Friday, December 10, 2010

A Christmas Carol starring John Harrell

John Harrell in A Christmas Carol. Photo by Michael Bailey.
My first experience at "A Christmas Carol" last year was not a good one. While I thoroughly enjoyed the performance, the crowd was a teeming mass that made it all but impossible to enjoy the play. Last night we attended the "Pay What You Will" performance and the crowd was huge, but this time much better behaved. The problem with crowds for Christmas Carol is that they are not the typical Blackfriars Playhouse crowd. This is more of a crowd that is there because of tradition-- they just have to go see "A Christmas Carol" just like they have to spend a third of their salary on junky Christmas gifts. Also, unlike most shows at the ASC, this is a small child friendly performance, so you will have a lot more children in attendance, and they will naturally get restless at points. Anyway, when you go see "A Christmas Carol" keep these factors in mind.

This year John Harrell dons the nightcap of Ebeneezer Scrooge, and does a wonderful job with it. He played the role in 2007 and takes over for James Keegan who played Scrooge the past two years. Keegan, a stage master, plays a meaner Scrooge, one that I wouldn't care to go toe to toe with. Harrell plays a more nuanced, snively, snarky, but vulnerable Scrooge. You feel like you could totally kick his ass but you better not try because he has the money and position to make you regret it. Harrell is capably backed by the Reckless Ecstasy touring troupe, led by an amazingly thoughtful performance by Chad Bradford as The Narrator. The Narrator is a vital role in this play, though it can easily be dismissed because who takes note of a character called The Narrator? Well, Bradford makes sure he is seen and remembered in his performance by interacting more (physically) with Scrooge and the audience. Husband and wife team Jake Mahler and Denice Burbach make a wonderful Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. Rick Blunt is indeed a Christmas Present as he plays the role of The Ghost of Christmas Present. Rick can make you smile just with his presence. Daniel Jimenez is hilarious as the Plump Sister and a half-dozen other roles. Jonathan Holtzman had some kids squirming as the Jacob Marley, the ever-charming Ginna Hoben delighted as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Aidan O'Reilly reprises his role as Fred, the nephew of Scrooge and Natasha Solomon, Dennis Henry, Kelley McKinnon, and Brandi Rhome play various roles in the Cratchit family/townsfolk, etc.

Following the show we sat in on the well-attended and informative Talk Back. Unfortunately, the crowd was so large that it was hard to hear the pre-show and interlude music even though I was sitting on stage. 

I will be seeing the show again the day after Christmas and look forward to seeing it again.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The 12 Dates of Christmas by Ginna Hoben

Ginna Hoben in The 12 Dates of Christmas. Photo by Michael Bailey.
The 12 Dates of Christmas is a brand new show, written and performed by Ginna Hoben and directed by Jim Warren. The play is about a New York City based actor in her 30s, from Ohio (hmmm, sounds familiar) named Mary who loves the holidays until she sees her fiancee passionately kissing his co-worker during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. To further the humiliation, she sees the betrayal on national television while attending Thanksgiving dinner at her parent's house in Ohio and receives an alarming number of phone calls and texts about the said encounter. Well, she dumps said offender, deposits her engagement ring in a Salvation Army kettle, and proceeds to try to get on with her life. She's is set-up on a series of comically bad and bizarre dates by friends and family (you'll love the aunt) for the next year (some of which are based on real life, not necessarily Ginna's). I've heard Ginna say the play is kind of a poor man's "Sex in the City," but I think she shortchanges her play in that comparison, it stands more on its own than an imitation. It's a very original, entertaining, and happy night at the theatre.

Ginna is always strongest in comedic roles and she was definitely on top of her game on this night, aptly called "Ladies Night." The play is hilarious. I don't believe I've ever laughed as much (or as audibly) at the ASC as I did for this show. We were the only people sitting on stage and Ginna paid a lot of attention to us, which was great. Joining Ginna on stage were ASC Reckless Ecstasy touring troupe actors Brandi Rhome and Kelley McKinnon as the "Doo Wop Girls," who Ginna calls her "Greek Chorus." Daniel Jimenez, Aidan O'Reilly, and Jake Mahler provide pre-show entertainment, mostly Christmas music, but the show opens with a fantastic, haunting version of "Look at Miss Ohio." Ginna, Kelley, and Brandi (and a cameo by Jim Warren) held an informative "Talk Back" following the show with Ginna explaining the genesis of the show, inspirations, and her hopes for its future. Ginna's dream is that it can become a female answer to "Santaland Diaries." I think it's every bit as funny and much more original (in that it's really the only female centered Holiday play around). Frankly, more people (male & female) can identify with Mary's plight in "12 Dates" than Crumpet's in "Santaland."

If you enjoy a good laugh and a good story, don't miss "12 Dates" playing now through the end of the month.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wild Oats, Fair Maid of the West, and the close of the Fall Season

Ginna Hoben in Fair Maid of the West. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I had the pleasure to attend four of the five final performances of the Fall Season at the Blackfriars. As I had already seen Taming of the Shrew a couple of times (and mostly due to the fact my wife had to work) we did not see the final performance.

The first play we saw was John O'Keefe's "Wild Oats." This play was written later than most of the plays one typically sees on stage at the Blackfriars. I read the play earlier this year and really enjoyed it, and my wife had seen it earlier this season, so I was really looking forward to it. I thought the play was hilarious, a farcical, outrageously funny romp through the English countryside. The main character, Rover (played by the legendary John Harrell), is a (bad) actor who assumes the identity of his friend, the noble born Harry Thunder (played by Patrick Midgley). He goes through life spouting lines from various Shakespearean, Elizabethan, and Jacobean plays, thoroughly confounding those he comes in contact with. He eventually wins the heart of Lady Mary Amaranth (Sarah Fallon), a Quaker and cousin to Harry Thunder. Besides Harrell's fantastic performance, Paul Jannise as John Dory, Chris Johnston as Sim Gammon, and Benjamin Curns as Farmer Gammon were standouts. Curns accent was pretty well between Boss Hogg and Foghorn Leghorn and at one point he channels "Dubya," though I don't think too many people caught it. I'm really kicking myself for not seeing this play more than once.

We saw Henry IV, Part II for the third time in six weeks and I liked this one the best of all. It was a bit more emotional than the other performances. The fantastic crowd helped provide a great atmosphere as well, especially on the musical interlude with "Son of a Gambolier." This was my favorite production of the season and I really hated to see it go. James Keegan will always be Falstaff to me. Of course, as a history buff I'm looking forward to Henry V, and Henry VI, Part III!

For Othello we originally sat in the balcony beside ASC Costume Designer Erin West and ASC veterans Tyler Moss and Sybille Brune. We headed downstairs at the first intermission after I spotted some prime empty seats. This was an exceedingly emotional performance of Othello, and while 2H4 was my favorite production, this was the best performance of the season. Rene Thornton was amazing and there were few dry eyes in the house. I've seen Rene give some amazing turns, but this one was simply incredible. He is one terrific performer. Sarah Fallon, who we ran into before the play and told us she was "getting ready to die," was actually getting ready to get engaged and turned in one of her typically great performances as the much abused Desdemona. And of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the outstanding Iago as played by Curns.

Our final play was "Fair Maid of the West, or a Girl Worth Gold" by Thomas Heywood. This is another play I had read in anticipation of seeing the show. I thought the play read a bit better than was staged. The performance was fantastic before the interlude but then seemed to lose momentum and then kind of unexpectedly ended. Basically, the play is a farce with a love story at the center. The always wonderful Ginna Hoben plays bar maid Bess Bridges, an honest woman who is constantly harassed and demeaned by men who visit her tavern. Patrick Midgley plays Spencer, a gentleman who kills a man protecting Bess's honor. From that point on Bess and Spencer's love is constantly thwarted by various obstacles and the plot of the play is basically to get the two back together. Besides Hoben, standouts are James Keegan who plays the cowardly Roughman, who becomes brave after being beaten down by Bess (and your reviewer), and Allison Glenzer as the hilarious and silly Clem. Another highlight of this play is Ben Curns singing Joe Esposito's "You're The Best" from the Karate Kid.

