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.