Monday, December 5, 2011

The Winter's Tale

Eugene Douglas as Leontes inThe Winter's Tale. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I took in a matinee performance of The Winter's Tale by the Almost Blasphemy touring troupe this past weekend. I had tried to read the play earlier in the year, and have to admit, I only got about half way through it. After seeing this production, I think I'll pick it back up.

Eugene Douglas is amazing as the Sicilian King Leontes. He stalks this stage in a bravura performance, very reminiscent of James Keegan at his best. He mixes in all the right emotions to make his performance one of the more memorable of this artistic year. Also outstanding is Stephanie Holladay Earl as Hermione, Queen to Leontes; Jake Mahler as the hilarious cutpurse Autolycus, Ronald Peet as the shepherd (he plays a great old man), and Rick Blunt as his clownish son. Denice Mahler is fantastic playing both the son and daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Daniel Abraham Stevens plays her love interest, Florizel, and turns in a strong performance.

This play is interesting; it is intense during the first half, with many tough to watch scenes as Leontes destroys his family out of jealousy. The play seems to turn toward the comedic about the time of "Exit, pursued by a bear." There is a definite lighter feel to the performance following the musical interlude. Erin West's costumes are again outstanding and tell a tale of their own, particularly Hermione's bloody dress.

I'm looking forward to seeing this one again at Roanoke College in January and back on stage in Staunton.

Tis Pity She's a Whore

Patrick Earl as Giovanni in 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I attended a preview performance of the Almost Blasphemy troupe's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the American Shakespeare Center during the break between the Fall season and the Winter/Holiday season. I had read John Ford's brilliantly disturbing incestuous tragedy earlier in the year and was looking forward to the show with anticipation. I was not disappointed. If you are a fan of dark tragedy, then you will love this production.

I guess 'Tis Pity is similar to Romeo & Juliet, in a twisted way. Giovanni, played brilliantly by Patrick Earl, fresh from his return from University is hot to trot for his sister Annabella (the always excellent Denice Mahler), and seeks the advice of Friar Bonaventura (Kevin Hauver) to deal with his moral dilemma. Of course, the Friar advises against this evil, but Giovanni can't help himself and tries to reason with the Friar that his love for his sister is not wrong. Well, we also find out that the feeling is mutual with Annabella, who is being courted by a series of men including Soranzo (Jake Mahler), Grimaldi (Michael Amendola), and the dandy Bergetto (a typically entertaining Rick Blunt complete with a wonderfully geeky sidekick, Poggio, played by Stephanie Holladay Earl). Annabella is not interested in these men, and her tutor Putana, played brilliantly by Bridget Rue (nice costume) encourages her to pursue the relationship. They consumate their relationship and Annabella becomes pregnant. She later marries Soranzo at the urging of Friar Bonaventura following the murder of Bergetto by Grimaldi and after he discovers she is pregnant with her brother's child. Following this the play descends into a series of twists and brutalities that are too complex to detail here.

Other outstanding performances are turned in by Eugene Douglas as Vasques, a servant of Soranzo who has traces of Iago to him; Daniel Abraham Stevens as Florio, the father of Giovanni and Annabella, and Stephanie Holladay Earl as Hippolita. Again, Erin West deserves a big shout out for the costumes in this production.

This play is considered one of the most controversial in the history of the English language. After seeing it and reading it, I would agree. Basically, the feeling I was left with was one of shock. This is a must see production. One rarely gets to see something this shocking or controversial, particularly from a mainstream theatre company. If the tour is performing this anywhere near you, go see it and then check it out again when it returns to Staunton. It will blow you away.

The Tempest and Tamburlaine the Great at the ASC

I saw The Tempest at the American Shakespeare Center several times over the summer and fall seasons, but I never got around to actually reviewing it. The Tempest, as with many of Shakespeare's laters plays, is not my favorite. That said, I did enjoy the performances I saw. James Keegan was as brilliant as always in the role of Prospero. Keegan tends to dominate the stage at all times with his presence. Miriam Donald is wonderful as Prospero's child-like daughter Miranda, and she and Patrick Midgley's Ferdinand have terrific chemistry. Other great performances include Benjamin Curns' turn as Caliban, the half-man, half-fish creature; Chris Johnston as Stephano, and Allison Glenzer as Trinculo. Those three have the audience rolling several times. Curns, Johnston, and Rene Thornton, Jr. tear the house down as the spirits Juno, Ceres, and Iris. Erin West's costumes are fantastic for this production, really some of the best I've seen at the ASC. OK, so The Tempest wasn't my favorite ASC production of all time, but it was better every time I saw it and I can't think of a much better way to spend a couple of hours among friends.

Tamburlaine the Great, or the James Keegan Show, was something I had been looking forward to all season. I saw a preview of it early on but I missed the final scene because of a snoring boor in the audience. The play has some terrific language, but the plot is pretty sparse and the play is wholly dominated by the title character. There are a few moments for some of the other actors, particularly Blythe Coons as Zenocrate, Chris Johnston and Miriam Donald as Tamburlaine's minions Ucumcasane and Techelles, and Rene Thornton, Jr. as Bajazeth and Allison Glenzer as Zabina, but the play is pretty much a vehicle to show how great Tamburlaine actually is. You basically wait the whole play for Tamburlaine to get his comeuppance, but it never happens. Once again, Erin West's costumes are outstanding. I hope the ASC will consider a production of Tamburlaine part two.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Henry V

Gregory Jon Phelps as Henry V inHenry V. Photo by Michael Bailey.
Henry V is arguably England's greatest hero. While many centuries have passed since his miraculous, victorious campaigns in France, his story and legend has only grown thanks to William Shakespeare's Henriad, and the lesser known plays Sir John Oldcastle and The Famous Victories of Henry V. Modern generations have come to know the story not only through the works of Shakespeare but through two film versions, one a patriotic homage during the dog days of World War II by Sir Laurence Olivier and the other; a more gritty but equally impressive version by Kenneth Branagh. Another, lesser-known version for the small screen, featuring a tremendous performance by Robert Hardy as part of the BBC's An Age of Kings should also be consulted.