One thing I've noticed on recent visits to the Blackfriars is that the typical two actors holding baskets at the end of performances dwindled to one then to none. Now it seems a bust of Shakespeare and a basket will suffice. I have to say that's disappointing. One of the things that sets the ASC apart is the ability of the crowd to interact with the actors and I (and I'm sure others) love just exchanging a few words with the performers on the way out the door. As a matter of fact, that's one of the main reasons I fell in love with the place. I would hope that the actors return to "door duty" so we can show them the appreciation they deserve.

I'll be going back up next month to see John Harrell & the Restless Ecstasy Troupe in "A Christmas Carol," Rick Blunt in "Santaland Diaries," and Ginna Hoben's "Twelve Dates of Christmas."
John Harrell as Rover in Wild Oats. Photo by Michael Bailey.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Henry IV, Part Two

Ginna Hoben and James Keegan inHenry IV, Part 2. Photo by Michael Bailey.
My favorite of Shakespeare's plays are the histories. I am a big fan of the Henry IV plays and I've been looking forward to this for a year after the spectacular Henry IV, Part One with Luke Eddy as Prince Hal in last year's production. Honestly, that ranks in the top two or three shows I've seen at the Blackfriars. I love this run of plays so much I will be seeing Part Two two more times. Many of the actors reprise their roles from last year's production including Rene Thornton, Jr. in the very minor title role, Allison Glenzer as Mistress Quickly and the great James Keegan as the legendary Falstaff.

Benjamin Curns plays the Archbishop of York, Richard Scroop, and very nearly steals the show in the minor role of Pistol. Curns is an amazing performer and it's always a pleasure seeing him play any role. In my opinion, he is the most versatile performer at the ASC, playing any type of role convincingly and is always at the top of his game.

Last year, I singled out Chris Johnston as having a terrific summer/fall season and crowned him the "rising star" at the ASC. This year, I believe Alli Glenzer has done the same. Actually, she's had a terrific year period. She really stands out as Mistress Quickly (again), and coupled with her incredibly emotional turn in Othello and hilarious role of Tranio in The Taming of the Shrew, she's had a brilliant year. Hopefully she will be a mainstay on the Blackfriars stage for years to come. Like Curns, she is an extremely versatile performer, probably the most versatile of the female regulars at the ASC.

James Keegan is so great as Falstaff I can't imagine seeing anyone else play him. I've seen him do Falstaff in both Henry IVs and Merry Wives and he is simply excellent. I've never seen Keegan do anything less than five stars, but his Falstaff goes to the stratosphere. I'm going to really miss Falstaff.... Patrick Midgley takes over the role as Prince Hal/King Henry V and does a good job. The character is quite a bit different in Part Two than in Part One. There is much less comedy but much more drama.

Other standouts in this production are Daniel Kennedy as Master Robert Shallow and Northumberland, Chris Johnston as both Ned Poins and Cousin Silence (the costume is classic Johnston), Bob Jones as the always slighted Bardolph, Jeremiah Davis as the sober and austere John of Lancaster, Ginna Hoben as Doll Tearsheet, and John Harrell as Falstaff's foil the Lord Chief Justice.

I will probably delve more deeply into the play after seeing it twice more. Needless to say, I very much enjoyed it and am looking forward to seeing it again. There are some terrific musical performances in this play and the pre-show entertainment between Jeremiah Davis and Bob Jones is classic.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wild Oats

Guest post by Jennifer Whicker

John Harrell in Wild Oats. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I saw the October 10 (10-10-10) Sunday matinée performance of Wild Oats. As a result I got to see Emily Gibson in the role of Jane, which is usually played by Ginna Hoben. Ginna was playing the very important role of beautiful bride that day. (Congrats Ginna and Sheffield!) Emily was hilarious as Jane, stealing most of the scenes she was in. I already have tickets to see this play again Thanksgiving weekend, but I am so glad that I was able to see this rare performance. It was a real treat. Chris Johnston gives a rollicking turn as Sim, Jane's brother. Benjamin Curns is equally entertaining as the back biting Farmer Gammon, Jane and Sim's "feyther." John Harrell gives one of my most favorite performances to date as the actor, Rover. Rover's interactions with Sir George Thunder played by James Keegan are priceless and laugh out loud funny; as are the scenes between Keegan and Paul Jannise.  Jannise is especially funny as the long suffering John Dory, Sir George's man. Other standout performances include Sarah Fallon as devout Quaker Lady Mary Amaranth and Rene Thornton, Jr. as hypocritical Quaker Ephraim Smooth. The scene where Ephraim attempts to court Jane is particularly funny.

Musical standouts included Jeremiah Davis singing "I'll Fly Away." He has an amazing voice, that should not be missed. Also worth note was the troupe's version of AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" with Chris Johnston on banjo and Chris and Ben Curns on vocals. The musical talents of the American Shakespeare Center actors will drive a person to actually enjoy the banjo. ;) 

Sarah Fallon in Wild Oats. Photo by Michael Bailey.
This was a riotous performance and may be my favorite of the plays I've seen this season. (It's between this and Othello.) I left this play with a headache and an aching face from all the laughing and smiling I did during the play. I am looking forward to seeing this play again next month.

The American Shakespeare Center on Tour and ASC Rocks at Mockingbird

I have recently relocated to Virginia, though not close enough to Staunton where I could spend all of my free time. Alas, maybe one day. Anyway, we are close enough to visit any of the American Shakespeare Center on Tour's "Restless Ecstasy Tour" stops in the Shenandoah and Roanoke Valleys. My wife recently attended the performance of "As You Like It" at Hollins University as I was still home in North Carolina wrapping up things and we both attended "Measure for Measure" and "Macbeth" at VMI in the new Leslie Gillis, Jr. Memorial Theater.

Here is a guest post from my wife, reviewing "As You Like It" at Hollins University:
Rick Blunt in As You Like It. Photo by Michael Bailey. 

I had the immense pleasure of seeing AYLI performed at Hollins University. This performance was a once in a lifetime experience for one reason alone: the audience. I have attended many ASC performances over the past two years, but this was the best crowd I have ever experienced. The atmosphere in the Hollins Theatre was electric, from the second that Rick Blunt came out on stage to welcome us to the four times the cast was called back out by our thunderous standing ovation. During the intermission, Jake Mahler gave a performance of John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" that nearly brought the house down. (His turn as Adam in the play is also not to be missed.) Audience members were square dancing in the aisles. Other stand out performances included Denice Burbach as Rosalind, Brandi Rhome as Celia, Blunt as Touchstone, and Chad Bradford as Orlando. My favorite scene of the night was the wrestling scene.  In this scene Chad Bradford's character Orlando faces off with Jonathan Holtzman's Charles the wrestler. Both actors really got into the scene and even illicited a Ric Flair "WOOOOOOOO" from Rick Blunt's Touchstone after a knife edge chop.

This was the best performance I've ever seen by the touring troupe, thanks in large part to the amazingly strong performances of all the actors and the enthusiasm and vigor of the Hollins Theatre crowd. 

So, as you can see, this touring troupe set expectations high for me.

Chad Bradford in Measure for Measure. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I had never read or seen a production (video or stage) of "Measure for Measure" so I was going in kind of blind. I knew the basic plot and story, but that was it. I found the play to be quite entertaining and darkly funny. ASC veteran favorites Rick Blunt as Lucio and Dennis Henry as Pompey provided most of the comic relief. Henry affects a New Jersey accent and his costume is ridiculous right down to the sunglasses. This production definitely plays up the humor in the story. Jake Mahler plays Angelo and does a tremendous job as the hypocritical, power wielding substitute for the Duke, played exceptionally by Chad Bradford. Brandi Rhome turns in one of her typically outstanding damsel in distress performances as the dilemma riddled Isabella. Kelley McKinnon is wonderful as Mistress Overdone and Jonathan Holtzman turns in a great performance as both Escalus and Barnardine. I was also very impressed with Daniel Jimenez as the Provost and Aidan O'Reilly as Claudio and the ostensibly lobotomized Froth. I really enjoyed the performance and I was pulled into the action quite a bit as we sat on stage. The pre-show music was also wonderful with outstanding vocal performances by O'Reilly and Holtzman in particular. After the show there was a "Talk Back" with Mahler, Rhome, Bradford, and McKinnon. This is the first one of these question and answer sessions we had been to and it was interesting to hear the actors' takes on the play and to learn about life on the road and their educational backgrounds. I definitely will read the play now that I have seen it.

