Saturday, September 22, 2012

Love's Labour's Lost at the Blackfriars and The Lyric in Blacksburg

Stephanie Holladay Earl as the Princess of France and 
Patrick Midgley as Navarre in Love's Labour's Lost
Photo by Michael Bailey.
I had the pleasure of seeing performances of Love's Labour's Lost at the Blackfriars Playhouse and at the Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg for the first show of the Tempt Me Further Tour. I had not read or seen Love's Labour's Lost before (I've tried to watch Branagh's horrible musical version of it a few times, but have not managed to get past the first five minutes), so I was quite unfamiliar with the play, but this production is very accessible and entertaining.

ASC veteran and fan favorite Patrick Midgley opens his first tour as the King of Navarre, leading a band of lords (Berowne: Patrick Earl, Dumaine: David Millstone, Longaville: Jake Daly) who form a sort of "He-Man Woman Haters Club," swearing off women to devote their time to study. The Lords have varying degrees of commitment to this idea, with Patrick Earl's Berowne being the most humorously opposed to it. Perchance, the Princess of France (played by the elegant Stephanie Holladay Earl), who just so happens to have an equal number of Ladies (Rosaline: Lexie Helgerson, Katharine: Bridget Rue, Maria: Molly Gilman) attending her, arrive in Navarre and the King and his men fall head over heels immediately. The ladies are attended by Lord Boyet, played brilliantly as a butler by Seth McNeill. Midgley, who is excellent in comedic roles, is terrific in the production and it's evident he has some fun wearing that white suit. Patrick Earl is equally adept as the love stricken and hilarious Berowne.

Rick Blunt as Don Armado in Love's Labour's Lost
Photo by Michael Bailey.
Meanwhile, we are joined by the ridiculously comical Don Adriano de Armado of Spain and his page Moth. Rick Blunt plays Armado to the hilt, complete with an absurd accent and blustering mannerisms. Blunt uses all of his boundless comic abilities and energies to steal the show and have the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand. Stephanie Earl, pulling double duty, is amazingly convincing playing the male Moth and as typical of the past two troupes she plays a great smart aleck foil to Blunt's blustering fools. Speaking of blustering fools, Andrew Goldwasser's Costard is another foil for Don Armado (and several others) and would be a good candidate for the US Postal Service with his love letter delivery mix-ups.

Bridget Rue plays the slatternly Jaquenetta with her typically excellent clownery. Jake Daly brings the house down with his snuff dipping, country boy Forester. David Millstone, borrowing from his stuffy Malvolio in Twelfth Night, is great as the stuffed shirt academic Holofernes. Lexi Helgerson pulls double duty as the skittish, concerned priest Sir Nathaniel, the sidekick of Holofernes. Seth McNeill shows his comedic chops as the foolish Constable Dull, a definite close relation to Dogberry.

The show at the Lyric was well-attended, probably around 300. I sat on stage, which was a very up-close experience as the stage is tiny, probably a third of the size as the Blackfriars. Like the other shows in this season, the music is outstanding. One highlight is Patrick Earl and Seth McNeill performing "More than Words" with Patrick Midgley providing an accompanying gesture that I will not spoil.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Twelfth Night at the Blackfriars & Hollins University

Lexie Helgerson as Viola and Stephanie Holladay Earl as Olivia in Twelfth Night. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I am a big fan of Twelfth Night. It is definitely my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies, so I was looking forward to the ASC Tempt Me Further troupe's version of the classic comedy, directed by John Basil. I was able to see an early showing at the Blackfriars and then a ready-for-the road version at Hollins University. The show at Hollins was more polished than the Sunday matinee version I saw at the Blackfriars and the troupe was definitely able to draw off the energy of the large crowd (that said, the crowd was more subdued than what one normally experiences at Hollins).

Longtime ASC favorite Rick Blunt is fittingly cast as the affable, drunken lout Sir Toby Belch. Blunt is always a natural in this type of role and he doesn't disappoint here. He was especially loved by the crowd at Hollins and seemed to feed off of their energy. Newcomer Seth McNeill ably plays Toby's partner in debauchery, Sir Andrew Aguecheek and is convincing in portraying the cowardly, foolish knight. They are joined in their foolery by Bridget Rue, who on her second tour with the company, pretty well steals the comedic show as Maria, Olivia's gentlewoman. Rue has masterful facial expressions and knows how to use physical comedy to her advantage. She also does a great job on the cover of Supertramp's "Take the Long Way Home." Maria, Andrew, and Toby's confederate, Fabian, is aptly played by ASC rookie Molly Gilman. Gilman is terrific in this role and she is equally impressive musically. She has a beautiful singing voice- eerily reminiscent of Miriam Donald. She brought the house at Hollins down with Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe."

