“The play’s the thing,” wrote Shakespeare. While the play may still be what’s most important, the right venue can definitely enhance the performance. This is especially true when seeing one of the Bard’s works performed at the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va. The theater is a faithful re-creation of London’s Blackfriars Playhouse, which operated circa 1598-1642 and where many of the playwright’s works were first performed.
From Charlotte, it’s about 280 miles – about a five-hour drive.
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Theatergoers know they’re in for something special as soon as they see the performance area: The theater is a faithful recreation of the original Blackfriars. Seats for performances are reserved, but early arrivals have the option of taking one of the limited seats available onstage or grabbing a chair in the balcony behind the stage. (From either vantage point, you can both see and be seen.)
To maintain the conditions of the original performances, house lights are never dimmed; in Shakespeare’s day, actors could see their audience, and so, too, can ASC performers. As a result, there is occasional interaction between actors and audience, just as there was when the plays were first performed. In keeping with other 16th-century theatrical conventions, ASC engages in a lot of “doubling,” where one actor plays several roles in the same production; having male actors portraying female characters and vice versa; and offsetting minimal set decoration with lavish (though not necessarily period-appropriate) costuming. Musicians are on hand to provide music during performances when necessary, but mostly they entertain theatergoers before the show begins and during intermission.
Printed programs give a synopsis of what takes place early in each play, helping audience members more easily keep up with the action in the opening scenes while they adjust to 16th-century English language and phrasing.
The 2013-14 season is the American Shakespeare Center’s 25th anniversary, and many of the Bard’s most famous works are on the schedule. The tragedies “Romeo and Juliet” and “Troilus and Cressida” are staged through Nov. 30; “Othello” opens in April. The comedies include “All’s Well That Ends Well” (through Nov. 29), “As You Like It” (opening in January) and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” (April); the lone history is “Henry IV, Part 1” (April). “She Stoops to Conquer” by Oliver Goldsmith (through Nov. 29), “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens (Dec. 6-28), “Epicene” by Ben Jonson (February), and “The Maid’s Tragedy” by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher (March) are among other plays scheduled.