Jonathan Holtzman in Macbeth. Photo by Michael Bailey.
The next night we saw Macbeth. The theater was about 90% full and we again sat on stage. The pre-show music was great again, with one highlight being Denice Burbach and Blunt doing the song "Just Can't Wait to be King," from "The Lion King." I've heard that Macbeth is not a play that some performers look forward to. So many people have seen so many versions both stage and film and have preconceived notions about how it should be presented. Personally, my favorite version is Roman Polanski's 1971 horror film. I also like Orson Welles' weirdo version from 1948. Anyway, this was a good, solid performance. Jonathan Holtzman plays Macbeth and certainly looks the part, at least in my preconceived notion of what Macbeth would look like. The comic master Blunt does a great job in the serious role of Banquo. Denice Burbach steals the show as Lady Macbeth, as is often the case in performances of the Scottish Play. Daniel Jimenez, Natasha Solomon, Brandi Rhome, and Kelley McKinnon are terrific as Hecate and the Weird Sisters. Dennis Henry is always convincing as a King and he does a great job as Malcolm and as the Porter.

On Sunday, October 24 we attended "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Blackfriars and our second  ASC concert of the year: ASC Rocks at Mockingbird. This concert, held in the Roots Music Hall at Mockingbird was a combined resident and touring troupe effort and it was wonderful. The acoustics at the Music Hall are wonderful and the sound was spectacular. The energy level among the crowd was less than the March 28 show at the Blackfriars, mostly because we couldn't really get up and move and the crowd was small (tiny music hall compared to the large Blackfriars). Unfortunately, I didn't compile a set-list, but the songs are from the "Restless Ecstasy Tour" and the summer/fall Blackfriars seasons, so go see all of them if you want to hear the songs. All of these performers are amazingly talented musicians. Chris Johnston, Ben Curns, Jeremiah Davis, Daniel Kennedy, Jake Mahler, and Aidan O'Reilly were particularly impressive on this night. The touring troupe will be holding a New Year's Eve concert following Rick Blunt's performance in The Santaland Diaries and I'll be sure to be there!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gettysburg

I visited some friends in Gettysburg over a weekend last month. We drove up to Winchester, VA on Friday night and stayed at a very nice and new Hilton Garden Inn. The room was very nice, and we had an excellent breakfast included in our very reasonable rate. I would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone staying or stopping over in Winchester. We left and headed on to Lancaster County, PA for a very quick and all too brief visit. We visited some of our Amish friends, went to an amazingly crowded Kitchen Kettle Village (I'd never seen it so busy-we had to park at the Intercourse Post Office), had a nice lunch at Bird-in-Hand, and did a little outlet shopping before heading over to Gettysburg. We stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Gettysburg and again had a nice stay. The chef at the restaurant at this Hilton Garden Inn makes the best bacon I can find. It almost melts away in your mouth. That evening we ate at the Gingerbread Man (I know it's name is Gettysburg Eddie's but it will always be the G-Man to me) and had a good meal. We then went to a campfire ranger program that was more like a play. Four Gettysburg College students reenacted the roles of actual students/alumni at the time of the battle. It was a good performance, though you could tell they were not exactly polished actors. Still, it was extremely warm and they did a good job overall. After the performance we went to Appalachian Brewing Company with some ranger friends before calling it a night. The next day we did a little sight seeing and visited Boyd's Bear Country before heading back home after brief stops in Staunton and Radford.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Deep Creek Lake, MD

I recently took a short trip to McHenry, MD and Deep Creek Lake. I had never been to Western Maryland and didn't know what to expect. I must say, it is certainly rural, but it is breathtakingly gorgeous. We went up a route called the Hog Trench through the George Washington National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia and some beautiful but tough mountain roads. We only passed three gas stations until we arrived in Garrett County and even fewer restaurants. We did see a bear on the side of the road at the peak of one of the mountains. We also saw several wind power farms which were pretty amazing to behold. We stayed at a bed & breakfast that was less than adequate. It was in a beautiful location but was not very professionally run or maintained. It had a poor excuse for a television with 5 channels, unless you wanted to watch the TV in the owner's living room. The linens on the bed were very poor, the pillows extremely flat, the mattress was popping springs left and right, and toiletries were a mish mash of complimentary ones pilfered from hotel chains. We were also in town on business and were unable to access the Internet due to not having WiFi. The innkeeper acted like she had never heard of it! So, to summarize, don't stay at Windy Knoll Bed and Breakfast if you go to Deep Creek Lake. Stick with some of the resorts on the lake.

The lake itself is beautiful and the area is an adventure and outdoor lover's dream. This is a very rural area but there are ample places to eat and shop. We ate at a place called Santa Fe Grill and had a good meal. I had a crab cake sandwich and sweet potato strings, both of which were very good.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Mockingbird

We finally were able to enjoy a sit-down meal at Mockingbird. We had previously been on a late night with a limited menu, but we had yet to experience the full menu. We arrived around 5:15 and were promptly seated. I had a hard time choosing between the Mac and Cheese with oysters, gruyere, and Kite's ham or the gnocchi with oyster mushrooms, shrimp, and pancetta. I went with the Mac and Cheese on my server's suggestion. My wife ordered a risotto with a fried goat cheese cake that was bursting with all kinds of flavors. My mac and cheese was really good with many types of complementary flavors: smoky, oyster liquor, country ham. Needless to say, it was very filling. Of course, not so filling that we skipped dessert. I ordered a  very good fruit cobbler and my wife had an amazing chocolate mousse s'more; one of the best desserts we've had. The marshmallow was torched just right to give it that campfire goodness. We had an excellent server as well who was quick to offer suggestions and owner Wade Luhn came by to deliver our food and later to make sure things were going well.

The great thing about Mockingbird is their commitment to the near exclusive use of local ingredients. My only quibble with the restaurant is the rather limited menu- not in variety so much, but in the number of available entrees. The entrees are certainly imaginative and artisan, but less adventurous eaters might have a hard time selecting. I'm not one of those people, however. Mockingbird is a solid choice in the great, burgeoning dining scene in Staunton. Also, be sure to check out live music and documentaries and other films at Mockingbird's music hall.

Music Hall at Mockingbird. Photo courtesy of Mockingbird's Website and photograph by Kevin Blackburn.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Othello

As with Shrew, I had not seen a stage performance of Othello. I knew I would be in for a treat. In the pre-show we were treated to some more excellent music from Johnston & Harrell (they should start a band), along with the great musical talents of Jeremiah Davis. I also want to thank Ben Curns for turning me on to The Devil Makes Three and he delivered again with their song "Do Wrong Right." You also get a nice rendition of "Helter Skelter" during one of the interludes. The pre-show funnies kicked off with James Keegan and apprentice Paul Jannise. Jannise was hilarious in this little skit (he was also quite good in both Shrew and Othello) that spoofs our over reliance on Wikipedia. 


Once the show started we get to see Curns work his magic as the evil Iago. I'm a huge fan of Ben, and I love seeing him play the bad guy. He does so with a delicious, mischievous grin. I've always been drawn to the bad guys, all the way back to Star Wars and pro wrestling as a kid, and Iago and Richard III are my two favorite characters. I've now seen Ben play both of them. Anyone that saw Curns as Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus knew they would be in for a treat when seeing him as Iago. Curns succeeds in making you feel empathy for Iago as a wronged man, almost an anti-hero. Certainly, you never forget that he is evil to the core, but you can sympathize with him as a bitter, wronged man. His interactions with John Harrell's lovesick & seasick Roderigo are masterful. Harrell is terrific as Roderigo. Harrell can pretty much get a laugh out of the crowd by looking at them and his pained, sick expressions are great. He can sell just about anything and at one point he really looked like he was going to vomit from sea sickness. 


René Thornton, Jr. is always a powerful performer who puts his heart and soul into every performance. His descent into madness in Othello ranks with his awesome performance in Faustus and as the defiant Aaron in Titus Andronicus. Thornton is the most intense performer in the company and anytime he is cast in a role of such power you can rest assured you are in for a clinic. While it was hot outside and under the lights, René and Ben worked up such a sweat it made for an even more intense effect. There is no better combination in the company than Ben playing the foil to René. I've seen it in several productions and love it every time (sorry, René, I said I loved the bad guy). 


