Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Sunday, March 31, 2013

In Virginia, with the Bard

Joyce and I took a dash south last week--down to Staunton (pronounced STAN-tun), Virginia, home of the American Shakespeare Center and their amazing replica of London's long-gone Blackfriars Theater.

Let's back up a moment ...

"Old" Blackfriars
Many people associate Shakespeare with the Globe, which, of course, is where he spent most of his career.  But, earlier, he had worked at other venues (The Theatre, The Curtain).  It was not until 1599 that the Globe opened on the south bank of the Thames; by then, Shakespeare had been in London for at least a decade.  Nearly ten years later, Shakespeare's company--the King's Men--purchased a former church property, a large hall once used by the Dominicans (who wore black--thus: "the black friars"), whose property King Henry VIII had seized long before.  And Blackfriars would become the indoor site for productions.  (The Globe, you remember, was open to the elements--as is the new Globe now standing on the South Bank.)

The original Blackfriars included any number of features from the Globe (trap doors, balconies, entrances at Right and Left, etc.), but it also had candlelight--softer lighting effects.

Blackfriars in Staunton
Okay.  In Staunton, as I said, is a replica of the Blackfriars--a little smaller, but correct in most details.  The lighting is set at "candle level," and remains on throughout the productions.  But the ASC makes every effort to perform the way the King's Men would have.  Musicians perform before and after the show (and during, at times); characters play multiple roles; there is very little scenery; costumes are minimal; cross-gender casting; much interplay with the audience, a few of whom sit on the stage (at Right and Left).

We've seen two shows there--Titus Andronicus and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  Both are rarely performed, thus: the dash to Virginia last week.

Kinsmen is probably Shakespeare's final play, co-written with John Fletcher, his successor at the Globe.  It was likely written around 1613-1614, a couple of years after The Tempest, and exists today because of a quarto (small-size) publication from 1634.

It's the story of a couple of cousins (the "kinsmen" of the title) who are great friends, great warriors.  But ... they fall in love with the same woman (at first sight, of course!), and that divides them and introduces the horrible moral quandary at the heart of the play.  The kinsmen are captives, and Theseus (yes, that one!) declares that one may marry the woman; the other must die; she must choose.  (And she likes them both.)

There's not much of a subplot.  The jailer's daughter falls for one of the kinsmen--an impossible love because of their differences in rank, so she goes mad until her loved ones figure a way to convince her that her former boyfriend (who shares her rank) is in fact the kinsman she has fallen for.

The play--like others of Shakespeare's later career (Cymbeline, for example)--features some "greatest hits" from his earlier work--characters in disguise, a mad scene (Kinsmen's mad scene makes Ophelia's look like a middle-school snit), love at first sight (common in the comedies), and so on.  And the poetry is not all that memorable but serviceable.

At one point, one of the kinsmen--Arcite--it talking to the audience and says this:

Such a vengeance
That, were I old and wicked, all my sins
Could never plucke upon me.

At that very point, the actor was downstage, looking right at me as he spoke the lines (we were in the front row)--and indicated  to the rest of the audience with his body language that it was I he was using for an example.  Lots of mirth.  I gave him a thumbs up.  All in good fun, being called "old and wicked," right?  (How did he know?)

It's always a great experience, seeing a play at Blackfriars.  The cast was strong, the play moving, the production lots of fun--even though the story ends on a dark note.  Just like life itself.

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