On her second tour with the ASC, the always excellent Stephanie Holladay Earl plays the love stricken Countess Olivia, the love interest of Count Orsino (and Malvolio) and the niece of Sir Toby. Stephanie always exudes grace and class in roles like this with just enough humor to give the character depth and more sympathy than a less talented performer could coax from the audience. This will be a strong and successful season for her. Orsino, who is also love stricken with Olivia, is wonderfully portrayed by Patrick Earl. Earl's strong vocal style and sense of stage presence make him a natural for this role. He blends just enough humor, firmness, and confusion to make Orsino a favorite with the crowd. Earl, also in his second season with the company, looks to me to be the headliner of the tour.

David Millstone as Malvolio inTwelfth Night. Photo by Michael Bailey.
ASC newcomer Lexie Helgerson tackles the legendary role of Viola/Cesario. She was very impressive in front of the large crowd at Hollins, seeming more comfortable than at the subdued matinee performance back in Staunton. She does a very good job at making you forget she's a she, and her costume and demeanor gives her that great, impish look reminiscent of Peter Pan. She also uses her facial expressions very well to convey emotions. Her twin Sebastian, played by Jake Daly (a definite favorite at Hollins), has a much smaller role in the play, but Daly plays it well and gets the most out of it. Daly is also the music coordinator for the troupe and the song selections for this tour are the best I've heard from the touring troupes I've seen. Sebastian's creepy, obsessed friend Antonio is played by ASC veteran (but tour rookie) Patrick Midgley. Midgley does a great job in this small, mysterious, passionate role. I think if someone would write a book on what happens to Antonio and Malvolio after Twelfth Night, they would have a hit.

Malvolio and Feste, two of Shakespeare's great characters are played by David Millstone and Andrew Glodwasser respectively. Millstone definitely has fun with Malvolio, playing him about 9/10ths past dour. Goldwasser, who has a great voice both for singing and speaking, is very good as the mercurial Feste (as a matter of fact, he's quite impressive in all three shows this season).

The costumes for this show are quite ornate and one can tell ASC Costume Designer Erin M. West did a lot of research for this one. Particularly impressive is Rick Blunt's gift wrapped crotch.

If you get a chance to see the show on the road or at the Blackfriars, do it. The troupe will be on tour through November before returning to the Blackfriars for December and the holiday shows before heading back out in January before bringing the shows home for the spring season in April.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Sophie the Dog as Crab and Benjamin Curns as Launce inThe Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Photo by Michael Bailey.
I have seen two performances of The Two Gentlemen of Verona in recent weeks, along with a "speed through" and some rehearsals of Shakespeare's first known play. The shows have been well attended and quite pleasing to the crowds on hand. If you are a fan of Shakespeare's comedies, particularly the early ones, then this production should not be missed.

This production, directed by Ralph Alan Cohen, does a good job of keeping things light. Greg Phelps and ASC newcomer Grant Davis play the good friends Proteus and Valentine. Both actors do an outstanding job in their roles. They both have wonderful scenes with Alli Glenzer (Speed), who has several show stealing moments. Glenzer also works magic in tandem with Ben Curns (Launce) and his pooch sidekicks. This was easily Glenzer's strongest role of the year so far. When given the opportunity she never fails to deliver. She is definitely an all-star at the ASC. Curns, as always, brings his "A-game." He got to work with Tulip, a mixed Pit Bull who had some stage fright, and Jed, an obese black Lab who had the crowd ooing and ahhing and was a bit more comfortable on stage. Proteus and Valentine's love interests are played by Tracie Thomason (Julia) and Abbi Hawk (Silvia). Both actors do tremendous work in these roles. Thomason is especially funny sporting a codpiece late in the play as Sebastian and Hawk is impressive as the unrequiting and wronged Silvia. Speaking of codpieces, the master of the cod, "Codpiece" Chris Johnston is back rocking a garish, slightly erect yellow and red codpiece to match his foppish character Thurio. Johnston always excels in this type of role and he steals plenty of scenes in this production. It's always fun to see James Keegan as one of the outlaws, stealing something from an audience member (so far, I've seen him take M&Ms and mineral water). The "rape scene" is downplayed about as much as it can be, and that leaves people with little pause and keeps the light feel out there. The costumes for this show are also excellently done.

While the play itself is nothing to write home about, this production is fun and a great night out at the theatre.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Blue Ridge Pig, Kathy's, and the Brew Ridge Trail

Blue Mountain Brewery
While on a recent trip to Staunton, I tried a few restaurants that I had never been to. I had long heard of Kathy's in Staunton, but had never been there. I think the memory of a bad experience at Mrs. Rowe's still lingered, but I'd heard nothing but good things. So, one morning I had the pleasure of dining with American Shakespeare Center actor Benjamin Curns and he suggested we go to Kathy's.