The films have been a double-edged swords for theatre productions, as it's impossible to recreate their grandeur and majestic soundtracks, especially during Henry's rousing speeches. The version that you will see at the Blackfriars, directed by Ralph Alan Cohen, seems to be a bit more understated and bring some of the supporting characters more to the forefront than the film versions, which are dominated by Henry.

Greg Phelps, fresh from playing Henry VI, takes on the role of Henry VI's father and the two characters could hardly be any less similar. I imagine it might be tough for audiences who've seen Phelps' turn as VI to forget that and completely buy into his character as Henry V, but I think he does a great job with the transition. I don't know if this is a role actors relish playing because of the heightened expectations of such a heroic character, but Phelps is pretty convincing in the role. It helps that Phelps is very good with self-deprecating humor on the stage and Henry the character definitely has that built in. His scenes with the common soldiers and with Miriam Donald's Princess Kate are among the best in the play. Of course the two big speeches are rousing, but seem to be played to be intentionally a bit more understated. Again, with these scenes in particular, it's hard to compare the stage versions to the rousing, neck-hair raising ones in Olivier and Branagh's film versions with their grand soundtracks. It definitely helps if the crowd will chant along to the "Cry God for Harry, England and St. George!" line (In the two performances I've seen one did, one didn't).

Benjamin Curns reprises his fantastic role as Pistol from 2H4 and delivers in spades. Curns once again shows he's the most versatile performer in the troupe-be it comedy, tragedy, or villainy Curns always delivers the goods. Also always delivering the goods is Allison Glenzer who once again plays Mistress Quickly to the hilt, and her turn as Princess Kate's attendant Alice is not to be missed. One line will bring the house down every time.

Miriam Donald turns in two strong performances as Falstaff's Boy and as Princess Kate. Kate is a very tough role as the lines are 95% in French, and Donald tackles it perfectly.

James Keegan, who never misses a beat, nearly steals the show as Fluellen. His Welsh accent will cause you to chuckle nearly everytime (as will Rene Thornton's Captain Jamy's brogue). His leek scene with Curns is probably the most memorable in the entire play.

Chris Johnston turns in one of his classic comedic performances as the fortune defiled Bardolph and one of his classic arrogant French performances as Orleans. Intern Zachary Brown is very impressive as the love spurned Nym. The strong role of Exeter (made even stronger than Shakespeare perhaps intended by Brian Blessed in Branagh's film version) is played very well by John Basiulis.

The closest character to a foil for Harry is the Dauphin. Patrick Midgley takes on this important role and performs it well with the typical French braggadociousness. Midgley ensurse that the Dauphin's love of his horse comes shining through. His scenes with Orleans and Daniel Burrows' Lord Constable are great, especially considering they hold him in mild contempt. This Dauphin Louis is not to be confused with John Harrell's Dauphin Charles of 1H6, as Louis was Charle's brother who predeceased him. Midgley is also impressive as Captain MacMorris (with an Irish brogue) and Michael Williams, a soldier who unwittingly challenges King Harry.

John Harrell is excellent as the somewhat campy Chorus (backed capably by Miriam Donald). He also makes a couple of brief appearances as Westmoreland and John Bates.

This production brings to a close the 1st leg of the ASC's The Histories: The Rise and Fall of Kings. I had the fortune of seeing all but Richard II, and I look forward to the finale with Richard III during the Actors Renaissance Season.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The newly reopened Darjeeling Cafe

Mary Beth and Jack Morgan have recently reopened the Darjeeling Cafe in Staunton after a little over a year. They moved from their former location (which is now occupied by George Bowers Grocery-another great place for a tasty sandwich and specialty groceries and beers) to a more central location downtown. The new space appears unassuming from the street but I was blown away by how great it looked inside with a spacious dining room featuring padded, comfortable blue chairs at the tables, a bar seating area, and a lounging area.

The day I was there was pretty hot and humid so I ordered an African rooibos mint iced tea on Jack's suggestion. I'm not a huge rooibos fan, but this one was great, with more of the mint and less of the harshness and smoke taste that I've encountered in most rooibos teas that I've tried. For my meal I selected the Fawn Thai (again at Jack's suggestion) with herbed orzo on the side. The Fawn Thai featured tofu, Thai peanut sauce, lettuce, and julienned carrots on toasted wheat bread. I'm very open minded when it comes to food, so the fact that it had tofu didn't bother me in the least and I'm really glad I tried the sandwich- it's one of the best sandwiches I've ever had. All the flavors blended together perfectly. I would highly recommend trying it whenever it's on the menu. My server was also quite helpful, efficient, and a nice fellow.

I look forward to going back to try some other items and sample some different teas, especially when I have a little more time to kick back. I'm very glad that the Darjeeling Cafe is back and it expands the possibilities for a diverse lunch downtown.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hamlet at the ASC

John Harrell as Hamlet and Miriam Donald as Ophelia inHamlet. Photo by Michael Bailey.
One of my favorite American Shakespeare Center productions was the 2008-2009 Rough, Rude and Boisterous touring troupe's Hamlet. Luke Eddy was masterful as the melancholy Dane and most of the rest of the cast were on top of their game as well. When I heard that the ASC was bringing another production of Hamlet back to the stage so soon I was a bit blase about it- that is until I heard John Harrell would be playing the title character. While Harrell is a bit older than Eddy, he is a youthful looking guy and a good enough actor that you never get hung up on the age issue. I've seen a lot of guys that look much older than Harrell play the part, so that shouldn't be an issue for people.

I've seen the production three times at this point. Each one was good, and I had a uniquely different vantage point for each, sitting under the balcony for one, in the balcony for another, and on the stage for the most recent. Each show has been very crowded as well, with the Playhouse at at least three quarters capacity for each show. This production is very forward audience centered, so you may want to keep that in mind when selecting a seat. The production features one intermission, and keep in mind that Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play. Also, the actors do not know which production of the play they will be doing until the pre-show, when a coin is flipped to determine whether they will perform the first quarto or the folio of the play. So far I've only seen the first quarto.

Harrell, in the title role, is brilliant and one should not be surprised at that. His sense of when to be funny, when to be snarky, and when to be serious is impeccable. His interactions with Miriam Donald's Ophelia and Blythe Coons' Gertrude, and his barbs at Benjamin Curns' Polonius and James Keegan's Claudius are the highlights of the performance. Harrell gives a definite impassioned performance and all who are fans of his work should see the production multiple times. What you get here is a more introspective, quirky, and mad Hamlet somewhat reminiscent of the character Geoffrey Tennant from Slings and Arrows.

