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.