You quickly discover as you take your seat in the Blackfriars Playhouse, the eye-pleasing re-creation of Shakespeare’s own indoor theater, that in this unlikely locale for 400-year-old plays, the ASC wants to provide an experience that is both serious-minded and exuberant. So each performance begins with a musical pre-show, not with harpsichords and recorders, but with actors on drums and acoustic guitars, rocking out ironically to Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” before “The Winter’s Tale,” or to Sam Cooke’s “Cupid” as a prelude to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The pleasantly subliminal message to audiences, both rigorously schooled in dramatic literature and utterly new to the form, is “Relax.” No classical company presenting such titles as Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage” in the same year as “Hamlet” and “The Tempest” could be described as just doing the same old stuff. Clearly, though, what the ASC is attempting is to remind theatergoers that these works were originally unveiled not with future Oxford dissertations in mind, but as the raucous, popular entertainments of their time.
So on my recent, inaugural visit to Staunton, I made it my business, as I watched all three of the ASC’s current offerings — “Winter’s Tale,” “Midsummer” and a mounting of John Ford’s “’Tis Pity She’s a Whore” — to absorb the ASC’s ethos, and relax into its ingratiating approach. That meant freeing myself from the expectation for scenic distraction: The 11 actors perform on a bare thrust stage, entering from a pair of doors or a curtained alcove, with audience members seated on three sides. And it also entailed an even more intense embrace than usual of the communal nature of playgoing, of remaining hyper-aware of the faces all around me, and not just those of the people being paid to allow us to lose ourselves for a spell. While the intensity of satisfaction varies from show to show, the cumulative takeaway is an admiration for the careful treatment of text and the liveliness of the results.
Performances in five ‘seasons’
The company divides its 52-week-a-year roster of plays into five “seasons”: The coming summer season (June 19 to Sept. 2), for instance, will feature Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” and “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and James Goldman’s modern comedy-drama about King Henry II, “The Lion in Winter.” Now playing is the spring season, traditionally the time when the group’s offshoot touring company brings its shows onto South Market Street for a run in Staunton’s historic downtown.