Keegan is by far the best Claudius I have seen. Keegan is a master of this stage, and always seems to set the bar a little higher in every role. My one gripe with the play Hamlet is that most people who play Claudius make him seem far too likable and not easy too hate. I've always thought he was Shakespeare's most likable villain, and not in a love to hate sort of way. Keegan does a good job of making him more subtly evil. He's still a seemingly sober character, but he definitely has the more sinister machinations that are often missing in performances.

Blythe Coons is very impressive as Gertrude. This Gertrude seems to be played more prominently than some I have seen and her influence over Hamlet shows through more in this production. The always impressive Miriam Donald provides a very emotional performance as the innocent but scarred Ophelia. Curns' bloviating Polonius is fantastic and his interaction with the audience is great. You really hate to see the character killed off. He's also terrific as the Gravedigger, complete with a New England/Peter Griffin accent. Greg Phelps skilfully turns in another great performance as the revenge driven but ultimately contrite Laertes. Patrick Midgley is a wonderful, humble, honor-driven Horatio.

As for the music, don't miss "Santa Monica," "Paint it Black," and "The Sounds of Silence."

I'm not going to say which production of Hamlet I liked best because they both have their strengths and are played a bit differently, so it's a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Director Jim Warren does a terrific job with this production, playing to the strengths of Harrell and the rest of his troupe. The strength of Warren and the actors is that they always leave the audience wanting a bit more when it's over. For any fan of the Bard's greatest play make sure you get to Staunton to see this production before it closes in November. For fans of Harrell and/or the ASC, make plans for multiple visits.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Importance of Being Earnest

Benjamin Curns as Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest. Photo by Michael Bailey.
We attended the June 12 Pay What You Will performance of Oscar Wilde's farcical satire of Victorian mores: The Importance of Being Earnest. I had read the play and watched a couple of versions of it, and enjoyed all of them, so I was really looking forward to it. Seeing the very talented actors of the American Shakespeare Center perform the play took my enjoyment of it to another level. It was different, but a bit refreshing, to see a more contemporary play on the stage of the Blackfriars Playhouse. I would love to see the trend continue with other plays by the likes of Wilde and Coward.

Benjamin Curns as Algernon Moncrieff and Rene Thornton, Jr. as John Worthing turn in a tremendous tag team performance as friends/rivals/brothers. They always play off each other well, but typically in dramatic roles; here they have the crowd rolling with the rich language of the play and their gestures and expressions.

Equally impressive are the turns by Miriam Donald and ASC newcomer Blythe Coons as Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax. Their sit-down for tea scene is a classic as the two spar wonderfully. Both women are ideally cast in their respective roles.

Patrick Midgley and Greg Phelps are subtly funny in their roles as Merriman and Lane. Both have some exceptionally funny moments as they become exasperated by their employers. Allison Glenzer is her typical excellent self as the prim but troubled Miss Prism. Her romantic interactions with John Basiulis' Rev. Chasuble are not to be missed.

Of course, when you see the play you will probably agree with me that James Keegan steals the show as Lady Augusta Bracknell. He does such a tremendous job that you will not even remember that the role is being played by the alpha male of the ASC. Keegan always turns in primo performances and this is one of the more memorable. John Harrell will take over the role in the Fall and I really look forward to seeing his turn as Lady Augusta.

The costumes by Jenny McNee and Erin West are an important part of this play and the selection of garments was outstanding.

I can't wait to see the play again and I encourage all fans of the ASC to check it out at least twice, with Keegan and Harrell as Lady Bracknell.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Disappointment at Baja Bean

My wife and I really enjoyed eating at Baja Bean in Staunton. Our favorite menu item was the black and white chimichanga. The restaurant was closed for a good bit of the early part of the year due to remodeling. I assumed they would make some changes to their menu, but was shocked at how much they scaled it back. Of course, our black and white chimi was gone, and the only chimi option had gone way up in price compared to the one we used to get. There also was no vegetarian section on the menu. While I am not a vegetarian, I typically eat that way when eating Mexican food. Anyway, we both were disappointed and asked about the omission of the black & white. Our server, who is an excellent server and a nice guy, told us that he thought there was a problem with the beans and the oil in the deep fryer that led to the decision to kill the black and white. I'm not sure about that, but whatever, it's gone. So, we ordered burritos that were OK, but honestly not as good as what I could get at Moe's or especially Chipotle. The burrito would have been much better without the overly tangy and spicy ancho chili sauce covering it. My wife knew immediately that she would have trouble digesting the sauce and sure enough, she was sick the next day. I talked to several Stauntonian friends who are also disappointed with the changes in the menu, the seating (the booths have definitely shrank). So, with the new menu change we probably won't be returning, which is regrettable because we really enjoyed it.  

Monday, March 28, 2011

An amazing meal at Zynodoa

I have long heard and read raving reviews about Zynodoa in Staunton. The executive chef, James Harris, is famed for having been a chef at the Inn at Little Washington and a contributor to state dinners in D.C. We have been meaning to eat at Zynodoa since our first visit, but circumstances have always prevented it. We were in town for the whole weekend this time and it coincided with Staunton Restaurant Week, so we made sure to make reservations at Zynodoa. Zynodoa, unlike many restaurants in town, made their whole menu available for the same price as Restaurant Week pricing, so we had a great deal of choice. The value was amazing: $25 per person for a three course, very large portioned, fresh, local meal. Diners were also given the option of paying $18 for a three course Virginia wine pairing. I was taking some cold medicine, so I didn't partake.