Kathy's is a classic American family restaurant. It is located in the area that used to be the "main drag" in Staunton, but has become secondary since the downtown revitalization. The decor is a mix of family restaurant and diner.

I ordered the "Big Mike's Country Breakfast," not because I was famished but because it was the most Paleo compliant item on the menu. "Big Mike's" includes a slice of country ham, a sausage patty, three slices of bacon, grits, brown (but creamy) sausage gravy, two eggs, two biscuits, and home fries. I donated the biscuits to my wife and Ben and went to work on the rest. It was a fantastic platter. I wholeheartedly recommend visiting Kathy's for a hearty breakfast. My wife and I returned a few weeks later and I again ordered "Big Mike's." We have heard nothing but raves for the pancakes, so my wife ordered the bacon pancakes. This features bacon mixed into the batter and topped with one slice of bacon. I had a bite and it was wonderful. We have yet to try lunch, but we'll give it a shot one of these days.

I am from the Triad of North Carolina, the home of Lexington style barbecue, so whenever I hear people praising pork barbecue I'm somewhat skeptical. Let me also say, I am not hog wild over Lexington style barbecue either. I prefer a very smoky, meaty flavor with very little of that vinegar taste. So, when ASC actor Rick Blunt suggested we try a place in Nellysford called the Blue Ridge Pig I was a bit blase about it. Boy, was I in for a surprise! We went with Rick over the Mountain to Nellysford to give this place a shot. It appears to be a condemned shed glommed on to the side of a convenience store/gas station. It is the true definition of a dive. The wonderful smell of smoked meat smacks you in the face as soon as you step out of the car. I ordered a pulled pork sandwich, with nothing but meat. It comes on a toasted Kaiser roll. The meat is the best barbecued pork I've ever had. It really tastes as good as it smells. The thing I've noticed over the years is the taste of the meat never lives up to the smell. Well, not here! It's amazing. And while I was skeptical of the Kaiser roll, it works great as a complement to the meat. My wife, who doesn't particularly care for pork barbecue, even raved about it. We can't wait to head back even though it's a bit of a drive. Be advised, Blue Ridge Pig is a cash-only establishment.

While you're out that way you may want to check out Blue Mountain Brewery, Wild Wolf Brewing Company, and Devil's Backbone Brewing Company. They are all located on this same road, Rockfish Valley Highway (151), aka the Brew Ridge Trail. I've been to Blue Mountain and Devil's Backbone. The food I've had at both is average (bratwurst and burger at Blue Mountain and the Bonesmoker platter at DBB), but the beer at both is great. I suggest doing a sampler/flight. You can find most of Blue Mountain & DBB's beer throughout Virginia, while Wild Wolf is still mostly in the Shenandoah Valley and Central VA.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

No Kidding Shakespeare Camp

Katrien, Adrian, and Barry rehearsing Julius Caesar. Photo courtesy of Sara Lewis Holmes.
For the last couple of years I have wanted to attend the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp for adults. Thanks to the great ASC Education staff (and some creative scheduling from my employer) I was able to do it this year. The camp was a great experience, and I got to meet and work with several wonderful people from a wide variety of backgrounds and experiences.

We kicked off the week with a brunch at the Blackfriars Playhouse and then a short orientation session. We followed this with introductions and an excellent presentation on Shakespeare as an international phenomenon by ASC Co-Founder and Director of Mission Dr. Ralph Alan Cohen. Following a break we reconvened into two tracks (we had an advanced track and a basic track, but could choose which sessions we wanted to attend). I chose to attend a session led by ASC Education Director Sarah Enloe focusing on scansion and paraphrase. This session was very beneficial for me as it taught me several things about iambic pentameter and scansion that I did not realize. Following this session, I attended a sit-down conversation with Almost Blasphemy Touring Troupe members Daniel Abraham Stevens and Ronald Peet, and ASC Group Sales and Academic Resources Manager Ben Ratkowski who has also toured performing Shakespeare plays for children in the mid-west. They all discussed life on the road with us and the differences in venues and how that affects performance. Following this session I attended a session on clowning by ASC veteran actor Daniel Kennedy. This was a fun session, as you might expect, and we got to do a lot of clowning. I want to especially thank my fellow camp member, Richard, who partnered up with me in some less than dignified activities. We closed out the day with a BBQ at the beautiful home of Ralph and Judy Cohen. Most of the campers and the ASC Education staff attended as well as ASC actors Tracy Hostmyer, Tracie Thomason, and Abbi Hawk all of whom were a welcome addition to our group. I finished out the day back in Staunton watching pro wrestling with Allison Glenzer, Ben Curns, and Lia Razak.

