Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twelfth Night

This past weekend, our 10th wedding anniversary, we visited Staunton again. We took a tour of the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse and attended two performances of Twelfth Night. We arrived on Thursday and spent the night in south Harrisonburg at a newer Hampton Inn that I've written about before. It's a nice hotel but it has a few issues that will probably preclude us from staying there again. First, the breakfasts offered are sparse, even for a Hampton Inn, and secondly, we didn't get any housekeeping service on New Year's Day and our complaints were basically shrugged off. While I did enjoy watching my Nittany Lions defeat LSU in the Capital One Bowl without interruption, it's unacceptable to not get at least some rudimentary housekeeping service.

Anyway, the reason for our trip was to finally take a tour of the Blackfriars Playhouse and to attend Twelfth Night. We had originally intended to see Twelfth Night in March along with the rest of the Renaissance Season repertory, however, we decided to go ahead and see it now because of scheduling conflicts. On Saturday, we went to the playhouse and took our tour with ASC Intern and Mary Baldwin grad student Nolan Carey. We had previously seen Nolan in several ASC shows. We had a small tour group as it was a particularly cold morning. Nolan was very informative and told us the history behind the original Blackfriars Playhouse and Globe Theatre. He gave us background info on the formation of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express and the American Shakespeare Center and we got to tour the rehearsal, dressing, and backstage areas before being allowed to take photos of the Playhouse. Actor Tyler Moss who plays Valentine and Sebastian in Twelfth Night also spoke to us briefly on the tour.

After a nice quiche lunch at Pampered Palate (terrific lunch spot, faulty tea pots though-have a back spout problem) we returned to the Playhouse to see Twelfth Night. This was a Pay What You Will performance, so there was a large crowd gathered for the show despite the cold temperatures. We had already reserved our typical seats (Lords Chairs 17-18), so we had no worries of getting a seat. It was good to see some familiar faces during the musical pre-show in returning ASC veterans Ben Curns, Miriam Donald, Gregory John Phelps, Denice Burbach (who has an amazing singing voice) and Daniel Kennedy. Chris Johnston, definitely one of my favorite ASC performers, was in his typically great musical form in a rousing rendition of Head Automatica's "Beating Heart Baby," with superb backing vocals by Donald. Donald and Phelps opened the show with a touching duet called "Falling Slowly" that segued beautifully into the play. One wouldn't know that this was one of the first performances of the play for the troupe (the third, if I'm not mistaken). Except for a couple of minimally shaky lines, the troupe was rocking and there were many exceptional stand out performances. John Harrell, as always, was hilarious and excellent as Feste the fool. His costume is not to be missed and he really hits Feste out of the park. Curns turn as Sir Toby Belch is a show stealer. He plays the drunken slob to the hilt and teams with Johnston (playing the cowardly knave Sir Andrew Aguecheek) and Allison Glenzer (playing the Mistress Quickly like Maria) to provide over the top comic relief. I can't stress enough how great Curns, Johnston and Glenzer are in these roles. Johnston's and Curns' costumes are wonderful- Curns wears a schoolbus yellow zoot suit and Johnston goes for the cheesy 70s baby blue, flat-front, polyester pants, yellow turtleneck, and plaid sport coat ensemble. Of course, the stars of the show are Miriam Donald as Cesario/Viola and Gregory John Phelps as Orsino. The chemistry between the two is great, and Donald turns in an exceptional performance and is very convincing as Cesario (much better than a BBC version I saw where I couldn't get past the fact the actress was a woman). This performance rivals her turn as Joan la Pucelle in Henry VI, Part 1, which hooked me on the Blackfriars. Other standouts are Daniel Kennedy doing a brilliant turn as a Jeeves/Hitler like Malvolio (you have to see it to believe it,) and the consistently wonderful Sarah Fallon as Olivia. Kennedy has a wonderful range as an actor, and it's great seeing him in a hilarious role.

After the show, we went by Zynodoa to grab a bite to eat, but they were not yet open. We had decided to go back to see the official opening performance of Twelfth Night, so we felt a little rushed for time because we didn't have tickets and figured we'd need to get in line for the PWYW performance (hindsight is 20/20, we really didn't need to). We instead went to Emilio's for dinner, and it was a good choice. I had a really good butternut squash ravioli in a light sage and butter cream sauce with pecorino cheese and my wife had an incredible manicotti. For dessert we had wonderful toscanella and tiramisu. We had a very good, efficient server and we will definitely return. We then went to Coffee on the Corner to kill some time before the play and saw Dave Matthews with his family while we were there.

A word about the Actor's Renaissance Season: This season features staging conditions more akin with what was present in Shakespearean times. The shows feature no directors, costume designers, and lack lengthy group rehearsals and full scripts. An actor in the ARS must be at the top of their game, and the cast for Twelfth Night really excelled. The ARS continues with Doctor FaustusThe AlchemistHenry VI, Part 2, and The Roman Actor.

On the food front, we also had a nice lunch at the Depot Grill on New Year's Day. I had an ahi tuna sandwich with a wasabi sauce and wonderful steamed and buttered broccoli, and my wife had a barbecue chicken sandwich. We had excellent service from Ben, our waiter. That evening we visited our favorite Mill Street Grill, where I had the White Star Rib Platter, fried green tomatoes, and the ubiquitous crock of bread with banana walnut butter this time. My wife had crab cakes. Service was a little subpar for this visit. We also visited Shenandoah Pizza and had an outstanding Augusta Margherita pizza on wheat- I can't compliment them enough on this basil, olive oil, spinach, tomato, mozzarella, and ricotta pizza. We also spent a lot of time at the wonderful Martin's Foods supermarket. Man, I wish I lived closer to one. Actually, I wish I lived in Staunton!

Miriam Donald Burrows and Gregory John Phelps in Twelfth Night. Photo by Tommy Thompson.