If you want to see a town that has revived itself after a host of challenges and come out shining, Staunton, Virginia, is where you want to be. Whether it’s the COVID pandemic, artistic controversies, or the massive flood that threatened to wipe out the entire downtown, Staunton has taken what life has dished out, and if anything has made itself an even more charming, walkable place to visit.
Especially if you’re mad for Shakespeare, and for the funky, hilarious, irreverent takes on the Bard that have been the American Shakespeare Center’s specialty down through the years. The company is back onstage at their (scratch that—our) beloved Blackfriars Playhouse. And the best part is that you have all summer and fall to make your plans for a visit here, because the ASC’s current offerings will be on offer through Thanksgiving.
Seating at Blackfriars is appropriately limited, with individual parties spaced safely apart and all audience members required to wear masks while watching the show. The acting company, fully vaccinated, perform without masks of course; but it’s good to see that safety remains a priority.
My first show back at Blackfriars, Henry V, was tremendous fun. This being the Actor’s Renaissance Season, the show was produced and directed by the company’s members; the result is a briskly paced, occasionally chaotic visit to the fields of Agincourt—or thereabouts.
The show begins, as always, with pre-show tunes that often touch on the action to come. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones get a shout-out with a rousing acoustic version of “The Rascal King,” but what really brings the action into focus is Brandon Carter, as Henry himself, performing Zimbabwean-British singer-songwriter Rationale’s “Prodigal Son,” a stunningly confessional moment that has already sent me online eager to learn more about an artist who should be on everybody’s playlist. The intermission, meanwhile, includes a mashup of the big-band era favorite “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”—sung in every language but German, apparently—with a nod to Paris in the classic “Au Champs d’Elysees,” led on piano by newcomer Sam Saint Ours (who doubles as an over-the-top Irish officer MacMorris, when he’s not posing as an arrogant French courtier, cigarette in hand).
I want to pause for a moment in appreciation, especially, of Carter’s accomplishment here; he is the first actor of color I can think of who has covered the entire cycle of plays associated with Prince Hal/Henry V. Although written at entirely different times, the three plays Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V work together nicely when produced in sequence like at Blackfriars.
If at all possible, it would be wonderful if Blackfriars TV could revive the webcasts of the Henry IV plays they filmed last year, so audiences can see the full scope of these history plays as performed in Staunton. Brave Spirits’ projected eight-play Shakespeare history cycle was tragically cut short by COVID—an incalculable loss for DC-area theatergoers. But the American Shakespeare Center edition is alive and well, and well worth the 2½-hour drive to Staunton, a town whose charms, once tasted, will bring you back for more.
Continuity among the three is seen in a number of ways—beginning with the enduring facial scar Prince Hal received during his duel with Hotspur. (It’s kinda hard to hide Carter’s matinee-idol looks, but he tries.) There are other moments of continuity, in the form of inside jokes, particularly when you see John Harrell’s turn here as Fluellen. An intolerably pedantic windbag, Fluellen never hesitates to use all occasions to inform his scene partners just how much ancient lore he has absorbed (as if to say, he’s suffered to learn his Classics, and now it’s your turn). But for those who remember his Falstaff, it’s delicious to see his Fluellen vaguely recalling a fat guy who used to hang around with Henry V in his younger, wilder days.
Another brilliant turn is Elleon Dobias’s Boy, the kid who has the incredible misfortune of having to accompany Henry’s former tavern buddies (Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol) to France. Gliding across the stage effortlessly on wheeled sneakers, Dobias embodies youth and, well, wisdom well beyond a boy’s years as three barflies proceed to make asses of themselves on the road between Harfleur and Agincourt—two of them, tragically so. Dobias’s skills as a violinist are also on full display during the musical interludes, both in this and other plays in this season.
As our tour guide (Chorus), Zoe Speas gives us a knock-kneed fan of Henry’s; pulling off her headphones to give us the latest scoop. Speas gets in touch with her inner teenybopper, arms flailing as she guides us from the English to the French Court, to Southampton, to Harfleur, to Agincourt and back.
Some of the more interesting double-casting includes Meg Rodgers as both of France’s younger royals, Princess Katherine as well as the Dauphin. Her Prince’s arrogance is contrasted with Katherine’s girlish glee at learning a little English at the hands of her nurse (played here by Meme Garcia—about whom, more in a minute). It could have been clearer, in my view, that the climax of the “English Lesson” scene has Katherine realizing two words in English constitute the F-bomb and the C-bomb in French, but it’s countered by Rodgers’s evident enthusiasm at maybe getting to meet Henry (who, truth be known, is something of a pop idol even in her chambers).
One of the most interesting turns here, and one that has come to be a trademark of past Blackfriars productions, is the mingling of Spanish Shakespeare with the more traditional English. Nym, one of Hal’s merry pranksters from his wilder days, is seen here as a fiery Spanish braggart-soldier; Meme Garcia’s over-the-top portrayal of Nym, machete drawn and honor allegedly at stake, is drop-dead hilarious. (There is a growing Latinx community in Staunton now; here’s hoping they can join in the fun here more often, because I’m sure there were some inside-Spanish jokes as well, which sadly go over my head.)
The climax of the show, apart from the “brawl ridiculous” of the famous Battle of Agincourt (choreographed ably by Jeremy L. West), is the courtship scene between the victorious Henry V and Princess Katherine of France. Here, Carter’s mastery of Shakespeare’s language is on full display as he finds—at every turn—more opportunities to show the audience how utterly inept Henry is at wooing.
Pausing constantly to reflect on his piss-poor choice of words, pleading with the audience for better material, Carter gives us a Henry who could drink you under the table and fight you to the death, but who hasn’t got a clue when it comes to the female sex. Rodgers, meanwhile, does her best to hide Katherine’s infatuation, but is of course won over, as are we all. It’s a true highlight of this season at Blackfriars, and worth the price of admission, drive, and hotel (the Howard Johnson’s nearby is my go-to).
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.
Henry V, a part of American Shakespeare Center’s Actor’s Renaissance Season, plays through November 27, 2021, in repertory with Macbeth, the soon-to-open All’s Well That Ends Well come August, with the premiere of Anchuli Felicia King’s Bard-inspired Keene due in October. Get busy, and get tickets!
All performances are at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 South Market Street, Staunton, Virginia. For information and tickets visit americanshakespearecenter.com.