The atmosphere in the restaurant is nice, clean, contemporary, even a bit chic. The lighting is low, but not dark. It is not a large restaurant, so it fills up fast. I would always recommend reservations. I hate that I can't remember our servers name. He was a wonderful server, quick to answer any questions about the menu; he explained the dishes well and not like a robot. As I said, the menu choices were extensive. I selected the Polyface Farm Chicken Liver Mousse. I didn't used to like liver, but as I have matured so have my tastes. The mousse was served with a layer of bacon fat on top. It provided an almost tangy taste to complement the taste of the liver. The mousse was paired with a selection of olives and some miniature grape leaf pickles (at least that's what they tasted like-they were great). My wife ordered the grilled flatbread pizza that featured house made mozzarella, Harvest Thyme micro-greens, and surryano ham. It was delicious. For our entrĂ©es, I selected the Buffalo Creek steak frites. It featured an enormous ribeye with a perfect wall of fat. I ordered it rare, and it was perfectly prepared to my liking. The fat provided an amazing flavor. It was accompanied by yukon gold frites an horseradish aioli, and some amazing caramelized turnip slices. My wife selected the Caramont ricotta gnocchi with a potato mushroom buerre monte and Harvest Thyme micro-greens. The gnocchi were large, and looked like scallops. They were delicate tasting but very filling. We finished our meal with dessert selections. My wife enjoyed a selection of incredible Gearheart's fine chocolates. I was able to try one of the dark chocolates and was amazed with the taste. I selected the Virginia artisan cheese plate. The plate featured a wonderful phyllo crusted Meadow Creek Appalachian, a rich Oak Spring Brown Cow gouda, and a very offensive smelling but great tasting Meadow Creek Grayson. The cheeses were paired with sliced pears, apples, walnuts, and two dates.

I am so glad we decided to enjoy a night at Zynodoa. We will be sure to visit again soon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Trick to Catch the Old One by Thomas Middleton

A Trick to Catch the Old One. Photos by Tommy Thompson.
Over the last couple of weeks I attended rehearsals for Thomas Middleton's "A Trick to Catch the Old One" at the Blackfriars Playhouse. It was really interesting to see how this play was put together by the actors at the American Shakespeare Center. By chance, I was also able to attend the dress rehearsal along with a half-dozen other lucky souls including ASC Artistic Director Jim Warren, and Leet Shakes/Golden Duck Productions actors/ASC employees Jennifer Jones and Carmel Clavin and Jennifer's husband and Golden Duck owner Noah. We were little but we were loud! We saw it again on opening night, and the Playhouse was close to full with a spattering of ASC veteran Who's Who veteran performers throughout the crowd. This crowd was definitely raucous and loud, one of the more lively I've seen at the ASC.

The play is a laugh a minute satirical city comedy. The main character, Theodorus Witgood, played by the always excellent Greg Phelps, is in up to his ears in debt and must figure out a way to keep the creditors (Jeremy West, Paul Jannise, and Jeremiah Davis) from getting his "carcass." He enlists the help of his friend Host (Chris Johnston, funny as always, this time in a more subtle comedic role) and a courtesan (Miriam Donald in a great performance, and possibly her best role this season) to outwit (pun intended) his conniving London merchant uncle Pecunius Lucre (John Harrell at his usual conniving best) and his hated nemesis Walkadine Hoard (Ben Curns in full Rich Uncle Pennybags mode with an upper crust accent to match). To complicate matters, Witgood is in love with Hoard's niece Joyce (Sarah Fallon). Essentially, Witgood's ruse is to convince Hoard and Lucre that Jane the Courtesan is a rich country widow, to have Hoard marry her, and to have Hoard and Lucre pay off Witgood's debts and restore his lands. Of course, the plan works. Hoard marries Jane, and accepts her even for her low standing and his own bruised ego, and Witgood and Joyce are also betrothed and all Witgood's debts are forgiven.

The funniest character in the play is that of the userer and trampler of time, Harry Dampit. Tyler Moss is brilliant in this role. He swaggers onto the stage in his first scene in a bad, pimp suit with lots of gold jewelry and hands out business cards to the crowd. Dampit is a vile, profane, drunken rogue and heaps abuse upon his loyal servant Audrey (played by Allison Glenzer in a great costume). His diminutive friend Gulf is played and voiced hilariously by Jannise. Be sure to watch for their confrontation as Harry gets ready to head to the Damp Pit.

Patrick Midgley is riotously funny as the old man Kix, friend of Walkadine Hoard's brother Onesiphorus (Jannise) and Jeremy West has another cameo part to remember as Hoard's tailor.

Music for this show is especially good with Donald performing lead vocals on "To Sir with Love." Curns tackles lead vocals on a rollicking version of The Pogue's "Sunny Side of the Street" and the Pietasters' "Girl Take it Easy." Johnston and Donald are brilliant in a duo of Wakey Wakey's "Dance so Good," to lead the play off and Johnston also performs a great version of Ray Lamontagne's "Trouble."

There aren't many opportunities to see this production, so I would advise heading to Staunton to check it out. Middleton was a very good playwright, maybe not quite in Jonson's, Marlowe's and Shakespeare's league, but at times he's brilliant and he's pretty close to that trio. This is probably his funniest play, so if you enjoy a good laugh, check it out.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Henry VI, Part 3

Sarah Fallon in Henry VI, Part 3. Photo by Tommy Thompson
As I've said before, the first play I attended at the Blackfriars Playhouse at the American Shakespeare Center in Stautnon, VA was a January 2009 production of Henry VI, Part 1. Thus began my love for Shakespeare in general, history plays in particular, and the ASC (and its style) specifically. Knowing so little about the plays at that point, I had no idea that what I saw that day would lead to what I saw the last two nights [I've now seen it three times and have tickets for two more]: an amazing, powerful, dramatic, banquet of blood and emotion.

My love of this tetralogy [you must include Richard III] has caused me to engage in much study of Shakespeare's [and others'] history plays in general and the Henry VI plays in particular over the past six months. In addition to independent study, and viewing Jane Howell's brilliant BBC trilogy of the plays, the 1960 BBC's An Age of Kings, and the 1965 RSC version called Wars of the Roses, I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of rehearsals. I'd probably never been so excited about seeing a production. It was kind of like waiting to go on vacation or when your favorite sports team is playing for a major championship. Unlike the result of so many of those instance, I was not disappointed with the outcome. These two performances rank with some of the best I've ever seen at the Blackfriars, with amazing individual performances highlighting an incredible ensemble. The only productions I can say that rival it were the 2009 Hamlet, the 2009 Titus Andronicus, last year's Henry VI, Part 2 and the past two Henry IVs.

