“The show must go on!” So runs an old dictum in the theatre world, but how do theatre companies survive and thrive in the era in which we find ourselves? Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, has found a way!
In this idyllic town, the American Shakespeare Theatre’s venue, Blackfriars Playhouse, presents Shakespearean plays (and other dramatic works) as the playwright intended. The venue is not a recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, but rather of Blackfriars Playhouse, the indoor Elizabethan theatre where the Bard’s company performed in the winter.
” Yet the Blackfriars’ frenetic approach (including a very naughty Puck, gloating over the confusion of the lovers) allows the play to be seen fresh and anew.”
Although Blackfriars Playhouse emulates the Elizabethan staging conventions and lack of props in Shakespeare’s day, it is at the same time highly experimental, as in last summer’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” renamed “Midsummer 90.” This is not because it takes place in 1990 (like the recent Folger Theatre production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in the 1970s), but rather because it compresses a play of three or more hours into a mere 90 minutes.
Blackfriars Playhouse is utilizing the innovation of streaming online, with a new performance of “Midsummer 90” for Shakespeare fans currently home-bound due to the global Coronavirus outbreak. I had the pleasure of seeing this production live last August, and was equally delighted viewing it again online this weekend.
To fully appreciate the challenges of streamlining an iconic play as a remote production in an authentic theatre with minimal props, it might be best to review the complexity of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in its three – arguably four – storylines, with each plot revolving in some way around the theme of love. One plot is firmly lodged in the real world – Duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta are soon to be married, but presented with a problem brought to them by a distraught father – the affections of Demetrius have swayed from Helena to her best friend, Hermia, who is in love with Lysander. The second plot involves the world of the fairies, where the mischievous spirit, Puck, is involved in an argument between the King and Queen of the fairies, Oberon and Titania. In the third plot, several “rustics” attempt to stage the Romeo-and-Juliet-like tragedy of the lovers “Pyramus and Thisby,” which itself may be said to be a fourth plot. These story lines all meet in the dream-like woods during a midsummer’s night.
One of the most singular aspects about Blackfriars Playhouse is the “universal lighting” employed in Shakespeare’s time in which the stage was lit equally. Universal lighting was used in the online production to decided advantage in making it easier to film. Another positive aspect of the video production is that the play was filmed from different angles in the Playhouse, whereas, one would normally never have the opportunity to see a play from multiple views during a singular performance. On the other hand, the audio quality was uneven, since the actors do not use microphones. This issue will likely be addressed in the future but most of the audio was still clear thanks to the actors’ annunciation.
In compressing the play, director Nathan Winkelstein made a decision to emphasize the plot of “bully Bottom” and the Rude Mechanicals in their attempt to perform “Pyramus and Thisby” before Theseus, Hippolyta, and the young lovers. Bottom’s histrionic and hysterical performance as the lover, Pyramus, is given an expand death scene, killing himself by a sword AND an asp (borrowed, no doubt, from Shakespeare’s, “Anthony and Cleopatra”). Before dying, Bottom cries out in an anachronistic warning for our Covid-19 era, “WASH YOUR HANDS!”
This portion, as well as the entire comedy, are imbued with frantic quality in the style of Commedia dell’Arte. This reduced production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” also sports other fun, unique choices on the part of Blackfriars. The fairies who serve the Fairy Queen Titania are costumed like large mandrake plants. King Oberon sports a black top hat instead of a crown – looking at times like a magician and at other times like the Mad Hatter from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Many fans of this play may be accustomed to a more romantic approach, as in two renowned Hollywood films which rely heavily on Mendelssohn’s fairy-like “Incidental Music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” Yet the Blackfriars’ frenetic approach (including a very naughty Puck, gloating over the confusion of the lovers) allows the play to be read fresh and anew.
Topher Embrey is in top form as Bottom, displaying vast charisma and humor throughout production with an earnestness combined with silliness. Puck is played with menacing glee by Madeline Calais. Andrea Bellamore’s Titania is radiant and Hermia and Helena are performed with charm and empathy by Sara Linares and Mia Wurgaft, respectively.
During the coming weeks and months, American Shakespeare Center intends to perform at Blackfriars Playhouse, streaming versions of plays which were to have been produced during its annual “Actor Renaissance Season,” in which actors put on Shakespearean productions themselves without a director and in a slightly more informal style. As these productions get underway, I encourage readers to “make a virtue of necessity” (to quote Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona”) and enjoy the outstanding “Midsummer 90” production that they might have otherwise missed.
The play will be streamed through close of business on Tuesday, March 24, click here.
Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market Street, Staunton, VA 24401, 1.877.MUCH.ADO, americanshakespearecenter.com.