Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Christmas Carol starring Patrick Earl

Patrick Earl as Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.
Photo by Michael Bailey.
OK, first of all, I really enjoy Dickens' A Christmas Carol and I really enjoy the staged version at the ASC. I do not especially like attending the shows though because it is not the typical Blackfriars audience. Very rarely do you see any regulars in attendance and there are always a lot of children and people unfamiliar with the style and etiquette of the Blackfriars. I was not going to attend this year, but I decided I would because I wanted to see how Patrick Earl's Scrooge would differ from the three previous ones (Keegan, Harrell, Thornton, Jr.). Earl, who always delivers, quite capably lives up to the performances of his predecessors, and the fact that he is significantly younger than the typical Scrooge never comes into play. He's not the meanest Scrooge I've ever seen, but he perhaps makes the most joyful transition to a being in possession of human kindness with a philanthropic bent of the performances I've seen at the ASC.

Patrick Midgley does a masterful job spinning the play's yarn as The Narrator (and gives the ladies something to smile about in the pre-show). Rick Blunt makes Scrooge's nephew Fred a more boisterous, gregarious character, a good trait for the "in the holiday spirit" Fred. Andrew Goldwasser has the audience's sympathy as the overworked, underpaid Bob Cratchit. Russell Daniels is hilarious as the Ghost of Christmas Present, as is Joey Ibanez as the Plump Sister, and Emily Joshi-Powell ably plays everybody's favorite Tiny Tim.

If you like A Christmas Carol or just want a bit of holiday cheer, then I'd recommend seeing the ASC's version--get your tickets quick--they are going fast as this show is always in demand.

The Twelve Dates of Christmas starring Allison Glenzer

I've seen every run of The Twelve Dates of Christmas at the ASC. The first two were performed by the writer: ASC veteran Ginna Hoben, and the last two by Allison Glenzer. While the story remains the same, both actors bring their own nuances to the role. Glenzer's performance this year is a bit more emotional than Hoben's, whereas Hoben excelled with the comedic bits. That's not to say Glenzer doesn't follow through with the laughs; the crowd was howling all night, but they were also ooing and awwing and shedding a few tears as well. All in all, this is a really good production (I personally think it holds up much better than the greying at the temples Santaland Diaries and is a better play in general) and Glenzer turns in yet another masterful performance.
Allison Glenzer as Mary in The 12 Dates of ChristmasPhoto by Michael Bailey.

To those not familiar with the story, the play is about a New York City based actor in her mid-30s, from Ohio named Mary. Mary loves the holidays (especially Thanksgiving) until she sees her fiance passionately kissing his sluttish co-worker during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. To further the humiliation, she sees the betrayal on national TV while attending Thanksgiving lunch at her parent's house in Ohio and receives an alarming number of phone calls and texts about the televised tryst. Mary dumps her fiance, deposits her engagement ring in a Salvation Army kettle, and attempts to get on with her life. She's set-up on a series of comically bad and bizarre dates by friends and family (Exercise Sally and Aunt Cathy are the best) for the next year.

Joining Alli on stage are Bridget Rue and Stephanie Holladay Earl as the "Doo Wop Girls." They and Chris Johnston provide the musical entertainment before and during the play. You'll even get to hear a couple of original holiday songs by Johnston ("Come Back Home (this Christmas)" is available on iTunes). If you like a little sass with your holiday stories, then this play is the one for you.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Newly Relocated Shenandoah Hops

Owner John Huggins at Shenandoah Hops.
A few months ago, John and Cheryl Huggins relocated their beer/wine/local groceries shop to the Wharf District in Staunton (29 Byers St.). The huge selection of beers made the old spot on New Street too tight of a fit, so they moved to their new shop which has much more elbow room and more browseability. The beer selection is better than ever- anything from Natty Boh to high end local ciders, kombuchas, over 50 IPAs and many traditional English and Scottish ales. As for regional selections, they stock all the Virginia favorites (Blue Mountain, Legend, Starr Hill, Devil's Backbone, Parkway, Roanoke Railhouse, Wild Wolf, Bold Rock, etc.), and several from Maryland (Duclaw, Heavy Seas), North Carolina (Natty Greene's, Highland, Foothills), Delaware (Dogfish Head), and Pennsylvania (Weyerbacher, Stoudts, Lionshead, Troegs, etc.) not to mention other brews from all over the nation and the world. Every Friday night they feature a beer tasting, featuring a couple of their many offerings. And to make things even more comfortable, they've installed a big leather sofa so you can sit back and converse with the always genial Huggins family or other patrons.