The Henry VI plays never get the credit they deserve. They are often derided because of their perceived unimaginative title, the fact that they are in parts (didn't hurt Star Wars or The Godfather), the fact that they were early plays (and may have been written by more than just Shakespeare) or because they are history plays. I counter those arguments by saying that Henry VI, Part 3 is the most action packed play in the canon. It features an amazing villain (or a few depending on your favorite rose color); one of Shakespeare's strongest and most ferocious female characters; a psychotic, revenge twisted killer; a nearly Sainted martyr in the title role, and all the intrigue and violence an audience can handle. Not only that, it is the vehicle that leads to one of Shakespeare's undisputed masterpieces: Richard III.

The action starts immediately and really never lulls. We get the classic ASC Rose Wars/Star Wars scroll and theme and then we are introduced to Jeremy West's Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. This is the role that Rene Thornton, Jr. played brilliantly the past two seasons. Any fears I had that West would not deliver as well were quickly allayed early in Ren Season and during rehearsals. West does a tremendous job in this role and later as Somerset. His fight scenes are always top notch and the battle between he and Chris Johnston's bloody butcher Clifford is a show stealer. His death scene as he verbally assails Sarah Fallon's "She-Wolf of France" Margaret is theatre gold. His Somerset also has a subtle, crotch grab in response to Benjamin Curns' Richard of Gloucester's deathly serious verbal assault shortly before the Battle of Tewkesbury. That is comedic gold and typical of those guys.

Sarah Fallon's aforementioned performance as Queen Margaret is at all times emotional. She vacillates between fits of rage and fits of despair. Rarely does a character traverse so many peaks and valleys of emotions as Margaret. From her taunting of York on his death destined molehill to her bullying of her ineffectual King, to the despair she feels upon seeing her son Prince Edward (a small role, heightened by the magnificent job by Miriam Donald), one feels the power of Fallon's performance. Fallon is always excellent, but she is brilliant in roles such as Margaret and Tamora.

The Dean of the Blackfriars, John Harrell, is again superb in the role of a King. His Edward IV/Edward Duke of York exudes regal power but also has the subtle Harrell humor that we all love, his lecherous interactions while "wooing" Lady Elizabeth Grey being a case in point. In the final act we get a glimpse of his failing health. No one plays sick quite like Harrell, and he always sells the pain convincingly. Also playing sick, though in a different way, is Patrick Midgeley, as the tortured, paranoid Clarence. His facial expressions throughout the play tell of a man at war with himself and others. Another face to watch is that of Jeremiah Davis, whose funny expressions as Henry of Richmond and as the English messenger to King Lewis XI had the crowd giggling.

Tyler Moss as Warwick delivers one of the greatest death scenes in Shakespeare, bleeding and bleating with emotion as he realizes his dreams have been torn asunder and his beloved brother Montague (played aptly by Daniel M. Burrows) has died in the same manner, calling out in vain for Warwick. Moss is also amazing as the front-man on the cover of Fistful of Mercy's "Father's Son," a version that truly destroys the original. Also look for a great banjo solo by Chris Johnston. Other great musical performances are a tremendous version of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" featuring Curns on vocals and he and Johnston on Guitar; Greg Phelps and Johnston [on lead banjo no less] on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," a cover of Mumford and Sons "But My Heart Told My Head," and Phelps providing lead vocals on Tom Petty's "It's Good to be King." Other songs were "New Rose" by The Damned, "Blood on the Ground" by Incubus, and "Save it for Later" by The English Beat.

Speaking of Phelps, his turn as Henry VI is terrific, sympathetic, and downright sad. Phelps is the first male to play the role, following Alyssa Wilmoth's young King in Part 1, and Denice Burbach in Part 2. I was at first a bit worried about the casting because I had a hard time envisioning Phelps playing an especially weak character, but his turn is the best of the three. You can't help but feel awful for Henry, knowing he doesn't even want to be King. He's been dominated by everyone around him throughout his life, he can never live up to the expectations set forth by his larger than life father, and he can't seem to do anything but make things worse when he tries to appease others. His scenes with the fathers & sons are so sad. He finally shows a backbone upon hearing of the murder of his beloved Prince Edward, but it's too little, too late as an enraged Richard butchers him in the tower in his "bloody supper." It will be interesting to see his take on Henry's father, Henry V this fall.

Two other performers had turns that I thought were exceptional. Chris Johnston's Clifford is one of the most amazing, brilliantly conceived performances I've seen. He definitely gets into a "place" for this role. He really takes on the Clifford persona, with a psychotic drive to get what he wants or die trying. This is the most physical I've ever seen Chris on stage and probably the most wildly emotional. There are times when he is teetering on the edge of some type of angrily aroused sexual energy while he restrains York as Margaret assails him. Just watch his face in that scene, you'll be shocked with how much emotion he can draw out without speaking a word. This role along with his turn as Demetrius in Titus Andronicus should show folks that Chris, while always great in a humorous role is a great dramatic actor. His murder of the innocent Rutland and his abuse of the priest make you want to hate him, but you just can't help but feel that you'd do the same in his shoes if your father were killed. The fight with the Duke of York is one of the best fight scenes I've seen at the Blackfriars. In fact, this play features the best fight choreography I've seen on stage at the ASC. Clifford's final fight with Richard is tremendous and features one of Ben Curns' favorite wrestling moves: the Testicular Claw. Clifford's death scene is a bloody, brutal end to a fantastic character. Johnston is also terrific as the French King Lewis XI (I love the musical theme they use for French Kings at the ASC) playing him as an aloof, haughty monarch, and his treatment of Margaret as Lord Hastings following Tewkesbury and the murder of Ned is brutal [one of the saddest scenes in the play].

Benjamin Curns' performance as Richard of Gloucester is simply put: brilliant. I had been waiting a year to see this role, knowing that Curns would not disappoint, and he didn't. I've seen Curns steal shows many times, but this will probably be the role I will always remember him in. Richard is kind of the Darth Vader of Shakespeare, but also a bit of The Joker as well. Curns is perfect for that type of role, he loves to work the crowd and play the bad guy with a grin and that's on full display here. Richard is comically evil, though moreso in Richard III than here. Here, he's a little more straight bad. The "pluck it down" soliloquy before the interval is so good that I was determined to applaud it interval or not. I wanted to applaud after some death scenes too, but I felt that might be inappropriate. There are many times where you should just look at Richard to see his reactions to things that are going on rather than the speaker, as in any time a potential heir to Edward is brought up. At the end of the play watch for "Now is the winter of our discontent..." come out of Curns' mouth. If you get nothing else out of this review, know that you need to see this performance of a deliciously evil character. I hope the powers that be know what a tremendous talent and gem of a person they have in Ben Curns.

