SEABROOK – There are many productions of Shakespeare, England’s premier playwright of the Renaissance, coming up in Prince Georges County during the upcoming summer months.
The Rude Mechanicals stage “The Merchant of Venice” at the Greenbelt Arts Center from June 15-30, Return to Forbidden Planet (a musical sci-fi take on The Tempest) will appear at the Greenbelt Arts Center from May 18–June 9 and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will be enacted in slightly shortened form by the Hard Bargain Players in the woods (appropriately enough) of Accokeek from May 10-19.
We are just entering spring and Shakespeare productions are already blooming in our region. Thus, in early spring I undertook a trip ever deeper into Virginia in search of Shakespeare. I started at Fauquier Community Theater in Fauquier County, where “Much Ado about Nothing” performed. The troupe’s lively performances, especially one dynamically placing the character of Don Pedro in a more central position in the play, prove that community theatre can indeed present Shakespeare in a colorful and vibrant way. “Much Ado About Nothing” is typically one of Shakespeare’s comedies associated with Italian settings and the theme of amore with all its quirks, but, following a St. Patrick’s Day theme, the Fauquier company placed it in an Irish setting, as the play ran through the month of March. Musical interludes were all Celtic style, and even the poster was patterned after the label of Guinness Stout! There were no shamrocks, but green tones associated with the March 17 Irish holiday were used for clothing and vegetation over sets representing the house of Leonato, where the play is set largely. This Irish setting – though interesting and memorable – was mostly mere décor and shed little light on unexplored parts of the play.
I also encountered a production of “Hamlet” in the idyllic Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia. This trip takes one deep into the English Renaissance, with the Center’s Blackfriar’s Playhouse providing a unique setting for Hamlet staged in a recreation of an Elizabethan Theatre of Shakespeare’s time. Indeed, during the production, it is difficult to believe that this playhouse, modeled after the Blackfriar’s Playhouse in Shakespearean London, was constructed in 2001.
As in Renaissance times, this production of Hamlet had no sets, little stage lighting, and only a few props, effectively created a mood that one is in Shakespeare’s age, with plastered walls and wooden floors. This simple staging, however, rendered the ghostly encounters in the play more effective, and the simple but surprising special effects were as engaging as they surely were during the 1500s.
Yet, this performance was not locked stubbornly in tradition; modern elements were also included. The troupe performed music during the interlude, but jazz music. The actors interacted and walked among the audience, equal parts Renaissance and Brechtian, as Ophelia of the “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples” offered flowers to an audience member seated on the stage. This was all a little jarring at first – until one remembers that the sixteenth - and seventeenth-century English Renaissance was at once a rebirth of the humanism of the past as well as looking for new ways and ideas to lead into the future. The “Hamlet” production at Blackfriars, which runs through April 7, did not imitate the Renaissance to the letter, but rather followed the spirit of the Renaissance. Note, too, the nearby Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton; the museum is an outdoor park which has reassembled actual houses and farmhouses from Germany, Ireland, and even Africa, but of particular interest is the English house from Heidlebury in the UK from the 1600’s. The house complements the reconstructed Blackfriars Theatre and its production of Hamlet for a virtual trip to the English Renaissance past.
Continuing our Shakespearean adventure, “A Winter’s Tale” is now playing through April 22 at the Folger Theatre in Washington, D.C. This theater is also patterned after an Elizabethan theatre, specifically Shakespeare’s Globe, as understood when the Folger was constructed during the 1930s. The production uses simple, but compelling sets, enhanced with stylistic bluish-white lights and cold tones and stagings sporting icy Jack Frost wind swirls shabby chic props, and curtains laid over the original Folger design, a set replete in seasonal atmospherics. This production of one of Shakespeare’s problem plays (a comedy dominated by tragic elements, rendering the overall emotional tone problematic) was excellent, especially in the first part of the drama.
After the Intermission, there was an odd shift from frigid, vaguely Victorian interiors to sunny Appalachia with bluegrass twangs to represent Bohemia. This was at odds with the initial effect earlier in the play and even at odds with itself. Some characters acted and dressed liked stereotypical rural mountain characters in cartoons (Snuffy Smith and Li’l Abner, anyone?) while others in the same scene were dressed like 1960’s flower children - not exactly what Shakespeare meant by Bohemian! The acting was first rate: With a booming voice and powerful stage presence, Aldo Billingslea was impressive as Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and Katie deBuys plaintive and sorrowful as Hermione, the long-suffering Queen of Sicily.
All in all, these Shakespearean Renaissance travels provide excellent preparation for the Shakespeare productions coming to Prince George’s County throughout the coming months. Watch these pages for reviews of these plays soon.