Tuesday started with an informal session with Sarah Enloe and then our first movement session with ASC veteran Bob Jones. Throughout the week, Bob showed us how to incorporate movement into our performances and how to best use the space and the architecture of the Playhouse. These were fun sessions, particularly when we got to do read-throughs and a bit of acting. I was not a big of a fan of the movement game "Zip, Zap, Boing," and looked forward to the final elimination round to self-immolate. During the "acting" sessions I was able to be killed a Caesar and Banquo (with a pretty impressive fall and death, if I do say so myself) and Richard III's "Winter of our discontent" speech.

The next session on Tuesday was stage combat with ASC veteran Jeremy West. This session was very informative and a lot of fun. I teamed up with Barry, a guy I've seen at the Blackfriars about every time I'm there. We got to learn how to do various punches and slaps and hair pulls and drags. I really enjoyed this session, but wish we had learned how to take falls as well. Following lunch, our next session was with University of Akron professor William Proctor Williams on texts, editing, editions, and printing of early texts. This was a highly informative and entertaining session. We then broke into groups and I went to Patrick Midgley's session on Sonnets. We had an extensive homework assignment with this session, dealing with Sonnet 29. The session was pretty eye opening on how the use of images and ideas can help you with memorization. After the session, Patrick and I went for coffee and caught up on old times and conversed about our adherence (or sometimes lack thereof) to the Paleo diet. That night I attended a performance of The Old Wive's Tale by George Peele, performed by Mary Baldwin students. After catching up a bit with ASC Costume Shop Manager & Designer Erin West, I headed up to Harrisonburg to finish off the night.

Wednesday started with another informal discussion with Sarah, followed by another movement session with Bob (and my Caesar scene). We then had a session with ASC actor Greg Phelps on sound and music at the Blackfriars. This was a lot of fun and it was interesting hearing Greg speak about his experiences on the road and at the Blackfriars and about music choices. We then had a catered lunch and watched rehearsals for The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The scenes we watched involved Allison Glenzer, Greg Phelps, Grant Davis, Tracie Thomason, James Keegan, and Tracy Hostmyer. We then reconvened at the Masonic building to discuss our impressions of the rehearsal. Following the discussion we had another lecture by William Proctor Williams on texts indoors and out. Once again we split into separate tracks and I attended a session with ASC Education staff on audience contact. After leaving I spent a little time with Ben Curns and Erin West, then had dinner before heading to the theatre to see The Merchant of Venice followed by a Talk Back. I ran into Tracie Thomason after the show and we chatted a bit about the show and Staunton.

The next morning we had our first "Critic's Circle" discussion about the previous night's performance. We then had another movement session (my Richard III intimidation of fellow campers session) and a great discussion by Erin West about costume design at the ASC. Allison Glenzer then dropped in to teach us about the use of voice and sound and how our emotions, breathing, and fears can affect our vocals. This was a great session and Alli is a great teacher. Following lunch with several of my campers at Darjeeling Cafe, I attended a session Elizabethan Dance with Jeremy West. This was pretty fun despite my lack of experience with dance. Special thanks to my fellow campers Caitlin, Sara, and Katrien for having to dance with my hulking carcass and being so gracious about it. I'm sure it's kind of like dancing with a sweaty grizzly. We then reconvened for a session on history plays of the early Plantagenet period to Richard II led by Sarah and Anne Armentrout. Following dinner at Mill Street I attended The Lion in Winter. I had a terrible seat for the first half, so I managed to move down to one of my regular seats that was unoccupied during the interval. Following the performance and Talk Back we had a wonderful cast party. Following that I hung out with Ben Curns for a couple of hours before heading up to Harrisonburg, getting in at around 2 am (if you're gonna fake being an actor, live like one).

Our last day was pretty light. I had coffee with Patrick Midgley then a few of us couldn't get into the Playhouse for the Critic's Circle. That's probably my biggest complaint about the camp- we had door issues for a couple of days. We finally were able to get some folks to let us in. We had our last movement session (with my Banquo slaughter) and then a lecture by Mary Baldwin professor Janna Segal on international productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream. We followed this up with scenes from King John and The Lion in Winter. I got to close it out with Lion Act 1, scene 5 as the Lionheart with Martha as Eleanor and Peggy as John. Following our scenes we said our farewells and some of us headed over to Blue Mountain Brewery. I rode over with Sarah, Cass, and Ben Ratkowski. We all had a great time at Blue Mountain and then we went on our various ways.

This was an awesome experience. There are so many people to thank at the ASC, including a shout-out to all the interns; you guys made things go very smoothly and were quite patient with all of us, and of course all of my fellow campers. They were a great group of people, very willing and generous and easy to work with. I hope I get to see them again. Next year, Ralph is hoping to put together a trip to England and Scotland and hopefully I will get to make it for that.

