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.