Sarah Fallon, of course, is excellent as the falsely accused Desdemona. Sarah really makes you feel sorry for Desdemona. Sarah is so good in every role it's almost hard to praise her. I've never seen her do anything that wasn't four star work. She and Thornton always have a great chemistry and play off each other exceptionally well. 


Allison Glenzer as Iago's scorned and betrayed wife Emilia is fantastic, perhaps the best performance from her that I've seen. Glenzer always turns in a top notch performance, but this one seemed so powerful, so emotive. She is a very versatile actor and it's great seeing her in a role like this.


Other standouts are Ginna Hoben as Bianca & The Clown. Of course, Ginna is excellent as a clown (she plays a mean wind instrument), but she's really great as the unrequited lover of newcomer Patrick Midgley's Cassio. Midgely is wonderful as Cassio and is quite the dramatic actor. James Keegan, a master of the stage, is great in any role. He does a tremendous job as Brabantio and you really feel for him in the opening act. 


I'll definitely be seeing Othello again and I encourage you to see it at least once. You'll be glad you did.  
Ben Curns, Sarah Fallon, and René Thornton, Jr. in Othello. Photo by Michael Bailey.

The Taming of the Shrew

Sarah Fallon as Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Michael Bailey

We saw the Saturday matinee performance of The Taming of the Shrew on June 26. The pre-show entertainment featured some wonderful banjo picking from Chris Johnston and John Harrell and a great rendition of Led Zeppelin's "Heartbreaker." We also got to hear the wonderful singing voice and flute playing of Jeremiah Davis. I thought we were going to get a Marshall Tucker Band song in there at some point with the flute. "Fire On The Mountain" for Henry IV, Part Two anyone?

Anyway, the pre-show speech off between Emily Gibson and Allison Glenzer segued into the rarely seen induction with a wonderful Tête à Tête between Gibson and Daniel Kennedy as the drunken sot Christopher Sly. The induction is hilarious and the highlight is seeing Rene Thornton, Jr. switch from formal wear with tails to full drag as the wife of the amnesiac Sly. For some reason, I've always loved seeing Rene play an old man too, and he delivers once again as Gremio.

On this day the stage belongs to Benjamin Curns. Curns, who plays Petruchio, is a top-rate stage actor and can play any type of role with aplomb. His interactions with the equally terrific James Keegan are wonderful. At one point Curns, who is a big pro wrestling fan, breaks out some moves from Ric Flair's playbook on Keegan! Curns and Sarah Fallon (Katherina) are always a delight together, and this performance was no exception. Fallon does a great job as the shrewish Kate and I loved how she looked disgustedly at me several times during the play for not sharing the "meat" that Keegan threw at me to keep away from her.

I also loved how Ginna Hoben played Bianca. The versions of Shrew that I have seen on film always portray her as an innocent, beautiful, perfect girl. Ginna plays up Bianca as a cunning, not quite innocent, bratish girl who constantly taunts the older Katherina. Some of Ginna's facial expressions during the play will have you in stitches. I've always said that Ginna is one of the best, if not the best, comedic performers in the company. Her comedic timing is terrific, her facial expressions hilarious, and her true strength is doing it with subtlety.

Other standout performers were Glenzer as Tranio ( sporting a strut right out of 1980s professional wrestling),  Keegan as Grumio, Kennedy as Sly & Hortensio, Johnston as the goofy, dopey Biondello, and Gibson as the sassy widow betrothed to Hortensio.

This is the first stage version of The Taming of the Shrew that I have seen. It was hilarious and I had a blast. I loved the language in this play. I must confess that I'm still a novice, but I am slowly becoming better able to understand the beauty of Shakespearean language. I highly recommend seeing this production more than once. I certainly will.

After the performance we were invited to a reception with ASC Co-Founder and director of most productions Jim Warren, Managing Director Amy Wratchford, ASC Director of Development Brenda Mead, Box Office manager Jennifer L. Jones, some of the Trustees and some actors. This company really makes you feel like a VIP and one of the family. There is no other theater company like it in the world and I can't stress how wonderful they are. To those of you from the ASC reading this I give my heartfelt thanks. As some of us agreed during the reception, Shakespeare at the ASC is a spiritual experience.

Benjamin Curns as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Michael Bailey.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shenandoah Summer Blues Fest

My friend John Huggins of Shenandoah Pizza is promoting another blues concert called Shenandoah Summer Blues Fest. This all-day event will be held August 21 at the Steve B. Dod Amphitheater at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton.

Artists performing include Bruce Katz, Eli Cook, Lascivious Deacons, Lisa Miller and the All Stars, The Nicholson Brothers, Pure Blind Luck, Karl Stoll & Friends, JD & The Shenandoahs, Elana Brody, The Judy Chops, Brian Elijah Smith & The Wild Hearts, Pure Blind Luck, Bad Luck Blues Band, and Profitt & Sandidge.

Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 the day of the event. Johnnie is also offering a package in conjunction with the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center of one night's accommodations, breakfast buffet for two at the hotel, free overnight parking, two tickets to the festival, two slices of Shenandoah Pizza, redeemable at the festival or at the downtown location all for $168.00.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Fun Times in Staunton

We made yet another visit to beautiful and charming Staunton, VA last weekend, celebrating my wife's graduation. We attended all three productions of the Spring Season at the American Shakespeare Center and ate at a few new places and some old standbys.

Upon arrival, we stopped by and visited our friends Katie and Brian at George Bowers Grocery. Katie and Brian are great folks who sell some great local/regional products. They gave us some Polyface Farm hamburgers on mini Martin's Potato Rolls (best bread you can get from a commercial baker). We bought some of their awesome blueberry and blackberry preserves. They are the best I've had. After visiting with them, we headed over to Shenandoah Pizza to eat. I had a slice of pepperoni, a slice of the Shakespearean (artichoke hearts, tomatoes, pesto, mozzarella, on wheat-wonderful), and some of the "Adrian Wings." Unfortunately, Johnnie wasn't there when we first got there, so he didn't make the wings and they were a bit too saucy for me, but they were still good. I ate them all, so that says something. Anyway, Johnnie showed up and he gave both of us t-shirts from the Shenandoah Blues Festival since we didn't get to attend it. We talked with Johnnie and his wife Cheryl for a bit before we headed over to Cranberry's and picked up some of the great Newtown Baking multigrain wheat bread.

After all that we headed to the Blackfriars to see Romeo and Juliet. We chatted with the Infamous Chris Johnston, Sarah Schultz, and Eric Klingbeil for a bit before the house opened, then we were greeted with Rick Blunt & James Patrick Nelson's friendly faces when the house opened. Blunt plays Capulet in R&J and does a fantastic job. Nelson is great as the regal Prince and the downtrodden Peter. This performance was very good, maybe a tad stronger than the one we saw earlier, but not by much. R&J is hard to do, as people have so many expectations for it from all the movie and stage adaptations, but this production is great. The comedic and bawdy aspects of the play are emphasized and everything goes off well. On second viewing, I was very impressed with Dennis Henry as Friar Lawrence, David Zimmerman as Tybalt, Curt Foy as Mercutio, and Joseph Rende as Benvolio. After the play we went to The Darjeeling Cafe to chat with our friends Jack Morgan and Mary Beth Harris. They are moving the cafe down a block into the downtown area on the same block with Staunton Grocery and Mockingbird. We had a delightful Berber Whiskey iced tea and peanut butter chocolate cake (gluten free & great). I wish we'd had more time to chat, but we had to run back to the playhouse to see The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

OK, in my review of The Knight a few weeks ago, I was a bit more critical than normal. I chalked it up to not being all that familiar with the play (I had read it, but was confused by it), and having a dead crowd. Well, the crowd was not a problem this time: there was a large group of enthusiastic, rowdy high school girls in the audience. That made a big difference, even if they were sometimes a bit disruptive. It also helped for me to speak to Ginna Hoben about the play, and to listen to two excellent ASC podcasts on the play. I thoroughly enjoyed the play the second time. It really is hilarious. Hoben as Nell, Blunt as Rafe, Foy as Curt the Grocer, Nelson as The London Merchant and Aidan O'Reilly as Mr. Merrythought are excellent. Zimmerman, Rende, Kelly McKinnon and Henry were also standouts in their roles.