This camp gave me more of an appreciation for all the hard work that goes into these productions. If you have a desire to learn more about the actual work behind putting up these plays I highly recommend attending future camps.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Lion in Winter

As part of my experience with the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, I attended a performance of James Goldman’s 1966 play The Lion in Winter. I had earlier read the play, had seen both movie versions, and attended a workshop earlier in the day led by ASC Director of Education Sarah Enloe and Anne Armentrout on the actual history of the early monarchy until the reign of Elizabeth and some of the history plays focusing on the time of Henry II and John. The ASC’s The Lion in Winter is a marvelous display of the early Plantagenets at their most sinister, conniving, backstabbing best (or worst).

Tracy Hostmyer & James Keegan in The Lion in Winter. Photo by Michael Bailey.
The setting for the play is a Christmas court in Chinon, Anjou during the year 1183. Henry II was 50 years old and had reigned for nearly 30 years. His 61 year old wife, Queen of either England or France for nearly 50 years, Eleanor of Aquitaine had been in exile for nearly a decade following a rebellion against the King. His son Henry the Younger, who had co-reigned with Henry II had died, and the three remaining sons: Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey (named for Henry’s father), and John are all vying for the throne. Henry’s mistress, Alais (and betrothed to Richard), the half-sister of King Philip II of France and Philip himself are also in attendance.

The play is rather quick moving, and is full of many twists and turns. These Plantagenets (and Philip) are constantly scheming against one another, and it’s hard to tell who is serious or jesting (or outright lying) when they speak. James Keegan is, as expected, the master of the stage. He’s a raving, roaring Lion of a King, constantly in a battle of wits with his strange brood and with Tracy Hostmyer’s formidable Eleanor. Keegan’s performance is typical of a Keegan performance: large and in charge. The man is the consummate professional and never gives anything less than a stellar, impassioned performance. He’s the true general of the Blackfriars stage and I cherish every opportunity I get to see him perform.

Hostmyer’s Eleanor is an able foil to the roaring Lion. In speaking with her after the performance, I could tell how important this role is to her and I look forward to seeing how her take on the character evolves over the next five months. She plays the scheming grand dame adeptly and with a good balance of grace, cunning, and outright bitch.

John Harrell’s Prince John is a petulant, nasty (and dirty), whining little shit of a prince. Harrell is at his best in a role like this and he definitely knocks it out of the park. You can see him acting from the top of his head to the soles of his feet constantly during this performance. No performer at the Blackfriars uses their body and movement as adroitly as Harrell. He’s always a master of movement and facial expressions, and he does a tremendous job of both in this role.

Benjamin Curns’ Lionheart, at least for me, can dominate scenes due to the sheer legend of the character. Curns, coming off his masterful performance as Richard III is terrific in this role, balancing just enough of Richard the Lionheart’s soldierly front, with his doubts and worries about not ascending to the crown. Richard tries to be emotionless, but is anything but. His love scene with Rene Thornton, Jr.’s regal and scheming King Philip and other private times with Eleanor show just how vulnerable he really is. Curns, like Harrell, is a master of movement and audience contact and both are on display in this performance.

Greg Phelps plays the middle child, the capable, bitter, particularly amoral, and analytically brainy Geoffrey. All of these traits come to life in Phelps’ performance.  Phelps dons a sullen mask for the entirety of the show and is the most level-headed of the characters. He is brilliant as a slighted son, at war with his fate and contemptuous of his family.

I was again very impressed with the work of Tracie Thomason as Alais. On the surface, Alais appears as an innocent, weak, little pretty girl. She is greatly underestimated by all concerned however, and by the end of the play she’s a schemer as well. Thomason adeptly weaves all of these traits into her performance. You totally buy that she’s an innocent waif at the beginning, but by the end there’s no doubt she can hold her own with this dysfunctional bunch of Plantagenets.

The play is greatly enhanced by the meticulously detailed and well-researched costumes of ASC Costume Manager Erin M. West. West visited with the No Kidding campers earlier in the day and gave us a detailed discussion of how she researches and designs costumes, particularly focusing on this production. West is a true asset to the ASC and they are lucky to have someone of her immense talents.

I look forward to seeing this play several more times to see how it and the performances evolve over the course of the next five months. The one thing that seemed odd to me was the play seemed to just end out of nowhere. That may be due to the structure of the two acts; the first being much longer than the second. 

