Shakespeare, deep in the heart of Virginia

One of the problems with trying to see all of Shakespeare’s plays performed is that some of them are, well, kind of weird and not all that good (and may not have been written by him in the first place) — and as a result they are rarely performed. 

Take Timon of Athens, for example.  Shakespeare’s authorship is dubious and the plot fairly flat:  Timon starts off as a wealthy man who lives way beyond his means and uses lavish gifts to establish an uneasy hierarchy between himself and his “friends”.  Eventually his debts catch up to him, his creditors take everything, and he ends his days in the wilderness raging misanthropically against humanity.  (He also somehow manages to bury himself and erect an inscribed tombstone after he dies.) 

Some of the scholarly articles that I found in my Shakespeare anthologies were able to tease out some interesting themes about the relationship between love and money, and to situate the play in a historical context where the rising mercantile economy in England was uneasily replacing medieval systems of personal loyalty with more legalistic mechanisms for money-lending.  But at the end of the day, it’s just not that great of a play.  No one performs it, and no one really wants to see it — except, of course, for the crazies like Melanie and I who do want to see it.

Fortunately for us, we aren’t the only crazies, and some of those crazies actually have access to actors and a stage and enough of a budget to bring the play to life. 

The American Shakespeare Center is a small Shakespeare company in Staunton (rhymes with Scranton), Virginia, a tiny town in the Shenandoah Valley about 2.5 hours from DC.  For some mysterious reason, they’ve got a marvelous theatre that is (they claim) the only full reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre where Shakespeare’s company performed back in the day.  An unassuming building from the outside, the inside is very cool:



In addition to their theatre, the ASC also has a program designed to promote the performance of random Shakespeare plays that otherwise would never be performed.  Each year they pull together a company of actors and tell them to self-direct themselves in one of these plays with only a couple days’ rehearsal and essentially no budget.  It makes for rough-and-tumble theater (we were warned  at the outset that there might be “textual fluidity” — a line prompter (never used) sat off in the wings waiting for slippage…) but gives actors the chance to peform, and audiences the chance to see, plays that they otherwise would never be able to perform or see.  In fact, they acknowledged as much in their pre-show announcements:  “This is probably the only time you’ll ever see this play,” they said. “We hope you enjoy it!”

And we did enjoy it — perhaps for no other reason than we’d driven 2.5 hours to see it and knew that, at the end of the day, we’d be able to cross it off our list.


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