Hops is not just a beer and wine store, but a local specialty grocery store as well. You can get local handmade soaps, Virginia peanuts, locally made crafts, sauces, and canned jellies and jams. If you visit, and don't find what you're looking for, just ask and they'll do their best to make sure you get it. I always recommend a visit to Hops for tourists and locals alike. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

All's Well that Ends Well

Benjamin Curns as Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

I am a big fan of Shakespeare's All's Well that Ends Well. I realize many people don't like the play, ostensibly because Bertram is, for lack of a better term, kind of a dick (and then the moralists don't like Helena and Diana's bed trick/rapey thing). I think, however, that Dylan Paul plays him perfectly-- he plays him, in my mind, like a typically fickle, self-absorbed, self-aware coming-of-age young man who cares more about his reputation and societal standing than anything else. Of course, with Helena being played by the beautiful and talented Tracie Thomason, you sometimes want to smack Bertram and ask "what are you thinking, that girl's hot- who cares if she's not titled?!?" a sentiment that John Harrell's King of France essentially expresses. Thomason, who is clearly in "the zone" this season, turns in another masterful performance as a love-sick, but much more mature and wiser (than Bertram or Juliet) girl.

Tracie Thomason as Helena in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Pat Jarrett.
All's Well, in my mind, is one of the funnier comedies. Harrell is brilliant as the King, and his interpretation of the King's suffering from an anal fistula is priceless. I snicker every time he attempts to sit. Greg Phelps kills it as Lavatch the clown, making his idiocy seem exceedingly sharp. Benjamin Curns' Parolles is exceptional and is his best performance of the season thus far. Curns brings a great deal of physical comedy to this role--from his attempts to break free from the stockade to his huffing and puffing while on march. Curns, known mostly for leading-man roles, is an exceptionally talented comedic actor- this performance ranks right up there with his Face and Sir Toby Belch. Another great comedic turn is given by Rene Thornton, Jr. as Lafew. He and Curns have several comedic run-ins with Lafew always besting the blow-hard Parolles.

This production runs longer than most of Shakespeare's comedies, probably because it has a couple of musical numbers included (and this production has some excellent music). Ralph Alan Cohen directed this production and rang all the humor out of it. This production is probably the best interpretation of one of Shakespeare's comedies that I have seen at the Blackfriars since the 2010 Ren Season Twelfth Night. I highly recommend seeing it before the season ends (and you don't have much time!)

Monday, June 24, 2013

Romeo & Juliet

Romeo and Juliet, arguably Shakespeare's most seen, most popular play, is a sure crowd-pleaser. While it is not among my absolute favorite of Shakespeare's plays (it makes my second tier), you have to respect it as one of the upper echelon in the canon. Having seen the ASC Touring Troupe's version of Romeo and Juliet three years ago, I was looking forward to seeing how this version would differ. Jim Warren's version of Romeo and Juliet keeps it pretty traditional, with a somewhat Westside Story feel to shake things up a bit, but it's pretty well in line with the touring troupe version and most versions I have seen on stage.  The comedy and the dirtiness is played up more in this production than most I have seen- a welcome change for me.
Tracie Thomason as Juliet and Dylan Paul as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. Photo by Michael Bailey.

The show features an emotional, powerful turn by Tracie Thomason as Juliet, in possibly her greatest performance on the Blackfriars stage. Her Romeo is played capably by the talented Dylan Paul. One big takeaway I had from the performance was an epic, nearly show-stealing performance by Alli Glenzer as Friar Lawrence. Glenzer portrays a conflicted, guilt-wracked Holy man, haunted by his bad deeds in aiding the star crossed lovers.

In other stand-out turns, Ben Curns' performance takes the role of the Nurse to a starring level. He is extremely convincing in the role and totally makes you forget the role is played by a man. Greg Phelps' is fantastic in the much favored role of Mercutio and John Harrell is at his best as the snide and sinister Prince of Cats, Tybalt. Chris Johnston's Benvolio is also a favorite of mine in this production.

The production is capped with outstanding costumes by Erin M. West. If you are a fan of R&J, the ASC,  or a Virginia high school student, you should definitely see this production.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Return to the Forbidden Planet

Benjamin Curns as Bosun Arras, Chris Johnston as Lt. Hotlix McShredalot, and Gregory Jon Phelps as Cookie in Return to the Forbidden Planet. Photo by Michael Bailey.
When I first heard that the ASC would be performing Return to the Forbidden Planet I thought the concept was kind of lame. Of course, anything the ASC does is worth seeing, so I was up for it. Also, with conversations I'd had with Ben Curns and others I was told this would be a popular and highly entertaining show. Such praise notwithstanding, I was unprepared for the riotous good time I had at both a dress rehearsal and the opening night performance (sitting on stage, adding to the rollicking trip that is this show). RUN, don't walk to Staunton to see this production-- it is one of the best two hours of entertainment you are likely to ever experience. 