Following the performance and a Talk Back with Rene Thornton, Jr., James Keegan, Greg Phelps, Tracy Hostmyer, and Tracie Thomason, the ASC Education staff and ASC co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen graciously held a cast party for the No Kidding campers and gave us a chance to hang out with several of the actors from this season. It was a great time with great food and I’d like to thank all the actors and ASC staff who took part in the party. The ASC is a first class organization and the strength of it is the people. They really are a great group of people who give it their all in everything they do.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Merchant of Venice

Tracie Thomason as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I have been attending the American Shakespeare Center's No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this week. I've had a really good and informative time and will give a full synopsis later. As part of the camp we get to attend performances. Tonight we attended The Merchant of Venice. The show opened officially last week, but there have been a few dress rehearsals and other shows for a few weeks. Stylistically and thematically, the play is odd. I imagine in Shakespeare's time (or 1930s Germany) it was well-received as mostly a raucous comedy with a good in your face comeuppance story. Today, however, it's rather troubling. While I don't feel that Shylock (played masterfully by James Keegan) is a very sympathetic character overall, you can't help but hate his detractors even more as they pile on during the trial and as he faces continual derision and is spat upon throughout the play. I found that several times I would laugh at something and then scorn myself for laughing at or condoning something inappropriate. It's not an easy or light night at the theater. And while there are times you identify with Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Shylock, there really are no "good guys" in this play and it's very odd that it has this tragic foreboding throughout, and then it turns into something akin to Twelfth Night in the final act.

There are several standout performances in the production. Keegan's Shylock is the consummate characterization of the role. I have never seen Keegan deliver anything but a first-rate performance. He is as steady as they come, not just reliable, but exceptional. ASC newcomer Tracie Thomason turns in a splendid performance as the beautiful and exceedingly wealthy Portia. I look forward to seeing more of her work this season. Chris Johnston is strong as Lorenzo but very nearly steals the show as the foolish and outlandish Prince of Arragon complete with laced cod piece. Benjamin Curns plays the bastard to the hilt as Gratiano, Shylock's trial tormentor and friend of Bassanio. In the final act, he deftly changes back to good old sitcom husband Gratiano. Allison Glenzer, brilliant as always, is wonderful as Nerissa and she and Curns have a witty little pre-show skit. Greg Phelps turns in a strong performance as Bassanio, particularly as concerns his relationship with Portia. Abbi Hawk plays an especially intriguing Jessica, and John Harrell is classic John Harrell as Launcelot Gobbo.

I look forward to seeing this production several more times before its November closing. It really is a masterful production of a very troubling play. Seeing the play prompts me to go back and read it again, particularly the notes (and the note on the text- thank you William Proctor Williams). Don't hesitate to check out this troubling play. It will make you think and reflect upon your own thoughts, and what more should we expect from Shakespeare, but to be entertained and to learn?

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Mad World, My Masters

Daniel Kennedy in The Taming of the Shrew, 2010.  Photo by Tommy Thompson.
I have always enjoyed the works of the prolific Thomas Middleton. Not only are they great on stage, but they are as equally entertaining on page. I read A Mad World, My Masters in anticipation of seeing the ASC's production and knew I would be in for a wild ride. Quite simply, this is the rowdiest, randiest, most bawdy thing I've seen on stage at the Blackfriars and I've seen every production since January 2009. It's a tour de force of Jacobean dick and fart jokes.

A Mad World, My Masters is typical of a Jacobean era satirical city comedy (a genre I love). Like many of these plays, the plot surrounds a down on his luck youngster pulling the wool over the eyes of older, established "gentlemen." In this case, Dick Follywit (Greg Phelps) is playing his uncle, Sir Bounteous Progress (Daniel Kennedy) for a fool. In a subplot, we have Sir Penitent Brothel (John Harrell) attempting to cuckold Master Shortrod (HA!) Harebrain (Rene Thornton, Jr.). Tying the two together is the "virgin" Frank Gullman, who sells her virginity to all comers (see, I can write like Middleton) and who aids Brothel and Follywit in their exploits.

There are quite a few standout performances in this production. Daniel Kennedy steals the show with his South Florida inspired Sir Bounteous Progress. He nailed "old man" like I've never seen. You have to see the play just to see the costume! And just the little moves and shaking, dotage gestures were enough to keep me enthralled. Greg Phelps tackles the role of Follywit with gusto and gives one of his best comedic performances. He is aided by the dubious mannered duo of Mawworm (Chris Johnston) and Hoboy (Benjamin Curns) who are somewhat reminiscent of Dicky and Coover from Justified, and the delightful Sarah Fallon. John Harrell is wonderful as the hypocritical Brothel and he totally pulls off a Rick Santorum look (intentional, I presume) with the Bible, sweater vest and nerd glasses. Allison Glenzer kills it as Frank Gullman's Jersey Shore inspired bawdy mom and, of course Miriam Donald is brilliant as Gullman. Thornton turns in a great performance as the duped Harebrain and Brandi Rhome is excellent as always in the role of Mistress Harebrain.

