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Bard of the Blue Ridge
By Eric P. Olsen

 
In a scene from King Lear, Cornwall (John Harrell) and Regan (Becky Peters) blind Gloucester (Fred Nelson). Photo by Michael Baily / Shenandoah Shakespeare.

A spirited Virginia company is bringing Shakespeare home to a newly constructed Elizabethan playhouse and inviting theatergoers to explore the immortal playwright largely on his own terms.


n the prologue to Henry V, Shakespeare forthrightly confronted the dilemma of presenting on a barren wood stage the complex spectacle of war, intrigue, and national destiny:

        Can this cockpit hold
        The vasty fields of France?
        Or may we cram
        Within this wooden O the very casques
        That did affright the air at Agincourt?

        Such was the problem in degrees with every work that Shakespeare brought to stage. The unadorned "wooden O" was Shakespeare's canvas; it was the scaffolding upon which his imagination sought to represent "all the world."
        This singular reality has been overlooked as increasingly elaborate productions have sought to shape Shakespeare to the dictates of fashion, fancy, or ideology. Shenandoah Shakespeare was founded on the propositions that Shakespeare's stagecraft is critical to an appreciation of Shakespeare the playwright, and that highly stylized, technologically enhanced productions take us further from rather than closer to a grasp of Shakespeare's unique genius.
        A traveling company for most of its fourteen-year history, Shenandoah Shakespeare has now found a home in the small city of Staunton in the heart of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. Home to the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and the delightful Frontier Culture Museum, and surrounded by the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains, Staunton is a manageable afternoon's drive from Washington, D.C., or Richmond. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its concentration of Victorian homes and public buildings, the city also hosts an annual Victorian Festival to underscore the community's affection for its English roots.
        Now, in a bold example of the proposition "build it and they will come," an original Shakespearean playhouse, the Blackfriars, has been reconstructed in downtown Staunton. The only one of its kind, the Blackfriars has been described as "one of the top five most historically important theaters in the world" by Andrew Gurr, chief academic advisor to the London Globe project. This magnificent Elizabethan theater is now home to the resident company, whose artistic mission mirrors that of its new theater: the presentation of Shakespeare as originally staged by the great playwright.

The Blackfriars theater features a three-sided thrust stage, full lighting, and minimal props to recreate the original staging of Shakespeare's Blackfriars. Photo by Tommy Thompson / Shenandoah Shakespeare.
 
      Let no one suppose that this is some pedantic exercise to "restore" Shakespeare. Now comprising both a traveling and a resident company, Shenandoah Shakespeare is everything pedantry is not--lively, relevant, and in-your-face (in an "English" sort of way). But Blackfriars is only the beginning. Plans are now under way for a far more ambitious theater a few blocks down the street, a second Globe, modeled on the reconstructed theater near the original site on the west bank of the Thames.
        The audaciousness of staging Shakespeare on this scale is not driven by commercial calculation-- at least not much--but by the vision of the founder and executive director, Ralph Cohen, and cofounder Jim Warren, the company's artistic director. "This started out just from the desire of an English professor that his students enjoy Shakespeare," says Cohen candidly. As a professor at nearby James Madison University, Cohen regularly took students to London, where Shakespeare productions were an important curricular component.
        "I watched students respond to the shows," Cohen says. "And it seemed that the more elaborate the setting, the more the interest dropped. Movies and TV have made us watchers more than listeners. But Shakespeare's plays are not the cinema; in many ways they are actually the opposite."
        "Shakespeare wrote the audience into the play and gave them constantly changing roles," explained Cohen in the Blackfriars' inaugural brochure. "Sometimes they are the mob (Julius Caesar), sometimes an army (Henry V), sometimes wedding guests (A Midsummer Night's Dream), sometimes a royal court (Hamlet), and almost always a confidante or jury."
        A Blackfriars' performance can easily become an interactive experience, as two young women sitting beside me learned in a staging of The Tempest when they were singled out for their charms by a distracted Ferdinand--

        Full many a lady I have eyed with best regard and many a time
        The harmony of their tongues hath into bondage
        Brought my too diligent ear: for several virtues
        Have I liked several women