Forgiving and ignoring any indulgences or nostalgic feelings I may have for this play, the performance is quite simply amazing and I have a feeling by producing these plays the ASC has helped to create a cult classic and perhaps given the history play a renaissance of their own. Like an old friend, I will miss this production when it's gone.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Leet Shakes presents Much Ado About Nothing at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg

I'm friends with several of the folks who work in the offices of the American Shakespeare Center, a few of whom are actors with Golden Duck Productions. Golden Duck is a traveling theatre company based in Staunton. They specialize in murder mysteries and theatre for young audiences. Noah Jones is the artistic director and owner. His wife Jennifer L. Jones, the box office manager for the ASC, is a regular actor for the company as is Christina Sayer Grey, who works in education and marketing at the ASC is another regular with the company, and writes many of the shows for Golden Duck. Golden Duck also has an off-shoot, Leet Shakes, that specializes in Shakespearean productions. We attended their penultimate production of Much Ado About Nothing on February 12 at Court Square Theater in Harrisonburg. The show, superbly directed by Sarah Lewis Klingbeil [her husband is the affable playhouse manager of the Blackfriars, Eric Klingbeil], was excellent and rather innovative. Instead of the typically evil Don John, we were treated to the evil Giovanna, played with stern aplomb by Leigh Ellis. Carmel Clavin, who is well-known to ASC patrons for manning the on-stage bar and working in the box office, makes for an awesome Beatrice. Her counterpart, Benedick, is played capably by Christopher Markham. Sayer Grey plays Conrade and is fantastic as Friar Francis. Jennifer Jones does a wonderful job as Ursula and as one of the watchmen. Shae Armstrong plays Hero about as well as I've ever seen on stage. Katie Page, another box office worker at the ASC, was impressive as Margaret and outstanding as Verges, Dogberry's lackey. Speaking of Dogberry, Jenny Howard is hilarious in this seminally funny role. Bob Jones, an ASC veteran [outstanding as Bardolph] plays an excellent frustrated Leonato. I was impressed with this production and I look forward to seeing another Leet Shakes & Golden Duck Productions presentation.
Jennifer L. Jones, Katie Page, and Shae Armstrong in Much Ado About Nothing. Photo courtesy of Leet Shakes/Golden Duck Productions. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

As You Like It at The Lyric in Blacksburg

Jonathan Holtzman and Rick Blunt in "As You Like It." Photo by Tommy Thompson.
We attended the American Shakespeare Center's "Reckless Ecstasy" troupe's performance of "As You Like It" at The Lyric in Blacksburg, VA on Feb. 11. The Lyric is a 1930s era movie house, downtown, across from Virginia Tech. The show was sold out and I'd estimate there were probably 500 in attendance. We sat on stage for the show. The stage was pretty small, so I had to move my feet out of the way quite a few times so the actors wouldn't trip over me. Knowing this troupe quite well, I was brought into the action quite a bit, which is always pretty fun.

This was the second performance of "As You Like It" I had seen on this tour and it was well-seasoned and excellent. This was a weird crowd, however. I was expecting it to be more of a college age, but it was an older, definitely middle aged crowd. They were appreciative of the show, calling the actors out for three curtain calls in addition to the ending ovation, but only about half of the crowd gave them a standing ovation, which I thought was strange. Early in the show it seemed like the funny spots were going over most of the crowd's collective head. I later talked to several people who attended and sat out in the audience who said that the acoustics are bad and that it was hard to understand everything being said unless the actors were facing the crowd.

Despite the shaky crowd, the actors were on top of their game. Jonathan Holtzman's Charles is always a pleasure to see (and hear); Rick Blunt, as always is hilarious as the fool Touchstone, and Chad Bradford is excellent as the love struck Orlando. Denice Burbach and Brandi Rhome play off each other brilliantly as Rosalind and Celia. Daniel Jimenez is great as the conniving Oliver, and Jake Mahler is outstanding as Adam. The loveplay between Dennis Henry's whining Silvius and Kelley McKinnon's Phoebe is not to be missed. You still have a few opportunities to see the troupe on the road and then they will be back in Staunton for the Spring season from April through June. I'm sure I'll be seeing each show a few more times.

After the show we had the troupe over to our place for a late dinner of Irish stew, pasta fagoli, chocolate chip scones, and the big hit of the night: chocolate chip crescent rolls. Needless to say, we all had a blast.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Look About You by Anonymous and Henry VI Part III Rehearsals

John Harrell in Look About You. Photo by Tommy Thompson
We attended the second PWYW performance of "Look About You." I had recently read a very old, edited and annotated text of the play, and while confusing, I rather enjoyed it. Part history, part legendary Robin Hood tale, it has the potential to be the kind of play I would like. Unfortunately though, it really tries to be too many things, has too many plot lines, and generally feels disjointed. I think upon seeing it later in the season I will enjoy it and appreciate it more. While the production is a bit weird, it goes without saying that there were several outstanding individual performances. To me, Chris Johnston stole the show as the stammering, stuttering, always on the go Redcap. John Harrell as Skink and Benjamin Curns as Gloucester seemingly don about 20 different costumes each as they imitate nearly every major character in the play. Their mockings of Redcap are especially funny. Greg Phelps and Patrick Midgley bring the house down in their "romantic encounter" when Midgley's Robin Hood is dressed as Marian Fauconbridge and encounters Phelps' Richard the Lionheart. Speaking of Fauconbridge, Tyler Moss is terrific as the lecherous, old, crab-like Richard Fauconbridge. The "true" Marian is played superbly by Miriam Donald. Jeremy West is very convincing as the jerky but redeemed younger King Henry and Paul Jannise turns in a great performance as the ineffectual King Henry II. Jeremiah Davis is outstanding as the turdish Prince John and Allison Glenzer is typically excellent as the ambitious Eleanor of Aquitaine. I look forward to seeing it again when it has a bit more seasoning.

