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.