Return to the Forbidden Planet was written in the mid-1980s by Bob Carlton. It is a jukebox musical based on Shakespeare's The Tempest and the 1956 film Forbidden Planet with some Star Trek and other SciFi movies thrown in. Many famous and not so famous lines from Shakespeare's plays also make an appearance.

Dylan Paul is magnificent in his performance as Captain Tempest- I am not exaggerating when I say this was a brilliant, if not perfect, bit of casting. His facial expressions, line delivery, physicality, audience interaction, and stage presence are amazing for this role. I've seen many great performances at the Blackfriars, and Paul's in this role ranks among the very top. 

Rene Thornton plays Prospero, a mad scientist, and he brings tremendous energy to the role. He shows off a great singing voice and plays well against Captain Tempest, the Science Officer (a great performance by Lee Fitzpatrick) and his innocent, if somewhat rebellious virginal daughter Miranda (a very convincing and entertaining Emily Brown). 

Other standout performances were turned in by Greg Phelps as the affable and lovesick Cookie; a roller skating robot named Ariel (the brilliant John Harrell), the all around good guy Bossun Arras (Ben Curns), and Chris Johnston who served as the musical director and played the role of Lt. Hotlix McShredalot. Special shout-outs should go to costume designer Erin M. West and dance choreographer Stephanie Holladay Earl.

I plan to see this production many times this year and already have several folks interested in seeing this as their first play at the Blackfriars.  

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Shenandoah Pizza/Shenandoah Hops

I just got back from another Staunton jaunt and I had the pleasure of eating at Shenandoah Pizza. While the pizza is the best you will find anywhere, my favorite food item is the wings. Owner John Huggins makes sure to get the meatiest, highest quality wings and offers several different sauces: barbecue, hot, XX hot, naked, and General Tso's. Johnnie told me to look out for a new flavor soon, an Eastern Carolina barbecue sauce called Fab-bu-lous Sauce that he will be offering soon. I had a party with some of the actors at the American Shakespeare Center back in January and ordered 100 wings from Shenandoah Pizza of different varieties. The wings were a huge hit with everyone at the party (and an extra thanks to Johnnie for throwing in some extras). We all like using Shenandoah Pizza's pizza sauce (the best I've ever had) as the dipping sauce.

Shenandoah Pizza recently began offering gluten free wraps. My wife is very gluten intolerant and has been forced to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle. She has eaten the gluten free wraps twice and thinks they are wonderful. The first one she had was the Club Staunton; it features ham, smoked turkey, and bacon. The second one was the Sears Hill, named for a Staunton landmark. That wrap is a turkey, bacon, Swiss, and ranch, though rather than ranch she opted for the pizza sauce. Shenandoah Pizza also offers gluten free pizzas, though we have yet to try them. Another of my favorite items are the cheese breadsticks, the finest I have ever had. If they would just start making those gluten free as well I'd be a very happy camper.

Huggins also owns nearby Shenandoah Hops with his wonderful wife Cheryl. Hops is a place with an amazing selection of beers and many locally made/owned products. It's always worth stopping in to see what's new. I especially like the locally made soaps he stocks. Johnnie is also a concert festival promoter and brings jazz, blues, country, and bluegrass festivals to the Valley throughout the year. In short, Huggins is a great guy and a big time community leader and I like to call him "the hardest working man in Staunton." So, if you want the best wings and pizza east of the Mississippi, stop in at Shenandoah Pizza and don't forget to shop at Hops.

The Country Wife

Grant Davis as Harcourt, Abbi Hawk as Alithea, and Chris Johnston as Sparkish in The Country Wife. / Courtesy of ASC/Lauren D. Rogers.
The Country Wife, a play by William Wycherley, is a play tailor-made for the ASC's Actors' Renaissance Season (and the ASC period). It is a bawdy, humorous, sexual innuendo fest that the actors push to the limit and wring out every ounce of laughter from the crowds. This was by far my favorite production of the Ren Season, and while very long for a comedy, it is a terrific play.

Benjamin Curns devilishly plays the lead role, Harry Horner, a man who seeks to place horns on as many men as possible. In order to score even more with the women of town and country, Horner has a quack doctor (played by a well rested Rene Thornton, Jr.- seems like he has hours between scenes) spread rumors that Horner is impotent thanks to a trip to France. Daniel Kennedy, playing Sir Jasper Fidget, takes special delight in heckling Horner concerning his supposed malady. Kennedy is brilliant in his comic mannerisms. Little does he know that he's being cuckolded as Horner pursues Fidget's wife, played by the amazing Allison Glenzer, and his sister Dainty Fidget (Ronald Peet in drag with blonde wig), and their friend Mistress Squeamish (the delightful Sarah Fallon). The main object of Horner's affections is Margery Pinchwife (a wonderful performance by Tracie Thomason- the oranges scene will be long remembered in Staunton), the naive wife of John Harrell's Jack Pinchwife. Harrell, of course does a splendid job as the soon to be cuckolded Pinchwife.

