Sunday, March 02, 2008

Staging Shakespeare, Part II: The Good

The American Shakespeare Center offers a nice remedy to the ubiquitous performances of Fakespeare. Located in the heart of Shakespeare country (Staunton, VA—where else?) the company resists the trend toward phony modernized versions. That means not only staying true to the original language, but also using spare sets (elaborate sets didn’t come into play (pun not intended, but welcomed) until the Restoration) and keeping on the house lights (Renaissance theater had universal lighting). This second makes a big difference: universal lighting seriously diminishes the barrier between actors and audience (as does the fact that about eight audience members sit on the side of the stage). The head of the ASC explains his rationale here.

We enjoyed two plays at the ASC last week: Macbeth (Saturday night) and Ben Jonson’s Volpone (Sunday afternoon—what we literary types like to call a “matinee,” French for “cheaper tickets.”). Of course the plays were remarkable, and so was the acting. The same actors performed in both, which a) says a lot about the range of their acting ability, as they moved from dark tragedy to not-so-dark (“light” isn’t the right word) comedy; and b) made the experience even more personal for those who’d been there the night before. And the venue, Blackfriars Playhouse, is striking despite its simplicity. The virtual tour on this page gives you a good idea, but they’ve since adorned the balcony with a great marble fa├žade. (We liked it, anyway; one of our uncouth companions preferred the more basic wood.)

Having said all that, we should say all this. If you make the trip to see Shakespeare in the Shenandoah, don’t expect to feel like you’ve traveled back into the Renaissance. For one thing, the ASC apparently does not have a large budget for costumes. During Macbeth, some characters wore approximations of ancient Scottish clothes, while others were dressed as gangsters. In Volpone, Sir Politic Would-be wore a bright yellow zoot suit that he might have stolen from Flavor Flav. But the effect of all this is more slap-dash or impressionistic than embarrassingly pretentious. Similarly, the actors play songs before the play and during intermissions, all of which were modern but appropriate to the plots. Before Macbeth they played “Leave Your Lights On” by Everlast & Santana. Never one of my favorites, but it worked. And again, they’d only do this before the play and during intermissions, so it was never distracting.

My only complaint about the ASC is that they sell bumper stickers that say something like, “The American Shakespeare Company does it with the lights on.” Those jokes were never especially funny, just like their cousins, the “Co-ed Naked” sports t-shirts from the nineties. But most of them at least make sense to the average observer. You don’t need to know a coal miner to understand the humor behind “coalminers do it in the dark.” But if you saw the ASC’s bumper sticker on a Prius or Jetta you’d have to ask the driver what it meant. The goateed young man or lip-pierced young woman would then go into a 15-minute rant about universal lighting, bastardized versions of Shakespeare (perhaps even using some lame term like “Fakespeare”), and remind you why you never hung out with the theater crowd in high school.

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