After the play we went to a late dinner with Rick Blunt and Ginna Hoben at Mockingbird. This was our first time at Mockingbird. They were on a very limited menu since it was so late, but I had some good oysters (not Mill Street good, but excellent nonetheless). Most of the cast were also at the bar and we spoke with a few of them. We also met Sarah Enloe, the Director of Education at the ASC. After we closed the place down we headed back to our hotel for the night.

On Sunday we visited Thornrose Cemetery to visit the mass Confederate grave where I believe my 3rd great-grandfather is buried. He was mortally wounded at the Wilderness and died in the hospital in Staunton. We then headed over to MugShots and I had a great iced chai tea latte and a blueberry scone. We came back later and had a cranberry orange scone before seeing All's Well That Ends Well. The play was great, again. After the play we had dinner at Baja Bean. This was our first time at Baja Bean and we both had excellent chimichangas. The price was definitely right, too. You can get stuffed for not much money and the taste was great! We then headed to Martin's at picked up some stuff to take home and headed south.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Asheville, NC

Despite being a native of North Carolina, I have very little experience with eastern or western North Carolina. My time has always been spent in the Piedmont, and quite honestly, I think there are much better places to spend my limited vacation time and money than North Carolina. My nephew recently moved to Asheville, so my wife and I decided to visit for a short weekend trip. The first thing I noticed when trying to find a place to stay were the lofty asking prices for hotels in the area. We just decided to use our Hilton Honors points and stay at the Hilton Asheville Biltmore Park. The hotel is new, as is the Park, and is in a rather self-contained village of restaurants (P.F. Changs, Brixx, Cold Stone, Roux at the Hilton, etc.), a theater, stores, businesses, and residential spaces. The hotel was wonderful, the front desk staff members we dealt with went above and beyond in the customer service realm.Our room was somewhat small, but very nicely appointed. The bed had the best linens of any I've ever experienced in a hotel. Ditto for the bathroom linens. The shower was a nice, walk-in model with glass doors that open and shut- no sliders. The TV was great, a 37 inch LG with HD service. We were on the go much of the time so we did not eat in the restaurant, so I can't speak on that. The elevators were great- exceptionally fast. The lobby was very nicely appointed and comfortable. My only quibble was the location, it was a good haul to downtown Asheville where my nephew lives, but, all in all I would love to stay there again.

We had reservations at Chelsea's and the Village Tea Room. I had assumed I'd reserved high tea, but found out they don't serve until 3:30. I should've been informed of that on the phone. Why would I make a reservation for lunch? Anyway, that disappointment aside, we had a good lunch. My nephew and I had the Monte Cristo and fruit, and it was delicious. I also had a tea called tippy assam. It was good, but definitely needs sweetener as it is very bitter. My wife had an excellent chicken salad sandwich that was bursting with flavor. The desserts looked wonderful, but we did not partake. The cake slices were enormous. I look forward to going to high tea here one day.

We had dinner at the Early Girl Eatery in downtown Asheville. This is a busy little restaurant and was highly recommended by my nephew. He got an amazing looking southwestern style omelet. I had a breakfast scramble of farm fresh, free range sausage, bacon, eggs, chives, and sweet potatoes. It sounds weird but the flavors were intensely amazing. It also came with a great biscuit. For dessert I tried a slice of Lady Baltimore cake. I had heard of this white cake with rum infused icing, apricots, and nuts but had never tried it. It was quite good, though sadly a little dry. We then visited Greenlife Grocery. This was a great grocery store with a health food/organic/green bent. After chilling out with my nephew for a few hours at his place we went back to our hotel for some rest.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and after some adventurous directions from our idiot of a GPS unit, we arrived at the South Asheville location of the Tupelo Honey Cafe. It was naturally crowded for a Sunday at 10:00, but we didn't have to wait. We ordered biscuits and milk gravy with bacon, sausage, and ham. We were also given biscuits, butter, tupelo honey, and blackberry preserves while we waited for our entree. It was a good thing, as it took a long time to get our food. The preserves were some of the best blackberry preserves I've had. The biscuits, while large, were just so-so. I need to give a shout out here to a place in High Point/Archdale, NC that has the best biscuits by a mile of any place I've ever had them (including homemade). It's called BBQ Joe's and their biscuits are amazingly flavorful and HUGE. Their tenderloin biscuit is to die for. Anyway, our food finally arrived and looked great. The bacon and sausage were great, the ham so-so, the biscuits were OK, but the milk gravy was not very good. It was way too spicy. In fact, it had cajun spice in it. That should be noted on the menu. I'm used to lots of black pepper in my gravy. I also like cajun spices and sauces. However, I wanted good old Southern style milk gravy with black pepper, not what I got. My wife doesn't like spicy food at all, and she complained about it. Our waitress was great and didn't charge her for the food and offered to give her something else. I will definitely give them another chance, I'll just order something different next time.

After that we went with my nephew to his volunteer radio gig and I helped out a little with some voice acting. It was fun, if a bit hot in the non-air conditioned studio. After the show we went back to Biltmore Park and had lunch at Brixx Pizza before heading home. It was good, we had a Margherita pizza. It definitely was not in the same league with Shenandoah Pizza, but it was better than most. I look forward to going back to Asheville and seeing and sampling more of what it has to offer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

MugShots and Coffee on the Corner

I've already detailed our love for tea. Well, the other side of me loves coffee. I'm not a coffee or tea person, I'm a coffee AND tea person. I am exclusively a cat person, but that's beside the point. Staunton has two great coffee houses (maybe more that I'm not aware of, and then there's Starbuck's, which I think is great too), and we tend to visit them between plays when we have a lot of time to kill.

Coffee on the Corner is located next to the Blackfriars Playhouse on the corner of Beverly & South Market streets. It has more of a college/Bohemian atmosphere than the more upscale MugShots. From what I've seen of the clientele, MugShots caters more to the central business district and tourists while Coffee on the Corner is geared toward the Arts District and Mary Baldwin. Inside, the decor is eclectic and the lighting is dark. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and will offer recommendations. They will also go out of their way to make sure you get what you want. My wife once ordered a coffee with amaretto but the barrista thought they were out, so she ordered something else. Well, he evidently searched around and found some more and made her original order. Everything I've had at Coffee on the Corner has been good. You'll occasionally see some of the ASC actors there, and we once saw Dave Matthews and his family enjoying a light meal there. Coffee on the Corner also offers free WiFi. I've not had food at Coffee on the Corner but everything looks great and quite tempting.

MugShots is located across from the Stonewall Jackson Hotel/ New Street Parking Garage on the corner of Greenville Avenue and New Street. I've had several of their house coffees and blends and all have been very good. I had a curried chicken salad sandwich here that was wonderful. They also serve Route 11 Potato Chips if you ask for them (they even have the elusive, breath-taking Mama Zuma's Revenge). They also offer an impressive selection of sweets and I have had two different scones; a cranberry orange & a blueberry. I'm a big fan of scones, and somewhat of a connoisseur, and MugShots' scones are as good as I've had. They have that wonderful, hard to describe, almost soda-bread like quality that sets scones apart from biscuits that so many people can't pull off. MugShots is nicely appointed, clean, and offers WiFi. The staff is also very helpful. My only wish is that they would install a sandwich/drink board on the wall rather than just small sheets of paper at the counter. Still, that's a small quibble for an excellent coffee shop.    

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Emilio's in Staunton

My wife and I had our 10th wedding anniversary dinner at Emilio's in downtown Staunton back in January and we ate there again this past week. Emilio's serves excellent, traditional Italian cuisine. As you walk in you are warmly greeted by owner Emilio Amato who will then assist in finding you a seat. The restaurant utilizes the entire building, is multi-floored, and has five nicely appointed serving rooms and The Pompei Lounge. On my first visit to Emilio's, a night that had a wind chill factor of 5, I had an excellent entree of butternut squash ravioli served in a sage cream sauce and a Caesar salad. My wife had the best manicotti either of us have ever tasted. You are also served bread, and butter is available, but we went with the olive oil already on the table. For dessert I had a fabulous toscanella and my wife had an outstanding tiramisu. Emilio's has an extensive dessert menu with many desserts you don't see all that often. They also feature a vast wine menu, but I didn't partake on either visit.

