Thursday, October 15, 2009

Shakespeare at Staunton

Story and Images by Michael Huff

This past weekend of October 9th-11th eleven brave students--along with Shakespearian scholars Dr. James Wells and Provost Marsha McDonald, and guests Dr. Bryce Sullivan and wife Beth--loaded onto what appeared to be a healthy charter bus bound for Staunton, Virginia. We were a motley crew of varied ages and disciplines – English, Accounting, Biology, and Theatre majors ranging from Freshman to Seniors. But then, some thirty miles from Staunton, our bus gave up the ghost. If only bus-engines responded to recitations, we would have been right on our way. Luckily, one scenic rest stop and a few bizarre taxi drivers later, we overcame the only notable trial of our trip and entered the lovely Staunton, Virginia for a weekend full of theatre and good company.

Staunton (pronounced “Stanton”) is a charming town where New England meets Appalachia. The Shenandoah Valley blushed with fall foliage, the Blue Ridge Mountains hemmed us in, and the light rain only served to cool the air and our humors for the exciting day-full of theatre to come. We were treated to a tour of The Blackfriars Theatre where we learned of its prestigious ancestry. The Staunton theatre is a recreation of one by the same name in Renaissance period London. The King’s Men, including William Shakespeare, used the original Globe theatre for their summer performances and the Blackfriars theatre for their winter performance. The original play-house was built within a former monastery, named Blackfriars for the black habits worn by its monks.

The resident theatre troupe originated as the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express in 1999 before changing their name to American Shakespeare Center in 2005 as their mission broadened. They now maintain one traveling troupe, one resident troupe and work year-round doing performances and workshops at the theatre. Collaborating with Mary Baldwin College in town, the theatre offers enhanced learning for the graduate MLit/MFA students in Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature Performance, the only degree of its kind.

Along with its faithfulness to the original architecture, the new theatre is notable for continuing tradition of, as their slogan goes, “doing it with the lights on.” Like the original Blackfriars theatre, the players perform in universal lighting, lights set equally on the audience as on the players. This allows the players to direct their comments directly to audience members, or even to call them to interact. I had never experienced a play in this way, and can say that hearing King Henry IV give his rousing monologue--“So shaken as we are, so wan with care,/Find we a time for frightened peace to pant,/And breathe short-winded accents of new broils/to be commenced in strands afar remote,”--while looking person after person directly in the eye was powerful indeed.

The players preserve other traditions too. Before the play begins a couple of players perform a humorous pre-show. During the interludes the players stand in the balcony near the Lords’ chairs and perform contemporary folk and pop tunes, just as players did in the original Blackfriars theatre. I had never matched Jeff Tweedy’s verse with Shakespeare’s, but the players’ performance of the Wilco song “I’m Always in Love” in the interlude of Much Ado About Nothing proved a fun and appropriate match for the comedy.

The first night we were treated to a rarely performed piece of Restoration drama, George Villiers’s The Rehearsal. The play satirizes drama conventions of the time, featuring a harebrained playwright and his troupe rehearsing his newest work based on all the “new rules of writing” he has discovered, such as: one should begin and end the action of a play without ever revealing a plot, and most combustive, that there should be a dance at the end of each act. This meta-theatrical circus was rambunctious and hilarious, and as Drs. Wells and McDonald remarked, prefigured absurdist theatre some time before such notable absurdist playwrights as Samuel Beckett. The satirical criticisms made by the play were all the more relevant for the troupe’s inclusion of twenty-first century clownery, like a slow-motion battle sequence and a performance of Michael Jackson’s "Thriller."

We returned Saturday afternoon to see The First Part of King Henry IV, the second part of Shakespeare’s History tetralogy. Rarely performed, it was a pleasure to see, and upon polling the students was the overwhelming favorite. This may have been in part because many of us seized the opportunity to view this play from on-stage, making the action and drama especially palpable. The royal battles of wits were sharpened and sword-fights intensified when occurring just before our faces. “I had never seen a fight sequence quite like that on stage before,” said Crystal Gimesh, senior English Education major. ”All of the scenes that I was wondering how they would act out completely met my expectations and were even funnier at times,” said Michael Bailey, senior French Major, “One of my favorite scenes was when Prince Henry was messing with Francis the drawer who was torn between his duties - and any time Falstaff woke up with a hangover,” which was quite often.

Michael was not alone in his enjoyment of Falstaff. We were all seriously wooed by the all too lovable, doomed, and rotund clown played by the excellent James Keegan. Callie Compton gushed, “when he made his entrance, he touched my face!” And when Falstaff approached me with his giant belly during a battle sequence and requested my seat-cushion I was happy to provide it. The unique interaction the Blackfriar troupe has with its audience makes the experience especially memorable, which was only enhanced by sitting on stage for this performance.

Finally we ended with the comedic Much Ado About Nothing. The troupe’s production of the play was lighthearted and even slapstick at times. One difficulty with the text and production, as Dr. Wells proposed, is that the comedy is tripped by some near-tragic events in the play’s middle. After Hero’s apparent (but faked) death, it was only Christopher Seiler playing a bumbling and excited Dogberry that kept the play from sinking into complete tragedy before the conflicts’ resolution. The buffoonery made it more immediate, but at the sacrifice of some of the play’s ambiguity. Crystal offered her take: “I like Much Ado, but I thought of Benedick and Beatrice may have relied to much on physical comedy and made them less serious.”

Between plays we did have time to descend on the town. Some of us discovered the Darjeeling Tea Room, unique shops like the Once Upon a Time Clock Work, the Trinity Episcopal Church, and no shortage of relaxing coffee shops on the corners. Dinner together at Emilio's Saturday night offered some rousing conversation and one last hurrah before packing up to head home. I think I can speak for the group when I say it was an enjoyable and educational trip. I had never seen Shakespeare produced in the spirit of Blackfriar’s troupe, and I will certainly not soon forget how John Falstaff, the blimp, stole my seat cushion to fake his death upon.

Writing this from the bus ride home, saying goodbye to Virginia’s fall foliage and trusting that this new bus will be a more formidable vehicle than our first, we reflected on our experience together: “It was actually like a miniature vacation, getting to go see these plays and be charmed by the town” said Melanie Bond, freshman English major, and to any considering the trip next year, Callie said, "Certainly do it, it’s definitely worth the price and you’ll be in good company, both an educational and entertaining experience. You don’t have to be a Shakespeare connoisseur, or even to have been to many plays before to enjoy the experience.” So there you have it: plays, a lovely town, some stops at McDonalds to stay college kosher, and to top it off you get to meet Sir Falstaff.

Many thanks to Dr. Wells, Dr. Sullivan, Dr. McDonald, and all who made this trip possible.

Michael Huff is a Senior BU English Major.