Shakespeare. The name itself conjures up different thoughts and experiences for everyone. As a 17 year old, I remember studying several of his works in school, working through each line by line. However, I also think of watching his plays at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, which is an entirely different experience from reading his plays in a book.
In this playhouse, Shakespeare’s works come alive, are full of emotion, and require much less effort to follow, even for a novice like me! True, I don’t understand every word perfectly, and I still have a lot to learn about Shakespeare and his plays, but that expertise is not necessary to have a good time at the theater.
So, why do I enjoy seeing Shakespearean plays specifically at the Blackfriars Playhouse?
Part of the answer is the atmosphere. As soon as you enter the theater, it feels as if you have been transported back to Shakespeare’s time. The theater is in fact a re-creation of the Blackfriars Theater in London, which makes for an authentic experience. The painted balcony overlooks the simple, wooden stage that contains little other than chairs, a trapdoor, and a curtain. The wooden seats surround the stage on three sides. For me, the most unusual feature about the playhouse is that the lights remain on during the performance, which allows the actors to interact with the audience, as well as allowing for audience members to see other audience members. All of these elements help create a warm, casual atmosphere.
Also, the actors are always entertaining the audience. Before the show, the actors sing and play instruments while the audience members find their seats and settle in. The actors also dance, sing, and perform skits for the entirety of the 15-minute intermission. I’ve never been to another theater where the actors are constantly entertaining the audience in some capacity for about three hours; it is notable that there is no break for them, as in an ordinary theater. I always enjoy seeing the variety of talents and skills the actors have– everything from tap dancing to playing the trumpet or clarinet. The wide range of talent is impressive and likely a favorite aspect for many visitors.
Furthermore, the plays themselves are always great. While I, and many other audience members, may not completely understand everything that is spoken in the plays, as they are in early modern English, the play is still very understandable and enjoyable for all ages. The actors’ use of facial expressions, gestures, and audience participation helps elucidate the scene and prevent me from getting lost. On top of that, the actors are believable in their roles, and it is easy to be transported into their fictional world and watch events unfold.
Last Wednesday night, I saw the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the theater, and it did not disappoint. It was actually the first time I had watched a performance of a play I had studied in school, not counting my middle school English class’s performance of Midsummer (because middle schoolers half-heartedly mumbling their lines doesn’t really count). Although I knew the play, the actors made it feel like I was experiencing it for the first time. It was probably my favorite performance that I’ve seen at the theater so far.
I think the key to my enjoyment of Midsummer was in the details of the play. This play in particular had many hilarious, modern touches that really helped the play appeal to a wide range of ages and kept the play interesting. For example, one insult was just simply “jerk.” It was perfectly placed in the scene, and was probably even funnier because it was unexpected in a Shakespearean play. Puck’s actions were also modernized; he slid out from backstage and at one point exited via cartwheel. Additionally, the longer the characters wandered in the woods, the more disheveled they looked. I think that was a great addition that both made sense and created a funnier situation for the audience to enjoy (Helena’s hair transformation was my favorite). Therefore, the smallest, thoughtful details really made a difference in Midsummer.
I do have to mention one other highlight: Bottom’s play (within the play) for the couples after their weddings was wonderful– the actors played their roles as workers trying to act amazingly. Every little detail, including Bottom’s need to die dramatically for a long time, was hysterical. I honestly could have watched that scene over and over again.
It is clear that all the rehearsals paid off. The actors had impeccable timing, from moving when the flower potion was put on their eyes (their eyes were closed) to Puck sliding off stage and the curtain opening and closing at exactly the right time. The dancing and singing involved in the play were also very synchronized and impressive. Even when something unexpected happened– a young girl got up off her stage seat in the middle of a quieter scene and walked loudly off the stage to her parents– the actors were composed and didn’t miss a beat.
The stage itself is unchanging, but it doesn’t have to be modified in order for the audience to imagine the characters in a specific location. Part of that is due to the costumes. The costumes in Midsummer were amazing, especially the fairies’ outfits. Titania and Oberon seemed regal and powerful, just as they should, while their servants seemed joyful and benign. The costume designers did a great job!
It may seem a bit obvious now, but I would highly recommend seeing Midsummer, or any other play, at the ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse. It is a great way to spend an evening, and you should not be surprised to see people of all ages, children included, enjoying it along with you. It is truly amazing that something written 400 years ago still has relatable characters and relevant themes in society today.