I was invited to the ASC offices to view some videos of past performances in the ASC archives and to attend rehearsals of Henry VI, Part 3. I viewed a 1993 production of Antony & Cleopatra directed by ASC co-founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen. I'm not sure where it was filmed or who any of the actors were other than Margo McGirr, but it was a very entertaining production. The second video I watched was Paul Menzer's "The Brats of Clarence." Honestly, the production was one of the funniest, if not the funniest thing I've ever seen on stage at the Blackfriars. I would love to have a copy of it for home viewing. There was an interval fight scene between Jeremy West and Benjamin Curns that is absolutely classic for anyone who ever liked professional wrestling. John Harrell is amazing as King Henry VII and James IV of Scotland. Rene Thornton, Jr. is equally as funny as Henry's droll Lord Chamberlain. Other standouts are James Keegan as Old Towel/John Taylor who has an affinity for barley enemas, Greg Phelps as the hapless Perkin Warbeck, and Curns, Thornton, Christopher Seiler, and Susan Heyward as a band of Scottish guards complete with the brogue. After reading John Ford's "Perkin Warbeck," I've become somewhat fascinated with the tale (I'd love to see it played at the Blackfriars!), so, while this is a total farce, it still held a special interest for me.

After leaving the offices, I headed over to the Blackfriars with Kim, an M. Litt. student at Mary Baldwin to see 3H6 rehearsals. The first play I saw at the ASC was Henry VI, Part I, so the Wars of the Roses tetralogy is very special to me. I have also studied it extensively, and feel I can actually know what I'm talking about when I discuss it (unlike most plays). I had never attended rehearsals before and I found them to be fascinating as you see how the scenes evolve. Most of the scenes had a great deal of fight choreography and I was extremely impressed with Jeremy West's expertise and suggestions for scenes in general and fights in particular. I chatted with Benjamin Curns a bit before rehearsals started, mostly discussing the fight scene from Brats. [You shut your mouth, Curns!] The first scene rehearsed was Act 1, scene 2 with John Harrell as Edward Plantagenet, Earl of March & future King Edward IV; Curns as Richard Plantagenet future Duke of Gloucester & Richard III; West as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, Patrick Midgley as George Plantagenet future Duke of Clarence, and Daniel Burrows as Lord Montague, Earl of Salisbury and father to Warwick. This scene was rehearsed for 30 minutes. The next scene was Act 1, scene 3, the Rutland death scene, with Chris Johnston as Lord Clifford, Jeremiah Davis as Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland, and Allison Glenzer as Rutland's religious tutor. This will be an excellent scene. I chatted a bit with Johnston and Sarah Fallon before the scene. Apart from Curns, they are playing the most delicious scenes in this play and I fully expect them to turn in stand out performances. The next scene was Act 1, scene 4, the York death scene, and rehearsals for it ran for 45 minutes. Characters are Fallon as Queen Margaret, West as York, Johnston as Clifford, and Paul Jannise as a combined Earl of Northumberland and Oxford [not sure why that decision was made]. This is a brutal, bloody scene and will shock crowds. The death of York is phenomenal and will be long-remembered for ASC fans. Watch for a Sarah Fallon inspired Curb-Stomp from Clifford. The final scene I saw was Act 2, scene 2, with Greg Phelps as King Henry VI entering York. He is accompanied by Margaret, Clifford, Oxumberland, and Miriam Donald as Edward Plantagenet, Prince of Wales. Following this scene, the band played music for about an hour [the two songs were "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath and "It's Good to be King" by Tom Petty]. I had hoped to stick around to see Shannon Schultz's [who was acting as stage manager during rehearsals] all-male thesis project version of Romeo and Juliet but I was pretty well exhausted and had to get up early for work the next day. I hate I missed it, but I wanted to give Shannon a shout-out. She's always very helpful and conversant when I see her at the ASC, and is a fellow history play lover.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Malcontent by John Marston

Benjamin Curns in The Malcontent. Photo by Tommy Thompson.
We attended the second "pay what you will" performance of John Marston's "The Malcontent" at the Blackfriars Playhouse. I read the play in anticipation of seeing it and really enjoyed it. It's classed a revenge tragedy but it seems more of a revenge comedy. Benjamin Curns stars as Malevole/Duke Altofronto, who was overthrown and banished thanks to the machinations of John Harrell's Mendoza. Harrell, who is so good you sometimes take him for granted, is outstanding as the conniving minion/lover of Aurelia played by the fabulous Sarah Fallon. Jeremy West is fantastic as Duke Pietro who takes over after Altofronto is banished. Altofronto disguises himself as Malevole and schemes on how to take back power. The plot is reminiscent of "Measure for Measure" with some "Hamlet" thrown in. Malevole provides a running commentary on the sorry state of the Genoan Dukedom and the many minions, bawds, and adulterers that parade through the stage. Curns, as always, is flawless as a performer. The chemistry between he and Harrell is at its peak in this play. They always play well off of each other, particularly when Harrell is playing a sneak. Fallon is also wonderful in this type of role. She's great when she plays a bad girl. Another standout performer is Paul Jannise as the overblown Bilioso. I was really looking forward to seeing this performance after reading the play. His interactions with Malevole are priceless. On top of it all, Jannise's costume is amazing. Allison Glenzer, playing yet another old trollop, is fantastic as the bawdy, lascivious Maquerelle (get it, Mackerel), Jeremiah Davis makes for a pretty bearded girl as Emilia, and Patrick Midgley's Ferneze is a sight to behold. Tyler Moss plays Bilioso's fool, Passarello and turns in a great performance in that role and as Equato. He's equally impressive in the musical interlude dancing away and moonwalking on the mash-up Nirvana/Michael Jackson "Smells Like Billie Jean." Speaking of music, there are some fantastic musical performances in this production including covers of "Overkill" by Men at Work, "Go to Sleep" by Radiohead, "And It Spread" by The Avett Brothers, and "No Regrets" by Forest Sun. Also, be sure to look for the pre-show/Induction. Poor Daniel Burrows is pestered by an audience member (John Harrell) who finally takes to the stage and is joined by another audience member (Chris Johnston) as well as other cast members. The Malcontent is a fabulous play, both funny and exceedingly nasty with lots of delicious double entendres and sexual overtones. Make sure you check it out!