        --while an overlooked Miranda trained a dark scowl on her unsuspecting "rivals."    
      It has become commonplace to observe that Shakespeare's works have attained the status of secular scripture. "What point of morals, of manners, of economy, of philosophy, of religion, of taste, of conduct of life, has he not settled?" asked Ralph Waldo Emerson in the last century. More recently Harold Bloom has even argued that Shakespeare "invented" not merely our sense of what it means to be human but our humanity itself, through the playwright's unprecedented "representation of cognition, personality, and character." More influential than Homer and Plato, Bloom says, Shakespeare is "the fixed center of the Western canon," "a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go."
        Against such Olympian expectations Shenandoah Shakespeare invites a level of comfort and familiarity that surely was among the important, if unremarked, conditions of the plays' original staging.
J.C. Long performs preshow Elizabethan music on a modern instrument. Photo by Tommy Thompson / Shenandoah Shakespeare.
The Blackfriars, almost too handsome and new to pass for a venerable Elizabethan theater, does draw attention to itself by virtue of the massive post-and-beam construction and splendid wrought-iron fixtures fashioned by local craftsmen. But the intimacy of the design (my two young sons were actually on the stage, sitting on stools that accommodate an extra dozen spectators) assured that when the theater was called to order we were swept away by the magic of Shakespeare's luminous language.
      The company also spices its performances with an eclectic mix of songs. Some arrangements hint at Elizabethan antecedents, while others juxtapose Shakespeare's lyrics with contemporary instrumentation. Shakespeare didn't have state-of-the art digital technology or surround-sound audio. But he had mastery of a young and flexible literary idiom, and freely employed that gold standard of all special effects, the human imagination.

A Renaissance Comedy

erformances of Shakespeare's early comedy The Taming of the Shrew and late "romance" The Tempest brought both the traveling and resident companies to the Blackfriars on consecutive nights. Taming of the Shrew could be enjoyed as a "Renaissance comedy," dated in its presumptions about male and female roles but a pleasant romp nonetheless into the perennial thicket of relations between the sexes. What modern Katharina, "tamed" by a heavy-handed and unyielding Petruchio, can declaim to the gallery,

        Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
        Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,
        And for thy maintenance; commits his body
        To painful labor, both by sea and by land
        . ... .
        And when she is froward, peevish, sullen and sour,
        And not obedient to his honest will,
        What is she but a foul, contending rebel
        And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
 
        To such admonishments Petruchio gallantly answers, "Why, there's a wench! Come on, and kiss me, Kate"--to the lusty approval of at least a portion of the spectators.  
       The original Elizabethan staging conditions of Blackfriars--a thrust stage that creates an intimate, three-sided spectator gallery, full lighting that facilitates spontaneous interchange between players and spectators, largely contemporary costuming, and the barest props--enabled the gifted troupe to appeal to an unspoken, perhaps even unacknowledged, dissonance. Men and women both may feel unmoored by the sweeping disintegration today of clear and conventional gender roles. What could be just comedy could as well, by tone or insinuation, be irony or perhaps even a carefully calibrated overstatement, the play a barometer of just how far men have or have not become acclimated to a brave new post-patriarchal world.
Hortensio (David McCallum) disguises himself as a music teacher to woo Bianca (Kathryn Lawson) in The Taming of the Shrew. Photo by Tommy Thompson / Shenandoah Shakespeare.
 
     To the company's credit, it didn't at all treat this as a light artifact of an age with little to say to our own or as a political polemic. Such loaded speeches were delivered with almost radioactive effect. Spectators were singled out and wives enlisted against husbands. But nothing was imposed upon the spoken verse. Shakespeare's quicksilver wit had inadvertently (for I don't think the Bard so prescient as to anticipate our issues four hundred years later) met and vanquished one of the white-hot controversies of today, leaving all well pleased and entertained.
        The Tempest is another work often delivered with a political payload, the half-human Caliban elevated variously to a freedom fighter or champion of some disempowered minority. The Blackfriars presented The Tempest intact, intelligently cast, with a charming Miranda, an imperious Prospero, and a cringing and "monstrous" Caliban--no politics, no apologies.
        And no pauses. Performances at the Blackfriars are invariably brisk, according to a precept taken from Romeo and Juliet: "Two hours' traffic of our stage." The galloping pace ensures that the action is sustained and there are no tedious breaks between acts or scenes. But Shakespeare's often archaic diction can require a little more breathing room than the troupe allows. When the smitten and sheltered Miranda says of the shipwrecked Ferdinand in The Tempest,

        I might call him
        A thing divine, for nothing natural I ever saw so noble,

        Prospero's blustery reply, thick with ironic deprecation but delivered with little pause for emphasis, was mostly lost on the audience--

        Thou think'st there is no more such shapes as he,
        Having seen but him and Caliban: foolish wench! To the most of men this is a Caliban,
        And they to him are angels.