On my second visit we sat in one of the upper level dining rooms. I ordered a terrific entree of gnocchi alla bolognese and a Caesar salad and my wife had an exceptionally creamy fettucini Alfredo. The Gnocchi was incredible and the meat sauce was out of this world. I'm typically not one for meat sauces, but this one was beyond excellent. For dessert I had the torta crema Italiano and my wife had a very tasty cannoli. We had a wonderful server named Laura who was very attentive and answered any questions about the menu that we had. On our first visit to Emilio's we also had excellent service; I'm sorry that the name of the gentleman who served us escapes me.

I've eaten in several great Italian restaurants over the years and my two visits prove to me that Emilio's can stand toe-to-toe with any of them.

Staunton's Darjeeling Cafe

Friends and regular readers of this blog know that my wife and I have an affinity for taking tea. So, when my friend Jack Morgan suggested I stop in an see him at The Darjeeling Cafe I was all too eager. The Darjeeling Cafe is located on Beverly Street, on the edge of Newtown and not far from George Bowers. It is eclectically decorated with comfortable furniture and features a nice outdoor seating area. The Darjeeling Cafe will be moving deeper into the Red Brick District, near the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse this summer.

The Darjeeling Cafe has a great variety of teas from regions across the globe. I'm particularly fond of fruit teas, oolongs, assam, rooibos, parlor/Victorian style, and herbal blends. My absolute favorites are plum/cinnamon flavors and owner Mary Beth Harris suggested I try a plum tea that she sells. It was an excellent recommendation. It was a great pot of tea and no sweetener was necessary. My wife was feeling sick on her stomach and Mary Beth suggested an iced mint tea that really made her feel better and gave her a second wind for the rest of the day. The Darjeeling Cafe is one of those places where you sit back, start conversing with someone, and before you know it 2 hours has passed. It just has one of those nice, relaxed, eclectic Bohemian atmospheres. It's a wonderful alternative/complement to Staunton's coffee shops (which are excellent in their own right), because sometimes you just want a nice cup of tea. The Cafe also offers meals, but I was still over stuffed from my meal at Shenandoah Pizza and my wife wasn't ready for food, so we passed on the food. I've heard good things about Mary Beth's food offerings from some Staunton friends, so I definitely look forward to trying some next time we visit.

Monday, April 12, 2010

George Bowers Grocery

I began tweeting with Katie of George Bowers Grocery on Twitter sometime last year. I decided to stop by and see her and her husband Brian on a visit to Staunton in November. Katie and Brian are fantastic people and great conversationalists. We stop in to see them every time we're in town now. I love chatting with them when I visit Staunton. Their grocery store is in the Newtown neighborhood, and was originally founded in 1881 by a New Yorker named George Bowers.

George Bowers Grocery specializes in "staple goods & fancy groceries" with a strong sense of community. Every time I've been in Katie & Brian seem to know their customers very well. Most everything in the store is local or regional (with the exception of some imported candies). You can find many local & regional craft beers, local wines, meats from T&E Meats in Harrisonburg (featuring meat from Polyface Farms among others), dairy products from Trickling Springs Creamery, produce from Nu-Beginning Farm, and some delicious fruit butters, jams, jellies, and preserves. Everything I've purchased from Katie & Brian has been excellent, but my favorite is a Chesapeake Crab Salsa from Gunther's Gourmet from Richmond. That stuff is great and hard to keep in stock. They also supply the American Shakespeare Center with their crowd favorite gummi bears, which are evidently harder to keep in stock for the ASC than the crab salsa is for George Bowers.

George Bowers is a great neighborhood grocer. I hope people will take advantage of such a nice place with great owners who have a vested interest in their community. In these days of hectic everything and big box stores it's nice to know there's a place you can go and have a chat with the owners and who know about the products and where they came from. Staunton is lucky to have a neighborhood grocery like George Bowers. I certainly wish there was a local alternative like this around my home.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Romeo and Juliet

There are very few people who have not seen several performances of Romeo and Juliet. While it is definitely a tragedy, it has tons of comedic moments. This particular production definitely plays up the comedy, but has as equally sad and tragic ending as any I've seen. This is an excellent production and the most solid of the three performances this weekend.

Josh Carpenter and Brandi Rhome play the title characters and both turn in wonderful performances. Carpenter has taken the Hero role that Luke Eddy so capably handled last year and he does a good job as Romeo. Rhome always turns in solid performances and this is no exception. She is very convincing as things move from bad to worse to desperate as the play unfolds. There is no need for me to recap the plot of this well-known tale. All I can say is it's a must-see production. Besides Carpenter and Rhome, standouts include Ginna Hoben (she's definitely at the top of her game this season and it's going to be wonderful seeing her in residency this summer/fall) as the Nurse; Curt Foy as one of Shakespeare's greatest characters in Mercutio; Dennis Henry as Friar Lawrence, and Rick Blunt in a more dramatic role than I am used to seeing him. His performance when he tells Juliet she must marry County Paris and his performance during the final scene are riveting. I would really love to see Rick get a lead role in something like Macbeth. He is a very intense performer and very energetic. I think he'd do a fantastic job.

The musical selections for the pre-show and interlude were fantastic, and Joseph Rende kind of blew me away on his guitar work. The fight action in this production is terrific as well.

Josh Carpenter as Romeo and Brandi Rhome as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Mike Bailey.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle

The first ever American Shakespeare Center (then Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) performance I saw was Francis Beaumont's The Knight of the Burning Pestle in September 1999 at my alma mater. I was somewhat of an unwilling attendant, as I was dragged there by my then fiancee. The theater we saw it in was ancient, cramped, uncomfortable, and packed. The air conditioning was also broken and it was near 90 degrees inside! I'd also had some food that made me uncomfortable, so you see where this is going. I had never heard of the play and I couldn't follow it at all. It was very confusing to me and I was basically lost from the get-go.

Well, here we are a little over 10 years later and I'm probably as big a fan of the ASC as you can find. Still, when I saw that this was on the slate, I was a bit apprehensive, even with the always great Rick Blunt in the title role. To help myself, I recently read the play, but I must say it was not an easy play to follow. You basically have competing casts (with assumed names) & a few different story lines and it's just generally confusing. Having notes definitely helped, but I can see why I was a lost fool the first time I saw it. There were several people in the audience this time that were as dumbfounded as I when I saw it in 1999. This time it was much easier for me to follow, especially since I had read the play, though had I not I think I may have been in dire straits.

I was sitting in the second row and I saw Rick, Ginna Hoben, and Curt Foy come in and take their seats in the 7th row or thereabouts. When the pre-show began and the show was announced as The London Merchant, I noticed some folks looking a bit confused. After the play began Curt, as the Grocer George jumped up and protested about something going on on stage. I noticed one lady was enraged at what was going on and I was about to die watching her. Anyway, you can see where the play can be confusing for the uninitiated and I wouldn't suggest a theater newbie pick this as their first theater going experience. For a veteran it's a much better time. There is all kinds of hilarity and Ginna Hoben is brilliant as the catty, whiney, totally bourgeois Grocer's wife, Nell. Anytime you can see Ginna stretch her comedic legs is a treat, and she's in all her glory here. Foy is also great as the bombastic, & somewhat henpecked George. Other standouts include Aidan O'Reilly as Mr. Merrythought/Indigo Toad (he also plays George the Dwarf); Jamie Nelson as Venturewell/Kenneth T. Umbrage/Tim the Squire; Josh Carpenter as Jasper/Dieter von Pilsner; and David Zimmerman as Michael, Jasper's bratty younger (toddler/giant baby?) brother. The star of the show however is Blunt as Rafe. He dominates the stage in this role and had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand.

This was a quiet crowd, and a small one, and much older than the typical ASC crowd, and it was a matinee and I think that affected everyone. Still, I thought the troupe did a great job. If anything was disappointing it was the crowd, and I always feel like the audience is an extra performer and can take a show to the next level. I think I would like to see another performance of the play, perhaps on a Friday or Saturday night with a large crowd. Hopefully we'll get back up and see it again.


