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Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse

I had the pleasure of visiting Staunton, Virginia this past weekend, where I saw two excellent productions -- Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, and Shakespeare's Pericles -- at the American Shakespeare Center.

I would like to share with you some of my thoughts about my trip, and the shows I saw.

inside the Blackfriars Playhouse
photo by Lauren D. Rogers

It was my first visit to Staunton, and as soon as I arrived, I regretted not having visited sooner. It's a lovely town, with very friendly people and set in one of the most beautiful areas in the world -- the Shenandoah Valley.

Needless to say, I look forward to going back as soon as possible.

The American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse is arguably the world's only authentic recreation of Shakespeare's Blackfriars in London, which was in operation from 1608 to 1642.

The ASC was established in 1988, and the Blackfriars Playhouse was built in 2001. In that time they have performed every last Shakespeare play, and many other works, by Jonson, Marlowe, and others.

When you visit the ASC in Staunton, do yourself a favor and take the Playhouse Tour, so you can go backstage and learn about the history of Shakespeare in general, and the Playhouse in particular.

I took the tour. The guide, Molly, is terrific. Her knowledge and enthusiasm about Shakespeare, and her passion for the Playhouse was wonderful. 

There is so much to say about the Playhouse, but to me what was most remarkable is the fact that the theatre never "goes dark." There are 16 plays performed each year, 52 weeks a year!

Next week, for example, they are performing Macbeth on Wednesday, Macbeth in the afternoon and Pericles in the evening on Thursday, Macbeth on Friday, Edward II in the afternoon and Comedy of Errors in the evening on Saturday, and Cyrano de Bergerac on Sunday.

And, the entire cast is limited to 12 people! Incredible.

They might very well be the hardest working Shakespeare ensemble in the world.

I saw Edward II on Friday night, and I was delighted at seeing the Playhouse in person. The pictures I have seen online don't do it justice.

Also, the Playhouse's productions are performed in Original Practices. There are no house-lights that go dark during the performance. The stage is lighted as naturally as possible, even with some candles, and the actors can see the audience, and the audience can see each other.

There are even some "gallant seats" on stage, which gives the actors a chance to really interact with the audience, and it definitely makes the performances more fun and lively.

But in my opinion, perhaps the most original practice is serving beer and wine inside the Playhouse. In my humble opinion, Shakespeare's original audiences were rarely, if ever, sober.

Sarah Fallon, René Thornton, Jr. and Patrick Midgley
photo by Michael Bailey

The production of Edward II was excellent. It was fast-paced, exciting, funny, and engrossing.

René Thornton, Jr. was a remarkable King Edward. Playing Edward II was a personal dream come true for him, and he gave a tour-de-force performance. It was exciting to see such a talented actor perform something so personally meaningful, and I feel priveleged to have seen it.

René Thornton, Jr. as Edward II
photo by Michael Bailey

But he was not the only star of the production. The rest of the cast is superb. They have great chemistry with each other, and perform together seamlessly.

It's always hard to list all of the great moments and performances, but I do have to mention Patrick Midgley as Gaveston. He was excellent. He's funny and endearing, and yet despicable, too.

Sarah Fallon as Queen Isabella was great, too. Her turn from sympathetic to villainous was very entertaining.

I could go on, but suffice to say that the play is wonderfully directed, and if you have the opportunity to see this production of Edward II, you can not miss it.

The next day, after the Tour backstage, I saw Pericles.

Gregory Jon Phelps as Pericles
photo by Jay McClure

It was just wonderful. I can't say enough to praise this cast, as they did an amazing job of capturing the zany screwball spirit of the play.

I don't the audience ever stopped laughing the entire way through. 

I can't remember the last time I watched a Shakespeare play without thinking about it critically. I just enjoyed watching this show so much. 

Gregory Jon Phelps was a winning Pericles, both strong and vulnerable, a perfect leading man. It is such a demanding role, going from young and hopeful, to old and lost, and he carried the demands of the role with ease. When he reunites with his long lost daughter Marina, it was very moving. I don't think there was a dry eye in the house.

Sara Hymes as Thaisa
photo by Jay McClure

Sara Hymes is perfect as the ingenue Thaisa. Her journey from princess, to wife, to dead wife, and then back from the dead wife, was very entertaining. For me, it is the love she has for Pericles, and his love for her, that binds the play together. Hers is arguably the hardest part in the play, and Ms. Hymes makes it seem effortless.

One of my favorite moments is when her father Simonides permits her to marry Pericles. It is such a funny moment, and Jonathan Holtzman (as Simonides) just nailed it. The whole audience erupted in applause -- twice!

Of course, the pirates are always entertaining, but the real scene stealers were Allison Glenzer as Bawd and James Keegan as Bolt. These two priceless actors were born to play these roles. They were hilarious and it was a lot of fun to watch them act so silly on stage.

Allison Glenzer as Bawd and James Keegan as Bolt, in rehearsal
photo by Jay McClure

The rest of the cast was perfect, and they all played their parts with a humourous abandon that is too lacking in most Shakespeare productions I have seen.

The director of both plays, Jim Warren (who also co-founded the ASC) deserves a great deal of credit. Not only has he brought together a superb cast, and gets great work out of them, he also seems to understand how entertaining Shakespeare's plays can be, and gets the most out of them.

In conclusion, I strongly urge you to visit Staunton, and when you do, you should plan to see as many plays as you can. 

It is only about 2 hours from Washington, D.C. 

I promise that it is well worth the trip. You won't be sorry.


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