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.

Lancaster City

Despite my many trips to Lancaster County, I've not spent much time at all in Lancaster City. My parents and I went to Central Market sometime back in the 80s and my wife and I went on the Witness 20th Anniversary Movie Tour in 2005 that made a few stops downtown, most notably at the Lancaster Cultural Heritage Museum. Over the past few months I've gotten to know several Lancastrians, so I decided to meet up with Ken Mueller, a social media guru and owner of Inkling Media, who was kind enough to take time out of his busy day to give my wife and I a quick tour of Downtown and introduce us to some nice folks. We met up at Square One Coffee and had a nice conversation with Ken. I had a good Ancho Chile Mocha (I love the combination of ancho and chocolate). We then took a stroll through downtown, with Ken giving us a running commentary about particular places and events. We visited Fig Lancaster where we met Matt Brandt, whose wife is the co-creator and manager of Fig. Matt does the printing and designs for Fig's publications and artwork. Really nice stuff and a really nice guy. Ken then took us across the street to Central Market. Lancaster Central Market is the oldest continuously operated farmer's market in America and has a tremendous variety of stands where you can find nearly anything your stomach desires. While there, Ken introduced us to Michael Ervin, the Market Manager. Ken then had to head off for an appointment so we strolled around downtown a bit more then headed back out into the country.

Harrisburg International Airport

Over the last several months I've been corresponding with Stephanie Gehman, the Marketing Manager at Harrisburg International Airport. She told me the next time I visited the area she would give me a tour of the facility. So, a few weeks ago after a stop at the Hershey Story where we took two chocolate decorating classes, my wife and I visited Stephanie for our tour. Harrisburg International sits on the Susquenhanna River with the imposing cooling towers of Three Mile Island in full view.


The Airport features a rather new public terminal and it is quite nice. Stephanie showed us around the public areas, but she also took us down into the basement to see how luggage is sorted. This is the part of the airport one rarely sees and Harrisburg features an innovative system. We were also taken out onto the tarmac and got to see a plane take off. Pretty neat stuff. Stephanie finished our tour by showing us the VIP lounge and then giving us some souvenirs to take home. If I ever fly into Central PA, I'll be sure to come through Harrisburg International.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ginna Hoben

One of my personal favorite actors at the American Shakespeare Center is Ginna Hoben. Ginna is a very versatile performer with a great sense of comedic timing. The first play I saw her in was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opposite the wonderful Richard Blunt. They both were brilliant and the play was one of the best I've seen on the Blackfriars stage. Ginna was also a show stealer as Adriana in The Comedy of Errors. She is currently with the ASC On Tour performing as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, Nell in The Knight of the Burning Pestle, and as the Nurse, Lady Montague, the Chorus, and Balthasar in Romeo and Juliet. She'll be reprising these roles in the upcoming Spring Season at the Blackfriars. Ginna will also be part of the resident troupe this year at the Blackfriars and will be performing in The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, John O'Keefe's Wild Oats, Henry IV, Part 2, and Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West. Ginna is also a playwright, and will be performing in her one woman show, The Twelve Dates of Christmas this holiday season at the Blackfriars. Be sure to check them all out!

Anyway, Ginna and I have been corresponding a bit since I saw her in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern and she is getting married to another actor, Sheffield Chastain on October 10, 2010. I asked her to write a blurb for my blog in hopes of persuading my huge fanbase (HA!) to help her out in a contest she entered to help defray the costs of an expensive wedding:

So there's this contest held by Crate and Barrel, and as a bride-to-be, I entered it. Sheffield and I are two actors who have spent the majority of our relationship long-distance while I have been on tour with the American Shakespeare Center. Our wedding will take place in the midst of the ASC's Summer/Fall season in which I'll be performing, and I have asked for only one day off: 10-10-10, the wedding day itself. We could really use some votes. Check out the link below. We thank you!

Genuinely,
Ginna

http://www.ultimateweddingcontest.com/entries/31085

So, please, if you're taking the time to read this blog, do Ginna a favor and click on this link to vote for her dream wedding!

Ginna Hoben as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Mike Bailey.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Alchemist by Ben Jonson

I was especially looking forward to seeing Ben Jonson's The Alchemist after starting to read it. I knew it would be a bawdy and hilarious satire of society and the human condition. After seeing the lines "I fart at thee" and "What to do? Lick figs out at my..." I knew I would be in for a treat on the Blackfriars stage.

Basically, the plot of the play is a con game as Jeremy/Captain Face (Ben Curns in a standout performance), the butler of Lovewit (Rene Thornton, Jr.) teams up with a supposed conjurer/alchemist Subtle (John Harrell), and a prostitute Dol Common (played fantastically by Allison Glenzer) to dupe a collection of dimwits of various social standing. Lovewit leaves to escape the plague that is ravaging the area and Jeremy decides to take full advantage of his master's absence. Among the dimwits looking for a quick buck or some other vice is Denice Burbach as the lawyer's clerk Dapper, playing nerdy to the hilt; Miriam Donald Burrows playing the terrificly named Abel Drugger; the hilariously hypocritical duo of Chris Johnston & Bob Jones as the money-hungry & judgmental anabaptists Ananias and Tribulation Wholesome. But the hands down star of this collection of dupes is Greg Phelps as Sir Epicure Mammon. Mammon reminds me of a younger but equally heavy Sir John Falstaff. Phelps rendition of the Flight of the Conchords "It's Business Time" during the second interlude is a must see! Daniel Kennedy plays his grounded and sensible companion, Surly. Tyler Moss (reminding me of a young Merle Haggard thanks to his costume) and Sarah Fallon are wonderful as country bumpkins, with Sarah's Daisy Duke wearing, chewing gum chomping, eternally confused Dame Pliant the object of desire of the men in the cast. Of course, eventually everything breaks down and hilarity and back stabbing ensues.