Rick Blunt as Rafe in The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Wings over Staunton & the Shenandoah Blues Festival

We were back at Shenandoah Pizza this weekend and owner/chef Johnnie Huggins made me some buffalo wings. These things were amazing. We ran into Johnnie out on Beverly Street and I had some Moravian cookies for him that he asked that I bring him next time I was in town. He had family in Winston-Salem and was fond of Moravian cookies, so me living in Moravian cookie Heaven made it an easy proposition. Anyway, we chatted with him and a friend and Wayne Luhn of Mockingbird awhile before moving on. Well, my wife was feeling bad and didn't feel like she could eat, so we went to Shenandoah Pizza and I had a couple of slices of the great veggie pizza (fantastic assortment of mushrooms, tomatoes, & spinach on wheat), and the legendary Chicken Florentine (which now has feta as well).  

Well, Johnnie came in and we started talking and he mentioned buffalo wings. He asked me how I liked mine & went back into the kitchen & concocted some ingredients. He basically went with a  medium Texas Pete base, with some General Tso's spice among others, and a little of his homemade pizza sauce. Johnnie bakes his jumbo, meaty wings rather than deep frying them & it really makes a dramatic difference. They are much juicier and tender and they have an almost grilled chicken taste/texture and smell. So, next time you are in, ask Johnnie to make you some wings. If you want them like mine, I guess just ask for the ones he made Adrian. You won't be sorry. You won't even need or want ranch or blue cheese. I am not exaggerating when I say these are the absolute best wings I've had (and I love wings). He can go with any heat you want & he also does a barbecue style wing. Bring him some cookies and he might come up with something extra special for you too! 

Johnnie is also promoting the Shenandoah Blues Festival which will be held at the Oak Grove Theater, 812 Quick's Mill Rd. in Verona on Saturday, May 8 from 11AM until 11PM- that's right, 12 hours of smokin' blues that'll turn the Oak Grove into the Oak Groove! The headliner will be Steady Rollin' Bob Margolin. Other great acts include the Nicholson Brothers, Lisa Miller and the All-Stars, The Biscuit Rollers, Bryan Elijah Smith, Stephen Michael Smith, Boston Shilling and Co., J.D. and the Shenandoahs, the Marino Brothers, Douglas Day Turner, Rev. Bill Howard, Hound Dog Hill, Pops Walker, Eli Cook, Marla Pamla, and several local artists. Food & drinks will be available from local vendors (including Shenandoah Pizza), tailgating is allowed, and the gates open at 11:00 AM. Tickets are $25. For more info see http://www.shenblues.com/

All's Well That Ends Well

We saw All's Well That Ends Well at the American Shakespeare Center on the Pay What You Will Opening night. As always, I was greeted with a big smile and a hug from Rick Blunt. Rick typically warms the crowd up and circulates among the crowd chatting with people. He's a great guy who I've gotten to know over the past year and a great actor, and he does a wonderful job as Parolles, the cowardly blow-hard. Be sure to check Rick out this Holiday season as he takes on the role of Crumpet the Elf in the Santaland Diaries. It will be an absolute blast! I also got to chat with Jamie Nelson, another fun guy, and he and I joked around for the rest of the weekend, mostly because he sold me a raffle ticket with the number 666. I had seen him in A Christmas Carol in December and thought he did a fantastic job, and he was great again in this play, playing LaFew, Parolles' foil. His voice is wonderful and he really captures the bearing & carriage of an aristocrat. Aidan O'Reilly has the unenviable task of trying to make Bertram likable, and while that is certainly a tall order, he did a fantastic job in this difficult role. Ginna Hoben plays our heroine, the unrequited Helena. Ginna was fantastic in all three plays this season, but exceptionally strong in this role. I'm always impressed with her work, particularly in comedies, but she rocked this more dramatic role with ease. Another terrific performer was Curt Foy as the clown Lavatch. Lavatch is a very crude character, and Curt was great as the lascivious clown. Dennis Henry, who also acts as assistant director on all three spring season plays, put in a strong performance as the King of France. I could tell Dennis was having allergy issues or a cold, which makes his performance all the more impressive. I can't imagine doing that at less than 100 percent. He's always a solid performer and it's a treat seeing him on the stage. The music, as always, was great, though the crowd was a bit loud, making it hard to hear. That's a shame, because Joseph Rende is an incredible guitar player. Luckily, he was heard loud & clear in the other two performances. Be sure to pay special attention to him when you see any of the three spring shows, he throws in some great flourishes when you least expect them. Speaking of great musicians, I ran into Chris Johnston and told him how much I enjoyed his work this past Renaissance Season and complimented him on his musical performances as well. He's a really nice guy, a terrific actor, and I can't wait to see his work this summer/fall. This is a fantastic performance of a somewhat problematic play (is it a drama? a comedy?) with an unlikable hero and a very likable villain.

Ginna Hoben as Helena and Aidan O'Reilly as Bertram in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Mike Bailey.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Shenandoah Pizza

Staunton is a small town blessed with an abundance of artistic and cultural attractions, visual beauty, and extraordinary cuisine for a small town. One place I especially like is Shenandoah Pizza. I can already hear folks groaning when I mention a pizza joint among great cuisine. Well, Shenandoah Pizza is not just any pizza joint. They use fresh ingredients, unique topping combinations, several types of sauces, and intriguing dough mixes. Most of their meats are organic or grass-fed from local sources. The restaurant owner, John Huggins, is an absolutely great guy. He will always take the time to visit with his customers and develop relationships with them. He will explain things on the menu in great detail and will suggest beers to best match your taste cravings from their extensive beer list (I've never seen such a selection of beer, I think they have 200 plus). He's a big supporter of the arts and the local Valley music scene, hosting musical acts at the restaurant and featuring works by local artists available for purchase on the walls. Johnnie and his wife Cheryl opened Shenandoah Pizza about five years ago, and they have developed a very loyal customer base. 

I've had several different types of pizza at the restaurant: white pizzas, traditional cheese, pepperoni, on wheat, on white, on sunflower wheat, and several of the gourmet selections. They have all been excellent. Everything tastes absolutely fresh. Sometimes when I eat pizza I notice an almost stale taste to the dough. That's never the case at Shenandoah Pizza, as a matter of fact their dough is far and away superior to any other I have tried. Another nice touch is the bottle of olive oil on the table- it goes especially well with the white pizzas. Of the gourmet selections I've had the Sherwood Avenue (meatballs, ricotta, red onions, mozzarella); The Valley (spinach, red onion, mozzarella, tomato); The Augusta Margherita (extra virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, basil, fresh mozzarella); and the Chicken Florentine (spinach, garlic, chicken, ), The Swoope (Alfredo sauce, spinach, artichoke hearts, diced tomatoes, cracked pepper), The Shakespearean (Basil Pesto, artichoke hearts, mozzarella, tomatoes), The Lady Rebecca (Mushrooms, mozzarella, red onion, bell peppers, tomatoes, black olives), and The Woodrow (Pepperoni, sausage, mozzarella) . In all, the restaurant features 25 gourmet pies and a few special ones from time to time. They also serve the absolute best cheese bread sticks I've ever had. They take a little extra time, but they are well worth it and come with a fabulous marinara. If you are in the mood for buffalo wings, you've come to the right place. Shenandoah Pizza serves some of the best tasting, juiciest, meatiest buffalo wings you are apt to find.
Photo taken by Sara Zeglin.

Johnnie can take pride in the fact that his restaurant is ranked number one in Staunton on Trip Advisor. That's nothing to scoff at considering the stiff competition in this cultural and culinary gem of a town. If you are in the mood for some gourmet pizza, a tremendous selection of beer, or some live, local music or artwork while visiting the Shenandoah Valley, make sure to stop in and visit Johnnie at Shenandoah Pizza.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

ASC's Actors' Benefit Blowout Concert

One of the great things about the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars performances is the pre-show and interlude musical entertainment. The multi-talented actors get to show off their musical talents by performing contemporary musical pieces. You are liable to hear something obscure, something very popular, anything from an old country song to a recent hit.

Because the music is so popular with audiences, the ASC decided to stage a benefit concert to support the Center's educational programs. The actors did this for no pay and it was a pay what you will performance. We reserved our seats at regular price because we live so far away. We decided we couldn't pass up the opportunity so we made the 3 hour 15 minute drive up to Staunton to see this extravaganza. We also decided to see The Roman Actor one more time. I had done some more reading of the play and some commentary on it, so I was better able to understand some of the nuances of it. As my wife said, it was even better the second time. I also noticed that the legendary historian William C. "Jack" Davis was sitting in the Lord's Chairs where we used to always sit (I've found a new "home" now in the second row).