This play is definitely adult oriented, so keep that in mind if bringing kids along. The night I saw it there was a young girl on stage, which resulted in a few cringe worthy moments. Peter Saccio, the acclaimed Dartmouth Shakespeare scholar was sitting behind me at the show I attended and someone asked him his opinion and he laughingly summed it up: "Filthy, just filthy!" If you see it, and I highly recommend you do, be prepared to laugh extremely hard and leave your sensibilities in the lobby. If you are not a fan of the bawdy Jacobean city comedies, go see Much Ado twice in its stead.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fletcher and Beaumont's Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding

Allison Glenzer in The Malcontent, 2011.  Photo by Tommy Thompson.
The American Shakespeare Center has a long and successful history with productions of plays by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, most notably A King and No King, and The Knight of the Burning Pestle. The ASC is currently reviving Beaumont and Fletcher's tragicomedy Philaster, or Love Lies a-Bleeding and the result is much more comedy and much less tragedy. If you enjoy a good deal of laughter with your "tragedy," make sure to check this one out.

Greg Phelps is terrific as the titular character, Philaster, a Sicilian whose throne has been usurped by a Calabrian regally portrayed by Rene Thornton, Jr. Philaster has not been banished, and has a place in the King's court, much to the King's displeasure. Philaster is so popular among the people that the King cannot banish or kill him, posing many attendant problems for the King. Unfortunately for him, Philaster is in love with the King's daughter, Princess Arethusa (wonderfully played by Sarah Fallon). Because of this, the King decides to force her to marry the Spanish Prince Pharamond (a show stealing performance by Aidan O'Reilly). Of course, Arethusa is secretly in love with Philaster and the two conduct their romance in secret with the assistance of Philaster's serving boy Bellario (played by the superb Miriam Donald). Meanwhile, Pharamond is having an affair with Megra (a wonderful performance by Allison Glenzer). Of course, chaos, hilarity, and deception ensue as plots and confusion are uncovered.

O'Reilly, as Pharamond, really stands out in this production. ASC costume designer Erin West and I debated whether he looked more like Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride or King Charles II: let's go with both. His accent is terrific in its silliness (he even sings one song using it). You can tell he really enjoys the role. Jeremy West also has a moment to remember as a fellow that hearkens back to Falstaff (complete with foolish attendants), and when he came on stage I had to do a double take as I thought it was Rick Blunt! West and Ben Curns also have an outstanding pre-show skit that is not to be missed.

Next up in the Actors' Renaissance Season is Thomas Middleton's A Mad World, My Masters. I always enjoy Middleton's plays, and look forward to seeing this production of the play.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Richard III

Benjamin Curns in Henry VI, Part 3, 2011.  Photo by Tommy Thompson.
I had the pleasure of witnessing the dress rehearsal and the PWYW performance of Richard III the finale of the ASC's War of the Roses tetralogy, part of The Histories: The Rise and Fall of Kings. This series, which continues with The Life and Death of King John and Henry VIII, but particularly the tetralogy focusing on the War of the Roses, has gained a cult-like following among ASC regulars, and there was definitely more of a buzz in the air last night at the opening than normal. There was a playoff like atmosphere in the crowd and everyone seemed to be a little more serious than normal. Likewise, the actors seemed to step their game up even more than normal. Not one "prithee" was called and I didn't notice any errors at all. The intensity level of the actors from the dress to opening was kicked up several notches. One could tell that the actors take this play (and series) very seriously and some were wearing their emotions on their sleeves.

Richard III is one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays. While the action is not of the same level as that of 3H6, the language is stunningly beautiful, well beyond that found in the the H6 plays. I had a few quibbles with themes/characters being cut in this production, most notably the ghosts of Henry VI and Ned Plantagenet, but I understand why that was done for the play is very long and there just aren't enough actors to cover all of the parts.

Once again, Benjamin Curns takes on the role of Richard of Gloucester and he of course dominates the stage. Simply put, this is Curns' crowning achievement and you would be wise to see it more than once. This performance ranks right up there with his Iago and Mephistopheles (unfortunately I missed his Macbeth and Hamlet). His performance in the final act is amazingly intense. It's easy to see that Curns is a fan of this series of plays and he definitely has studied the role and the production history of the play. I was very moved as the play came to its conclusion, not only because of the emotional performance but because the series is drawing to a close. I know I will probably see it at least three more times, but it's just one of those things you know you will remember and miss for the rest of your life.

