Matinee. American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, Virginia. Performing in the Blackfriars Playhouse
While on a visit to my daughter and her family in Charlottesville, Virginia, I took the occasion to take my grandson to see this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The production opened March 30 and plays until June 16, in tandem with Julius Caesar and Cyrano de Bergerac. I suppose the plan is to take the three plays on the road for an extended subsequent tour. A photo of the company on the page of the program listing the repertoire shows a dozen actors, eight men, four women; I saw all dozen doubled in the more-than-a-dozen roles of MND, to great effect. These plays are very carefully matched, I believe, and each play is planned so as to take maximum advantage of the very well-differentiated company’s abilities. This is a modern dress production. And, obviously, in the case of Shakespeare, a certain amount of cross-dressing occurs also, whether the actors are garbed in a generalized modern-day Athenian costume or a much be-feathered fairy suit.
The stage director is a guest director, Jag Bessell, and without derogating his work in the slightest degree it can be said that the house style — one might almost call it the house ethos — so overshadows what the individual director might do with the play that, in attending any performance of an ASC play, you know exactly what to expect. A few years ago, on a similar trip to Charlottesville, I saw their production of Comedy of Errors. A year or two before that, I visited the Playhouse and had a tour of it with the Executive Director, Ralph Cohen. I asked him how it was he ever put together such a thriving enterprise, including the building of a loose replica of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars Theatre, in a small hill town in western Virginia. He said his vision’s fulfillment had a lot to do with extraordinary cooperation and support from local merchants and townspeople (this is evidently a wealthy place), but also from his determination to make Shakespeare accessible and to perform simultaneously three different plays, mostly Shakespeare but not entirely so, taking the productions on tour across America after their run at the Blackfriars. Evidently he has succeeded. The ASC has been in operation since 1988, and the Blackfriars opened for its first season in 2001. In 2005 the name of the company was changed from Shenandoah Shakespeare to American Shakespeare Center. By this year, the history of the company in the program indicates, no fewer than thirteen productions were mounted, six of Shakespeare and seven others, including works contemporary to Shakespeare such as The Tamer Tamed (paired, it seems, with The Taming of the Shrew) and A King and No King. The success is astonishing.
The foundation of it all is access. The audience is warmed up beginning half an hour before the play itself begins, by one or more actors who will go on to perform parts in the play. Songs, skits, and general levity reign. The pace of the production is swift and certain. Speech is very well projected, delivery is crisp; the entire stage is used, along with seats on either side. Seating on the stage itself accommodates additional audience members, and a few other members of the audience are invited to occupy seats in the balcony overlooking the stage. Audience members in the stage seats are drawn into the production — that is, they are consulted, acknowledged, even sometimes sat upon. And, yes, the lights are left on.
The results are a very clear, crisp, unsubtle, and consistently engaging and amusing performance. Actors take every opportunity to connect with the audience. If an audience member laughs out of turn, the actor turns a quizzical eye in that person’s direction. And so on. Some damage is done to the more subtle and sophisticated aspects of the play. The long speech of Theseus opening Act V, and Hypolita’s nicely qualifying response, are hurried through with nary a glimpse of the depths, thematic and otherwise, that lie there. And Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” is likewise hurried through. This speech, I would have thought, is tailor-made for the sort of close audience involvement that the ASC prides itself on, but it was given in a low, mostly uninflected voice that made me think that either the director had spent no time on it or that somehow they were working to a deadline and had run out of time.
And there you have the very real limitations of the approach to Shakespeare espoused by the ASC. In return for making Shakespeare broadly, perhaps “universally” accessible to audiences, some of whom will never have seen Shakespeare on the stage (or on the page) before, they must — they apparently think — give up exploring the marvelous depths and complexities that make a Shakespeare play what it is. In the beautiful rolling hills of Staunton, Virginia, you apparently cannot have it both ways.
P. S. My grandson thought it was truly wonderful and afterwards asked his mother whether he could go back to see it again this coming weekend, when his sister will be going to see it on a class trip. The answer, alas, was no.