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