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.