The concert kicked off with a blazing, spot-on rendition of The Devil Makes Three's "Help Yourself." This song is played before performances of Doctor Faustus. Ben Curns does a great job on the vocals, and Chris Johnston tears the house down with a smoking banjo solo that leaves Devil Makes Three's live banjo solo in the dust. Other song highlights included John Harrell singing Feste's song from Twelfth Night and using his little son's guitar. The Harrell children were quite involved in the action, dancing about for the crowd. Harrell is also a very talented banjo player. Who knew? The guy is THE MAN. Tyler Moss was a ball of energy and emotion in several songs, particularly Gogol Bordello's "When the Trickster Starts-a Pokin,'" The Squirrel Nut Zipper's "Hell," which had the entire crowd dancing along and acting a fool, "The Arms of a Woman" by Amos Lee, and a wonderful song that escapes me by a friend of Tyler's. Greg Phelps again had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand on Flight of the Conchords' "Business Time" from The Alchemist. Phelps is a very versatile musician (most of them were, I was amazed at how many instruments Ben, Chris, Greg, & John can play), and was also particularly strong on the saxophone. Phelps is also wonderful on Radiohead's "Karma Police" and Boyz II Men's "End of the Road." Miriam Donald is always a bundle of energy and was hamming it up with the crowd all night long and showcasing her sweet voice. As in Doctor Faustus, Christine Schmidle offered lead vocals in German on Nena's 99 Luftballoons. Other song highlights were Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" from The Roman Actor and The Beatles "Eleanor Rigby" from Henry VI, Part Two. My only disappointment was not hearing enough of Denice Burbach's fine voice. I think she has the best singing voice in the troupe, but for some reason she wasn't featured as much. Sarah Fallon also didn't sing much--she never does--which is strange because I think she has a great singing voice, but she always attracts your attention whenever she is on the stage.

I came out of this with a ton more respect for the talents of this troupe (which is saying a lot, because I think they are the best). Some are as talented musically as they are actors. Chris Johnston in particular stood out to me. Readers of my blog will note that I have long been high on Chris both as an actor and a musician. He is incredibly versatile and I think he played around 10 different instruments during the concert as well as handled lead vocals on a few. The guy can get downright out of his mind on anything with strings. I hope to see Chris in some meatier roles soon. I think he would make a fantastic Iago and Prince Hal. He and Daniel Kennedy are hilarious on G-Love and Special Sauce's "My Baby's Got Sauce." Daniel is great with the bass and on the horns.

Ben Curns is an all around great guy. He made sure to seek me out and shake my hand during the intermission and tell me he was glad I could make it. Where else can you get that kind of interaction? He is a great actor and musician. He always commands the stage whenever he is on it and is great on vocals. He was definitely the leader of this band, and from what I understand, was pretty instrumental in getting this whole show to go down and I want to personally say thanks to him for all his hard work.

I can't say enough about Tyler Moss as a performer. He is so into everything he does and is fantastic in the aforementioned songs. I'm not even going to attempt to laud John Harrell as much as he deserves. He is obviously the majority of ASC fans' favorite performer. He is a gem of an actor and a musician and the Blackfriars stage would sorely miss him if he weren't there. Quite simply, he is a master of the stage.

I will be sure to be at any future ASC Concert. This was one of the most entertaining nights of my life. Thanks so much guys!

Chris Johnston in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Joseph

I've been visiting Sight & Sound Theatres since 1987, when I first saw Behold the Lamb. I believe I've seen every show they have staged since the mid 1990s. Their most ambitious undertaking yet is Joseph. When we arrived, we were greeted by an enormous cake baked by Charm City Cakes in Baltimore and transported to Lancaster County the previous Friday night. I had seen photos, thanks to my friend at the CVB and a newscast on Fox43. The cake is a dulce de leche version of one of the Pharaoh statue set-pieces. It weighs over 150 lbs. and stands over 5 feet tall.

We saw the play on a Wednesday, and the auditorium was less than 1/4 full (which actually made it more enjoyable). The play had premiered the previous Friday night, so this was around the 5th performance. The performance was excellent, the cast was efficient and everything seemed to go off without a hitch. Joshua Keefer, the actor who plays Joseph, does a tremendous job. The sets were enormous and magnificent and the stunts were great. Joseph is a very emotional and powerful story of forgiveness and it definitely brought some tears to my eyes. Definitely check it out if you are visiting Lancaster County.

Gettysburg

My wife and I took our annual spring break pilgrimage to Gettysburg and the Pennsylvania Dutch Country last week. Our first stop, after a night at the wonderful Hampton Inn and Suites in Woodstock, VA was Gettysburg. I have been visiting Gettysburg since about 1980. As a Southern boy whose ancestors fought for the Confederacy, Gettysburg has always been an intriguing, emotive, what-if kinda place for me.

Anyway, on the way to Gettysburg we stopped at Mim's Mighty Meaty Hoagies. I have always wanted to stop there simply for the kitschy name. It was also well spoken of by the cast of Route 30 the Movie. I was not impressed. I had a foot long Italian combo hoagie that was priced just right at $4.99, but it had too much mayo (and that's saying something, because I love mayo). I also have the smell of fried onion rings forever etched into my memory and in my coat. Our next stop was Mister Ed's Elephant Museum and Gift Shop, a tremendously kitschy place with some of the best deals on candy you can find. Mister Ed is a local legend, a sometimes stage actor, and he was featured prominently in Route 30 the Movie. He roasts some awesome Virginia peanuts in his store, and the best thing you can find are his butter toasted pecans, almonds, peanuts, and cashews. The store features lots of kitschy elephant memorabilia and other tacky, but fun souvenirs. It's definitely worth a stop when traveling on the Lincoln Highway.

After checking in to the Hilton Garden Inn we took a few tours of the battlefield. There was still a considerable amount of snow on the ground in Gettysburg, which made battle walks a no-no. We visited the Museum where we watched the excellent film A New Birth of Freedom. The scene explaining Pickett's Charge is so powerful and the sound of cannon so realistic, it really gives you an idea of the aural assault that the men were under. After seeing the film, we saw the Cyclorama. This 360 degree painting has been enhanced with sound, light, and narration. It is one of the most moving pieces of "living" history I have ever experienced. Both times I have seen it I have cried, this time a bit more than the other. It is quite powerful, to say the least.

We had dinner at the Appalachian Brewing Company. The ABC is located at General Lee's Headquarters/The Thompson House. When I was a kid it was known as General Lee's Restaurant. It's been a few other things over the years, but it has been the ABC for about a decade now. The ABC is a brewery out of Harrisburg. They feature a great selection of artisan brewed beers. My favorite was the Jolly Scot Scottish Ale. I also had the Susquehanna Stout, Water Gap Wheat, Mountain Lager, Purist Pale Ale, Celtic Knot Irish Red, and their root beer. The food was great and reasonably priced. I had an all you can eat fish and chips (Haddock), a bowl of Brewer's Cheddar Ale Soup, and a Switchback Burger (made with root beer barbecue sauce) on my 3 visits.

The next day we took a podcast tour of the Peach Orchard. This was interesting and I learned a great deal about the fighting in this part of the field. I'm much more of a student of the fighting on Day 1 & 3, so this was welcome information for me. The weather was good, a bit windy, but quite sunny. We had lunch at Gettysburg Eddie's, complete with a big hunk of gingerbread. We attended a lecture by Gettysburg ranger John Heiser on Gettysburg veterans' roles in memorializing the battlefield. I had done some reading on this a few years back and a friend's dissertation focuses a great deal on this topic. It was a fantastic program and quite informative. We then spent some time with a friend who works at the Park before going through the Museum and doing a bit more battlefield touring before eating, having a malt at the Cannonball Old Tyme Malt Shop and calling it a night.

The next morning we headed to Delaware to do a little sight seeing, Neuchatel Chocolates in Oxford, PA to get some authentic Swiss chocolate, and then back up to Kitchen Kettle Village in Intercourse, PA for our base for the next 6 days.