren was a great waitress and we really enjoyed talking with her. Charity at the Kling House was also a great waitress. The only bad thing was that Pappy's Kettle Korn wasn't open :( We even called them and asked and they said they would be there at 10 on Friday, but they hadn't shown up by 10:45 and we had to leave. Oh well, we'll get some next time.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


I am currently in Lancaster County, staying at the Inn at Kitchen Kettle Village. This place is amazing, but I'll get to that in another post. Before coming to Lancaster I spent two nights at the Hilton Garden Inn in Gettysburg. It is a nice hotel that tries a little too hard to be a full service Hilton while offering the quickness and convenience of a Hampton Inn. Overall, it was a nice place.

Before arriving in Gettysburg we had lunch at Hoss's Steak and Sea House in Chambersburg. Per usual, the food and service was wonderful. This is a well-managed restaurant and we always have great meals and service. The server that we always have always remembers my name (her son is also named Adrian). I think that's a nice touch and amazing considering how many people she sees (and she only sees me at most 4-5 times a year).

After arriving in Gettysburg we went to the National Park Visitor's Center for a lecture by Park Ranger Scott Hartwig on the July 1, 1863 fight for Herbst's Woods. It was fantastic. Hartwig is a great interpreter and he was so thorough. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on that portion of the battle and he really made it enjoyable for everyone from the novice to the pro. We then took a Civil War Traveler podcast of Devil's Den. It was very informative, but not for anyone in poor physical condition or the clumsy as you must traverse some very uneven ground, boulders, and streams. How those men fought over that ground under fire is beyond me. The more I walk parts of that field the more awe I hold those men in. We had dinner with our ranger friend at Montezuma Mexican Restaurant that night. I'm not a huge fan of Mexican food as there are ten on every block in NC. This one was just OK, and not up to par with most of those found in NC and more expensive. It sure isn't in the same league as Asheboro's Burrito Brothers. We then went shopping at the outlets in Gettysburg and picked up some Turkey Hill and TastyKake at Giant. Let me just say that those TastyKake Klair Pies are some of the best things ever!

The next morning we waited a long time to get a mediocre (free) breakfast at the hotel. It was free because we are Hilton Honors Gold VIPs. We then went to the Visitor's Center and finally saw the film "A New Birth of Freedom" and the Cyclorama. Both were very moving, the film was kinda Civil War for Dummies, but it was well done. The Cyclorama quite literally made me misty eyed thinking of what our ancestors went through. We then went to what we thought was the Gingerbread Man- well, turns out it has been remodeled and its name has been changed to Gettysburg Eddie's in honor of Gettysburg native and baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Plank. I must say, this is one of the worst names for a restaurant ever- it is cumbersome to say and kind of just vomits out of the mouth. On the plus side, the recipes and the owner are still the same. All the Civil War artwork has been replaced with Eddie Plank photos and they have new furniture. They still have the best chicken salad croissant, great twice fried waffle fries, an even better house salad (now with red beet eggs), and gingerbread to die for. Unfortunately, our old favorite Apple Blossom Tea Room has closed. After lunch we did a podcast tour of The Wheatfield- this was a very long, hard-to-follow, but still informative tour. If you do it, have some good walking shoes because it goes back and forth over the same ground several times and also you cover some good distances. That night we had dinner with two ranger friends at O'Rorke's Fine Food and Spirits. This was all of our first times at O'Rorke's. It was very good- I had a nice, meaty Reuben with bland fries, and apple fritters. I also had some excellent cream of crab soup. After chatting with our friends we took a walk down to Long Lane where there was a lot of skirmishing on July 1-3. I didn't see any ghosts. We went back to the hotel and had to move to another room because some jerk was smoking in a non-smoking room and it was wafting heavily into our room. We were given $20 off our rate for the trouble. The hotel is kinda dumb in that they only have one floor that is smoking, but it is only half smoking- the other half is non. We were unfortunately put on the smoking hall and when we arrived and stepped off the elevator it was awful but it was fine in our room on the first night. But then the idiot lights up in a non-smoking room-- the place was empty, why not get a smoking room? So, after that adventure and a decent night's sleep we had another somewhat slow, somewhat mediocre breakfast (I have to admit, HGI has the best bacon I've ever had). We then checked out and headed to Lancaster County.