Theatre Review by Jim McCarthy
The plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were first performed in London beginning in 1599 at the Globe and Blackfriars theatres by several acing troupes, including Lord Chamberlain’s Men, an ensemble founded by the Bard himself. Contemporaneously, in 1607, the first English arrivals landed in Virginia.
Staunton, Virginia—in Augusta County—was originally founded in 1732 and later, in 1749, renamed for Lady Rebecca Staunton, wife of the then-Lieutenant Governor, William Gooch. It is home to the Woodrow Wilson Museum and Mary Baldwin University. In 1988, a faculty member from nearby James Madison University in Harrisonburg initiated the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express with a local traveling ensemble composed of students and others from JMU. Within a decade, the undertaking had become wildly successful and changed its name to the American Shakespeare Center (ASC).
In 2001, ASC opened a recreation of London’s indoor Blackfriars theatre called Blackfriars Playhouse to accommodate two troupes, as well as becoming a repertory and academic center for all things Shakespeare. Along with several interspersed music presentations and non-Shakespearean dramas (e.g., Grapes of Wrath: Caesar and Cleopatra), ASC spreads its work in themes over five seasons. This summer’s trio was composed of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw, conveying one “epic story of politics and power played out in private and in public” in ancient Rome.
The experience of live theatre simply cannot be compared with television or movie entertainment . . . [because of] the personal exposure and confrontation with actors communicating directly with an audience.
The experience of live theatre simply cannot be compared with television or movie entertainment for a multitude of reasons, the most compelling being the term “live”—the personal exposure and confrontation with actors communicating directly with an audience. This is the palpable dynamic created at Staunton’s Blackfriars Playhouse by ASC.
As originally written and presented, plays by the Bard of Avon were intended to convey, in many instances, historical events as well as the human condition, from treachery to love to intrigue, that emerged from their interactions with one another or forces beyond their control.
Both the English and American versions of the London theatres share a common characteristic—intimacy between the stage and audience—as seating (or standing) for a few hundred viewers is mostly at eye level with the stage and players.
One of the more endearing and enchanting elements of ASC presentations in Staunton is the pre-performance and intermission musical interludes offered by the players. Demonstrating a wide virtuosity of talent in playing an array of instruments (lyres, accordions, trumpet, guitar, banjo, and, yes, washboard), the evening’s troupe entertains with songs, the lyrics of which are often from Shakespeare’s time. Viewing a single evening’s performance convinces one of the range and depth and breadth of talent, musical and dramatic, that makes a visit to Staunton a must-see experience.
Oddly, ASC is characterized in several descriptions as a “regional” phenomenon. Having attended performances on several occasions at London’s Globe theatre, the use of this term appears to be a jejune reference by some who have no or little appreciation for the accomplishments of ASC and its ensembles. It also fails to recognized ASC’s contributions in its educational mission and activities in proselytizing Shakespeare to younger generations, nationally and internationally. On the other hand, what is difficult to understand is the low visibility and absence of publicity for this entertainment gem, both within the Commonwealth and without.
Prithee, select a date and treat yourself to a truly first-class theatrical event. If you wish to see multiple Shakespearean presentations, the Stonewall Jackson Hotel is next door to the Blackfriars Playhouse and, for a price of course, will provide tickets to performances. A superb convenience.