Chris Johnston and Abbi Hawk are the show stealers of this production. Johnston as the "Pshaw!" blaring fop Sparkish and Hawk as Pinchwife's sister and Sparkish's fiancee Alithea who falls for Horner's friend Frank Harcourt (a charming performance by Grant Davis). Hawk has great comic timing and has hilarious facial expressions (she was especially funny during set changes). Johnston is always excellent in roles like this and he definitely delivers in this production all the way down to his costume choices (his white, pink topped dress shoes are amazing). Another personal favorite performance was Gregory Jon Phelps as Old Lady Squeamish, the grandmother of Mistress Squeamish. The mannerisms were perfect for an offended old lady and the one time I sat on stage for this production I was moved off of my stool with a cane shot.

I saw this production three times and wish I had seen it more. The play definitely grew on me, and by the third performance it had become one of my top ten non-Shakespeare ASC productions. Several of the people I regularly see at the Blackfriars told me it was their favorite production and were surprised at how much they liked it. Hopefully we'll get the chance to see it again someday.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Julius Caesar at the American Shakespeare Center

The annual Renaissance Season has kicked off at the American Shakespeare Center and the first play up is William Shakespeare's tragic history Julius Caesar. I saw both a matinee and the official opening night performance of the events surrounding Caesar's assassination. The production is a grand kick-off to the ARS.

Benjamin Curns tackles the role of Caesar with his typical aplomb. Unfortunately, though it's the title role, Caesar doesn't stick around long; though Curns does get to lie prostrate on the stage for quite a while. Caesar's infamous death scene is terrific and bloody. Curns channels a bit of Ric Flair and The Godfather in his time on stage. Rene Thornton, Jr.'s Marcus Brutus is the true main character, and Thornton delivers his many lines with the great skill and passion he is known for. His main ally, Caius Cassius, is played by the returning Sarah Fallon. It feels like Fallon never left as she and Thornton display their wonderful acting chemistry. Fallon very nearly steals the show as the conniving Cassius.

Greg Phelps' turn as Antony is another standout, and he does a wonderful job with one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare's canon. Alli Glenzer, Abbi Hawk, Daniel Kennedy, and John Harrell are great and amusing as the plebeians.

This production is not the typical performance you saw when you were in school. It's much faster paced and exciting, as are most ASC productions and is a great way to kick off the Actors' Renaissance Season.

Henry V at the Folger

I had the pleasure of seeing a sold-out, standing room only performance of Henry V at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre in Washington, DC on Friday, Feb. 1. Quite simply, it was an exhilarating performance. Zach Appleman is terrific as the invading Henry V, exhibiting magnetic star power and tremendous gravitas. For someone whose Shakespeare theatre experiences mostly consist of the lights on, crowd contact style of Staunton's American Shakespeare Center, the darkened theater and heavily produced style of the Folger took a little adjusting for me. However, a play like Henry V is at its best with great production and the Folger supplies plenty of set pieces, explosions, and music to transport you to the fields of France.

Henry V is arguably England's greatest hero (though he is quite the Machiavellian Prince). While many centuries have passed since his miraculous conquest of France, his legend has grown thanks to William Shakespeare's Henriad, and the lesser known plays Sir John Oldcastle and The Famous Victories of Henry V. Modern generations have come to know the story not only through the works of Shakespeare but through two film versions, one a patriotic homage during the dog days of World War II by Sir Laurence Olivier and the other; a more gritty but equally impressive version by Kenneth Branagh. Another, lesser-known version for the small screen, featuring a tremendous performance by Robert Hardy as part of the BBC's An Age of Kings should also be consulted.

While most theatre productions of Shakespeare's works are far superior to filmed versions, it's rare that a theatre performance of Henry V can match the intensity of the Branagh and Olivier classics. Robert Richmond's Folger Henry V can claim to do just that. The performances were riveting and the crowd was enthralled.

Apart from Appleman's star making turn in the title role, ASC veteran James Keegan is grand as the blustery Pistol. Keegan takes a great deal of punishment in this role, not just from the leeks, but from hoisting other players, and ducking low hanging wooden planks. Jessica Witchger's fiddling is an amazing accompaniment to the performance. Katie deBuys does a wonderful job in double duty as the boy/Princess Kate. Richard Sheridan Willis is another standout in the often overlooked but vitally important role of Chorus/Montjoy.

Special thanks goes out to Deborah J. Leslie, head of cataloging at the Folger Library for giving us a grand tour of the Library and hooking us up with tickets and providing much needed guidance and company while we were in DC.

While I missed the audience interaction and crowd watching at the ASC, this production was just right for Shakespeare's celebrated hero play and is a performance I will never forget. I would urge anyone with a love for Shakespeare to get to DC as soon as possible to see this production.