This week my Wall Street Journal drama column is devoted in its entirety to an account of my recent visit to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Virginia, where I saw Othello, As You Like It, and Macbeth:
In theater, seeing is believing, and the best way to learn about 17th-century theatrical performance practices is to watch a Shakespeare play acted on a modern re-creation of an Elizabethan-style stage. The most famous of these is the replica of Shakespeare’s own open-air Globe Theatre that was built on the banks of London’s Thames River in 1997. The U.S. is home to a half-dozen such houses, including the indoor theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., and the open-air theaters that I saw earlier this year at the Oregon Shakespeare and Utah Shakespearean Festivals. Most of the American replicas, however, are variously modernized structures that incorporate such anachronistic devices as theatrical lighting. If you want to see the real thing–and to see it used in a convincing way–the place to go is Staunton, home of the American Shakespeare Center, whose performances are given in a dazzlingly exact re-creation of the Blackfriars Playhouse, originally built in London in 1596….
To pass through the lobby doors into the 300-seat auditorium is like jumping into Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine and setting the controls for 1600, with some allowances made for fire safety. Actors and audience are lit by the same electric chandeliers–there are no spotlights–and if you’re fortunate enough to hold a ticket for one of the 12 “Lord’s Chairs” placed on either side of the stage, you’ll be close enough to the players to reach out and touch them.
All this would be of purely historical interest were it not for the high quality of the ASC’s fast-moving productions, which are authentic (no sets, no scene breaks) but not antiquarian. The company consists of 11 mostly young men and women who perform in a cheerfully eclectic mishmash of period and modern dress. They speak their soliloquies and asides straight to the audience, and the uncomplicated stagings give the impression that you’re seeing the play itself, naked and self-sufficient….
No free link, but you can read the whole thing by buying today’s Journal or–better yet–going here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you instant access to the complete text of my review. (If you’re already a subscriber, you’ll find it here.)
ELSEWHERE: To read what Mr. My Stupid Dog wrote about the same performance of Othello I attended, go here.