The Actors Renaissance Season continues with "Look About You" by anonymous, a play based on the Robin Hood story. From what I've read so far (and that is no easy task, getting a hold of the text that is), it will be wonderful.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An Evening of Jazz in Staunton

My friend and owner of Shenandoah Pizza and Shenandoah Hops, John Huggins, is promoting another night of music in Staunton, this time a jazz concert. The concert, "An Evening of Jazz," will be held February 26th at 6:30 pm at ShenanArts at the nTelos Theater. Featured performers are The S.P.L.A.A.A.T. Quintet (Society for the Preservation of Live American Aural Art Traditions) and Chaise Lounge. The dress is semi-formal and the cost is $25 and will include hors d'oeuvres presented by Chef Drew Buzik.

S.P.L.A.A.T. features Tom Harbeck on guitar, Lew Morrison on bass, Marlon Foster on drums, Tim Weir on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Brett Kirby on saxophone. S.P.L.A.A.A.T. specializes in standards from legends such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis. Chaise Lounge features five of the Washington area's best jazz musicians fronted by the vocals of Marilyn Older. They specialize in original tunes and standards and have an early sixties vibe.

For more information on the show see the event Website. I'm sure the night will be one to remember, as John and Cheryl work hard and always do their best to make people happy.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Comedy of Errors- 2011 Actors' Renaissance Season

We attended two pay what you will performances of "The Comedy of Errors" to open the 2011 Actors' Renaissance Season at the Blackfriars Playhouse. In 2009, we saw the Rough, Rude and Boisterous touring troupe's version of "The Comedy of Errors," so that production was fresh in my mind. I'm not sure which version I prefer. Both were excellent, though this one seemed to have a lot more "emphasis added" humor to Shakespeare's shortest and most slapstick play.

This production is contemporary whereas the previous production was set in the original time period. The whole play (with the exception of the oddly tragic opening scene) is a slapstick farce with the classic mistaken identity theme played to the hilt. Tyler Moss and Greg Phelps are fantastic as the Dromios. They play them more as clowns than Dennis Henry and Rick Blunt did in 2009. Moss and Phelps employ lots of physical comedy in their roles. Their masters, the Antipholi, are played by John Harrell and Patrick Midgley, respectively. Harrell is at his frustrated best, and Midgley is impressive as the more confused, stranger in town. Be sure to watch for how other characters differentiate between the two- very funny. Two performances in lesser roles very nearly stole the show for me. Chris Johnston, who I believe is one of the best performers at the ASC, is fantastic as the Geisha inspired Courtesan (and is a sharp dressed man as the offended and calming merchant Balthazar). The other show stealer is Jeremy West as the doughnut eating Officer. I had never seen West before and I thought he did a fantastic job. I look forward to seeing him in the meatier role of Richard, Duke of York in "Henry VI, Part 3." Benjamin Curns, as always, is flawless in the dramatic role of Egeon. He sports a nice suit as well (made by ASC Costume Designer Erin West for a 2007 production of Winter's Tale and brought back to life for this role). Sarah Fallon and Miriam Donald are terrific as Adriana and Luciana. Throughout the play Miriam has one of those "always worried, always concerned" looks that had me kind of cracking up. Also watch for Allison Glenzer's fantastic cameo as "Fat Nell," it will have you rolling.

The pre-show and interlude music was fantastic, though a bit short at this point (the troupe is still learning songs, I imagine, they'd only had three days of rehearsals to get this production going). Songs include John Sebastian's "Welcome Back," made famous in "Welcome Back, Kotter," Weezer's "(If You're Wondering If I Want You To) I Want You To," Katrina and the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine," Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music," and an excellent rendition of Walter Egan's "Magnet and Steel."

The Actors' Renaissance Season continues with John Marston's "The Malcontent," opening January 20.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Santaland Diaries starring Richard Blunt

Rick Blunt as Crumpet the Elf in Santaland Diaries. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I had the pleasure of sitting on stage for two performances of "Santaland Diaries" this season. The first performance was the day after Christmas (I also saw "A Christmas Carol" and the penultimate performance of "The Twelve Dates of Christmas"), and the second was the final performance on New Year's Eve. For both shows' pre-show entertainment Daniel Jimenez and Aidan O'Reilly were joined onstage by the great Chris Johnston. Some of the songs featured were a cover of Sufjan Stevens' "Star of Wonder," (Amazing, blows Stevens' version away), Jimenez's version of Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song," a mash-up of Brand New's "70 times 7" and "Mixtape," and The Arrogant Worms' "Santa's Going to Kick Your Ass."

Blunt kicked off the show by walking out and dropping a bag and saying "Marley was fucking dead!" The first crowd seemed to get the joke, the second one didn't, with Blunt chiding them "It's a little Christmas Carol humor, people." Despite this faux pas, the second crowd was livelier and more energetic than the first one and Blunt is a performer who definitely feeds off the energy of a crowd. In the first show it seemed the only people he had to play with were my wife and I. In the second one, he had lots of willing participants and he was able to ad lib a bit more.

Blunt took over the Elf costume from John Harrell who had played Crumpet the past several years (along with Christopher Seiler one season- I'm sorry I missed his performance). Blunt is a more lovable, albeit pissed off Elf, whereas Harrell is a more bitter, snarky Crumpet. Blunt's take on the Jersey pilgrims to Macy's Santaland was terrific. In one memorable scene in the first performance we saw, Blunt was changing into his elf costume and having a hard time bending over to get his shoes on. As he struggled he said, "I should have gotten a job as a Santa." Maybe next year, Rick :)

Following the show the Reckless Ecstasy troupe sans Dennis Henry (he acted as MC) and Blunt (who helped out on a couple of songs) staged a two and a half hour concert and countdown to 2011. It was a great show with tons of songs and much revelry. Chris Johnston even joined the band on the banjo for one song. Most of the ASC Resident Troupe were in attendance and Sarah Fallon dropped a glass of red wine on me from the balcony (I was wearing all white). All in all it was a night to remember!
Rick Blunt in The Santaland Diaries. Photo by Michael Bailey