Rene Thornton, Jr. turns in a wonderful and powerful performance as Buckingham, at one point leading the crowd on with a rousing speech full of confidence, hope, and deceit. Sarah Fallon, for the fourth time, takes her bow as Margaret, a role she will always be remembered for. She lets loose with her customary intensity, but picks it up a notch for this one. You can definitely tell she cherishes finishing out the role to its conclusion. She also turns in an amusing performance as young King Edward V, complete with some over stuffing. I'm not exactly sure where the obese Edward V idea came from (his father was in his last years), but it's funny. Brandi Rhome is wonderful as Anne Warwick/Queen Anne and as the smart-aleck young Richard of York. She also displays her beautiful singing voice on "The Dog Days Are Over" to begin the play. I'm really glad she came back to the stage this season. John Harrell, the only person to have a role in every single on of the Histories series, returns as Edward IV and brings his wonderful facial expressions along for the ride in his turn as James Tyrrel, murderer of the Princes in the Tower. Allison Glenzer turns in a powerfully gut-wrenching performance as Queen Elizabeth and Miriam Donald is strong as the wise but scarred Queen Mother/Duchess of York. Aidan O'Reilly is magnificent in one of the play's most poignant scenes: the death of Clarence. Chris Johnston and O'Reilly are impressive as the Boar's henchmen, the Cat and the Rat: Catesby and Ratcliffe. Daniel Kennedy's Hastings is not to be missed and his costume is right out of the Ric Flair and the Four Horsemen catalog. And of course, I would be negligent if I didn't mention the brief but stirring performance of Greg Phelps as Richmond (even though I was hoping he'd somehow lose to Richard).

I am looking forward to seeing this production a few more times, but it's a bittersweet proposition knowing that once it's over that's it and that an important chapter in the history of the American Shakespeare Center will have turned as the War of the Roses comes to its conclusion.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing- 2012 Actors' Renaissance Season Kicks Off

Chris Johnston in Henry VI, Part 3, 2011 .  Photo by Tommy Thompson.
Well, it's that time of year again: The Actors' Renaissance Season at the American Shakespeare Center. This is like the NFL Playoffs at the Blackfriars, where the best of the best actors are invited to participate. I attended two PWYW performances of William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing this past Saturday. This is probably my wife's favorite play. I enjoy it, I think it's very funny. It has several moments of brilliance, and features a few unforgettable characters, but it's not in my top ten. While it's not my favorite Shakesperean comedy, this is a terrific production of the play, and features plenty of solid work from these all-star actors.

We saw a production of Much Ado during the 2009 Summer Season at the ASC featuring Rene Thornton, Jr. and Sarah Fallon in the roles of Benedick and Beatrice. This time, Benjamin Curns and Miriam Donald Burrows, neither of whom were in that production, take the lead roles and are fantastic. Miriam plays the most likable Beatrice I've yet seen on stage or screen, but she is sufficiently snarky and seems to always get the best of Curns' Benedick. Curns turns in his usual excellent leading man performance and unleashes plenty of physical comedy throughout, including sitting on my lap while I was on stage in the Gallant's Stools. Miriam also made sure to get in on the action of using me as a prop as I was featured as the fresh faced lack beard to whom she is not attracted. I even had a patron tell me that I play a great fool during the interlude! I wasn't sure whether to take it as a compliment or an insult.

Continuing with the foolery, John Harrell is magnificent as the confused Dogberry. His facial expressions, always his strong suit, are at their best, and his costume is brilliant; sporting a very convincing gut. The returning Aidan O'Reilly plays his sidekick Verges in a style reminiscent of Paul Lynde. O'Reilly plays the total opposite role from Verges as the bastard Don John, the evil brother of Greg Phelps' Prince Don Pedro. It's good to see O'Reilly back on the stage in Staunton. Also turning in a hilarious performance is ASC fan favorite Daniel Kennedy as Antonio/Balthazar. Kennedy has a couple of brilliant comedic spots that I'm not going to spoil, but you must see.

Chris Johnston turns in one of his best performances at the ASC in arguably his biggest role to date, as Claudio. I'm happy to see that Johnston has been given a prominent role and he does not disappoint. Johnston plays opposite the returning Brandi Rhome as Hero, daughter of Thornton's Leonato. I was also glad to see Brandi return as she always does a great job, especially in a role like this. Thornton, as always, delivers the goods as the honor driven Governor of Messina.

It was also great to see Jeremy West and Sarah Fallon back on stage at the Blackfriars. While their roles are minor in this play, they have some good roles coming up and just seeing them made me feel great about this ensemble.

Before the evening show, Jim Warren and the cast announced the 2012-13 artistic year and we will have plenty of great plays to look forward to! Following the show, Warren gave a lengthy and informative TalkBack on artistic direction at the ASC.

The music for this show was very good, especially showcasing the talents of O'Reilly and Johnston. Speaking of Johnston, he has a released a CD of original music titled Bromios. It is available at the Blackfriars Box Office and on iTunes.

I'd also like to give special attention to Shannon Schultz, Erin Doerty, Ellie Laliberte, Dane Leasure, and Symmonie Preston for keeping everything running smoothly at the Playhouse during these often wild and crazy PWYW shows. These folks are unsung heroes and are important for providing you with a smooth and easy play going experience, so next time you're at the Playhouse, give them a little applause as well.