Don't miss this hilarious take on greed and lust!
Allison Glenzer as Dol Common in The Alchemist. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Roman Actor

I must admit, I was totally unfamiliar with Philip Massinger & thus The Roman Actor before seeing the play. The only thing I knew about the play was what I had read on the ASC Website.

Denice Burbach, in perhaps her strongest performance yet on the Blackfriars stage is wonderful as Domitia, the wife of a Roman Senator (played by the multi-talented Tyler Moss, this guy has a tremendous singing voice!) who is selected to become a part of the egomaniacal & tyrannical Emperor Domitianus Caesar's (played by a deliciously evil John Harrell --think his role as the Dauphin in Henry VI, Part 1 without being nearly as likeable and increasing the ass factor by 10) concubine (played by Sarah Fallon, Miriam Donald Burrows, and Allison Glenzer). Domitia enjoys her new found fame and fortune and loves lording her position as Caesar's number one over the other three. She also falls for the actor Paris, played exceptionally by Gregory John Phelps. The main foil for Paris (and everyone's, really) is Chris Johnston's eternally offended Aretinus, who seems to hate actors because they make fun of the higher class. Ben Curns is his typical brilliant self as the freeman, Parthenius. In the end, Caesar is killed by those he has exiled or wronged- in other words, the entire surviving cast.

This performance was only the second one, and was actually the official opening night performance. While there were a few "prithees" called out, the show went off very well and the crowd seemed to be able to easily follow the action, even though I doubt many of us were very familiar with it. The play was a very good satire and an attack on power, politicians, and society in general.

The weekend we were there a play reading of Massinger's more famous A New Way to Pay Old Debts was staged, but unfortunately we had to return home before being able to see it. I hope to see this as part of a future season at the Blackfriars. Definitely see this rare and wonderful stage performance of The Roman Actor while you can!
Gregory John Phelps as Paris in The Roman Actor. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Henry VI, Part II

The first play I saw at the American Shakespeare Center was Henry VI, Part I. I have been hooked on ASC performances ever since. The Henry VI plays thus hold a special place for me. I am a big fan of history plays, and the ASC version of 2H6 was excellent. Taking over the role of Henry VI this season is Denice Burbach. The very young Henry VI of part 1, played admirably by Alyssa Wilmoth, gives way to a maturing, though uncertain and reluctant monarch. Burbach plays this role so well. She really grabs the essence of Henry, that he doesn't want to be King, is pretty much unwilling to fight to keep his crown, and that he would be far more satisfied to be a common man or a man of religion. I have really enjoyed Burbach's performances during the Summer/Fall season and particularly during this Actors' Renaissance Season. It is good to see her getting a "starring role."

I won't bore you with the details of the play, nor do I want to discourage anyone from seeing it. I will say that this play is full of intrigue, conniving, violence, etc. Basically a great Shakespearean history. I will also clue you in on an opening that can't be missed: The play began with a super clever opening sequence with a Rose Wars scroll (Think Star Wars, complete with music).

Rene Thornton, Jr. reprising his role as Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York, is fantastic. John Harrell is excellent as the conniving Bishop of Winchester, and his pre-show routine is not to be missed. Sarah Fallon turns in another great and powerful performance as the young but strong Queen Margaret d'Anjou. Daniel Kennedy is terrific as the demented and delusional Jack Cade, and Ben Curns gives us a glimpse at one of Shakespeare's most diabolical characters, young Richard Plantagenet (later Richard III). Curns' killing of Bob Jones' Duke of Somerset is an impressive physical performance. Gregory John Phelps also turns in an impressive performance as Suffolk, Margaret's good (ahem) friend.

There is still time to catch the last few performances of Henry VI, Pt. II at the ASC. I highly recommend doing so, you will be glad you did.
Allison Glenzer as Duchess Eleanor of Gloucester in Henry VI, Part Two. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Isaac's Restaurant and Deli

One of my favorite places to grab a bite to eat in Lancaster County is Isaac's Restaurant and Deli. This local chain began in 1983 and the sandwiches are named for birds. Everything I've had at Isaac's is fantastic. Being that is one of the few places open on Sunday that I can't eat at here in NC, I made sure to stop in twice on Sunday this trip. Actually, I did the same last time. The first meal we had at the Isaac's in Strasburg. This is the first Isaac's I ate , several years ago. I've visited this one more than any of the others and typically have great food and good service. On this visit the place was very crowded and a bit harried, but the food was great. I had the wonderful Mallard, a roast beef, bacon, cheese, and mushroom pretzel sandwich with Ikey's Sauce. I also had the Tomato Pepperjack soup with butter garlic croutons. I can't stress enough how great this stuff is. I mean, it's fantastic. I never go to Isaac's without getting it, and I turned my wife on to it on this visit. We went to Isaac's at Greenfield after visiting with some of our Amish friends and had the soup again and a Fudgie Wudgie, which is basically an enormous ice cream & fudge covered brownie.

We met with our friend Sarah from the Pennsylvania Dutch Convention and Visitor's Bureau and her intern Amelia on Wednesday and had lunch at Isaac's at Greenfield. Sarah tells me she only gets one thing at Isaac's (The Black Heron) because it is so good. I get lots of stuff myself- this time I tried the Eaglet (a grilled ham & cheese with mayo & bacon on rye) with a cup of Tomato Pepperjack. Another great sandwich I've had at Isaac's is the Cormorant (cranberry-almond chicken salad with provolone cheese in a cheddar wrap.) We just don't have anything comparable down here in NC. I love Isaac's and can't wait to go back!