        This rejoinder deftly balances a father's nervousness over a would-be suitor for his daughter with his hidden stratagem to advance the prospects of just such a match.

Shakespeare's Stagecraft

he company does employ both male and female players, a departure from Renaissance staging, which typically used boys for the female roles. This is a prudent and theatrically satisfying measure that brings added veracity to some of Shakespeare's greatest roles (although the troupe playfully casts men and women in gender-mixing roles).
        One conscious nod to Elizabethan theatrical precedent is in the involvement of the players in the actual staging at Blackfriars. The constant demand for new productions in Shakespeare's time meant that plays were often staged with little rehearsal time and sometimes minimal direction. Shakespeare, of course, was an actor before he was a playwright; he wrote not only for an exceptionally stable and familiar company but probably in some cases for specific actors, often leaving it to the troupe to sort out the theatrical details.
        "Shakespeare's stage directions fail to give essential information even at crucial stages of action," notes Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells in a discerning and comprehensive overview of Shakespeare's life, works, and influence, Shakespeare: For All Time (Oxford University Press, 2003). "The effect," Wells says, "is rather as if a novel by Dickens or Jane Austen has survived with its dialogue intact but its narration only fragmentarily preserved. ... The dialogue itself, too, is often open to variant interpretation in the absence of any indication from Shakespeare as to how he wished it to be performed--if indeed he had any clear idea about such matters before his actors set to work."
        Cohen, who comes to theater direction not from the stage but from academia, has empowered his players with a look back to Elizabethan theatrical method. After two to three months taken to learn the parts, the actors bring their insights and interpretations to a trial they call the Renaissance Run, a dynamic exploration of a new work strictly from the viewpoint of the performers.
        "We have to be completely 'off-book' when we get here for the Renaissance Run and we go through the whole performance--just the actors, and no director," says Shasha Olinick, a player in the traveling company. "Then the director steps in and says, 'Hmm, I like that.' Sometimes very little changes."
        Cohen agrees that his academic background has made a big difference when it comes to theater direction. "I just think that if there had been directors in Shakespeare's day--which there weren't--that he would have liked to have the people who study and know language direct his plays. But that's not conventional thinking today.
James Konicek playas Prospero to Kathryn Lawson's Miranda in The Tempest. Photo by Michael Baily / Shenandoah Shakespeare.

        "A play is more like a book than a movie," Cohen adds. "Movies let us watch the director's imagination. Plays and books make us use our own. It comes alive in your imagination and, when staged, really is a product of collective imagination."
        The importance of collective engagement, players and audience, is really at the heart of the Shenandoah Shakespeare experience. "Having the audience with you is huge," says actress Kate Eastwood Norris. "One time somebody laughed inappropriately when Beatrice says 'Kill Claudio' [in Much Ado About Nothing]. So we spontaneously stopped--just paused the performance--to involve the audience in what had happened."
        "In another performance I did a magic trick that wasn't supposed to be funny," adds actor John Harrell. "And a little girl in the audience says out loud, 'You call that a magic trick?' That kind of thing happens, and now at Blackfriars we have an audience that is starting to be conditioned to these types of performances."
        "Theater is an art form about building community," agrees Olnick. "One of the things you learn to appreciate as an actor is how well Shakespeare knew how to communicate, how to tell a story. Some people say, 'I've never been a king, I've never been a slave. What does this have to do with me?' But you want to know who understands our performances best? High school kids. Without a doubt. They walk in, thinking, 'I'm not going to get it.' But what they learn is how well Shakespeare understood human beings. And that has never changed in four hundred years."

        The Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, will be presenting Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and King Lear, Moliere's Tartuffe, and the Renaissance play The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont through the fall season. For performance schedules and ticket information, call the Shenandoah Shakespeare box office at (540) 851-1773 or visit www.shenandoahshakespeare.com.


Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor at The World & I.
 

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