Theater is changing.
It has to; and, as ever, to survive we need to respond creatively to one of the greatest threats it has faced in centuries.
But hey, we’ve been here before—and if Shakespeare can handle an epidemic, why can’t we?
The American Shakespeare Center (ASC) has initiated a three-ways-to-watch approach to live theater, one that acknowledges the varying comfort levels audiences feel for public events during our COVID-19 pandemic: indoors at the Blackfriars Playhouse, on the lawn of the Blackburn Inn, and livestreaming.
Under its SafeStart Plan, the company has instituted a self-quarantine regimen, with testing. Live performances indoors at the BlackFriars Playhouse involve serious social distancing, shorter performance times—and although it’s a lot less fun, the company has put their traditional intermission meet-and-greet on hold.
I watched ASC’s first video offering, the comic favorite Twelfth Night, which follows the fortunes of identical twins Viola and Sebastian as they wander around Illyria (beaches, buff dudes, you get the idea) after a shipwreck. Each one believes the other has drowned, and Viola, for her own protection, dresses as a young man.
Soon, Viola—now calling herself Caesario—is hired by the local hunk, er, Count Orsino, to read his love letters to a petulant lady across town, Olivia. Director Dan Hasse ensures that a whole lotta mayhem ensues, and the plot is thickened delightfully by the entrance of numerous drunkards, schoolmarms (well, school-dad, actually), and soldiers-of-fortune.
The twins are played by the comic duo of Zoe Speas and Mia Wurgaft, who—in the spirit of the play—are prepared to play either of the twins, the role being determined by the flip of a coin at the top of the show. The fate of that coin, which gets passed between Speas and Wurgaft during a fine duet sung just before the action starts (with gorgeously tight harmonies), is well worth following over the course of the evening. It’s a neat visual trick, which you can follow indoors, outdoors, and even from the comfort of your own home (more below).
In the role of Count Orsino, Brandon Carter, who cut such an epic figure as Prince Hal during the online season earlier this year, has all the righteousness and self-delusion of a man in love with precisely the wrong woman. And as Countess Olivia, Constance Swain is every inch a diva on a tear; if vanity and cluelessness were the qualifications, theirs would be a match made in Heaven (or Hell, as the case may be). As it is, they both get what they desire, but in quite unexpected forms.
Olivia’s steward Malvolio is one of the greatest killjoys in theater history, and I’m delighted to report that this one is as ridiculous as ever. As the puritanical servant, whose righteousness would make John Calvin shake in his boots, Michael Manocchio brings down the house with his icy regard, and his absurd desire to force Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch (the slick, amiable and thoroughly drinkable John Harrell) to mend his ways. The revenge plot hatched against him by Maria, Olivia’s gentlewoman, is perhaps a little over-the-top, but hey—Manocchio plays the schoolmarm so well that you really, really want to see him humiliated.
Topher Embrey’s comic chops are on full display in his turn as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (a role dear to my heart, as I’ve played him too). Armed with a tiny notebook, and an even tinier brain, Embrey’s Aguecheek is as absurd as ever—but truth be known, his desire for Olivia is as ridiculous as Orsino’s, so give the boy some credit—both men are a few cards short of a deck when it comes to women.
Chris Johnston takes on a number of roles, and as the musical maestro he creates new musical settings for the songs that spice up the action—“Come Away Death” being especially nicely done. And Matthew Radford Davies’s turn as Fabian, while short on lines, is longer on character and rich in brogue.
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And now a note for folks with the jitters about live events these days: At the ASC they hear you, and are willing to meet you where you are. Indoor performances at the Blackfriars Playhouse require that the audience wear masks at all times, and the company itself is under quarantine for the duration of the run—they are in masks 24/7, and only remove them to perform.
If you’re not into indoor events just yet, the company is also performing live outdoors at the Blackburn Inn, not far from Blackfriars, where you can sit in a well-measured, safely distanced part of the Blackburn’s lawn. The hotels in Staunton have adopted stringent safety measures, too, so if you’re thinking of taking a road trip, now’s a great time to head out I-66 and south on I-81 to one of the most joyful theaters you’ll find. And boy, do we need theater. I mean, right. Now.
To top it all off, even if you’re snowed with work or aren’t really game for a road trip, The American Shakespeare Center has revived Blackfriars TV, with streaming video from the Blackfriars Playhouse itself—this time, in front of limited but live audiences. It’s a vision of what’s possible, in order to keep the lights on and the artists on the boards.
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Twelfth Night is part of ASC’s “Safe Start Season,” playing in repertory with Othello at both the indoors Blackfriars space (with limited audience capacity), outdoors at the Blackburn Inn, and via streaming video. Twelfth Night is available for on-demand purchase via BlkFrs LIVE on Marquee TV through September 8, 2020.
Othello will livestream on Friday, August 28 at 7:15 pm. Advance ticket purchasing is encouraged. The video will also be available on-demand for a limited time after the livestream.
The Blackburn Inn, where ASC’s outdoor shows are hosted, offers a “Shakespeare Under the Stars” VIP Package.