Where There's A Will . . .

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2001

Ralph Cohen has been meeting a lot of people lately, and he's gotten pretty fast at it. A quick handshake, a murmured "Howdoyado," and he jumps right to his applause line: "Just. Look. At. This," he says, a dramatic sweep of his arm taking in a brilliantly lighted space of carved oak and soaring beams. What he really wants to say -- you can just feel it -- is "Behold! My theater!" He is a lifelong Shakespearean, after all.

But no, he simply says, "Look at this," with a genuine, astonished, tired enthusiasm that tells the story just as well: This place shouldn't be. At least, it shouldn't be here, on a quiet side street in downtown Staunton, Va.

Sure, lots of small towns build community theaters. Not many, however, build professional, $4 million, brick-perfect reproductions of Shakespeare's very own home stage, the Blackfriars Playhouse, which sat by London's Thames four centuries ago. (I know, you thought the Globe Theatre was Shakespeare's base. We're both right: The Globe was an outdoor stage; the nearby Blackfriars had a roof and was reportedly the favored venue of the Bard himself). And yet here it is, still smelling of varnish and linseed oil, improbably re-created by a Blue Ridge city of 22,000 people and already hailed by one theater scholar -- Stephen Gurr of Reading University in London -- as "one of the five most historically important theaters in the world."

"No one has ever tried to do this before," says Cohen, an English professor from James Madison University and co-founder of the widely traveled Shenandoah Shakespeare Express touring company. For years, as he led students to the re-created Globe in London, Cohen lamented that Shakespeare's other theater -- where he staged all of his plays -- remained an unformed ghost from dusty Elizabethan archives. Now, as part of an ambitious plan to make Staunton a national theater destination, those faded images have been rendered in real oak and iron. "It's a laboratory. We're going to learn so much."

Scholars are one audience. Tonight, Cohen hopes to wow another -- drywall contractors. In a few hours, the authentic (read: hard) benches surrounding the stage will be filled with Staunton's finest electricians, plumbers and carpenters. These are the folks who built this unusual edifice, and Cohen's troupe is throwing them a thank-you performance of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." It's one of his first chances to see how a crowd of regular folks behaves in a theater designed for tradesmen of another age.

"I'll be watching these guys watch it," says Cohen, who has has long specialized in making Renaissance drama accessible to popular audiences. Shakespeare's own productions, he reminds, were rowdy, participatory affairs, more like a "Rocky Horror" audience than the prim, reverent theater crowds today. "Shakespeare knew audience control as well as he knew iambic pentameter."

Actual toast-throwing isn't encouraged, Cohen says, but beer drinking is okay. Wine or cocktails are welcome even in your seat. Not only is that historically accurate, it's part of the Blackfriars' business plan. Modeled largely on the successful Oregon Shakespeare Festival -- which brings thousands of tourists into tiny Ashland for theater weekends throughout the year -- Staunton wants to become a magnet for weekend East Coast playgoers.

Staunton already is an inviting tourist way station in the Shenandoah Valley, close to the trails of the George Washington Forest and boasting a stock of downtown architecture that remains largely intact and restored -- and already converted to antique shops and gift stores. Now this mountain town, which managed to raise $2 million of the Blackfriars' tab, hopes the theater will make it a major player in regional tourism. They have reason to hope: Ashland pulls it off with fewer than 3 million people living within four hours; Staunton will draw on a surrounding population of more than 20 million.

It's been less than three weeks since Shenandoah Shakespeare actors launched a repertory schedule of Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Tom Stoppard that will allow tourists to see two or three shows in a weekend. But there's already an air of great expectancy among town merchants. Downtown stores have ad hoc Shakespeare displays alongside posters for the upcoming city treasurer's race. The local Italian restaurant, L'Italia, has opened a rooftop lounge to capture the after-theater crowd. It laid in a good selection of single malts and immediately became a base for the actors, many of whom were recruited via casting calls in New York. ("Theater people seem to drink a lot of Scotch," whispers Rhonda the manager.) And a well-appointed Victorian B&B called Twelfth Night Inn recently opened two blocks from the theater.

In all, the Blackfriars promises to be different in many ways from the hushed, well-upholstered "black box" theaters. It's down the block from the ramshackle Stonewall Jackson Hotel, around the corner from the vintage Dixie movie theater, where "American Pie 2" and "Jurassic Park 3" will complement "Henry V" and "Richard II." From the outside, the Blackfriars is attractive but unremarkable. Its narrow-timbered portico does recall Elizabethan detail, but it has an upscale alpine look, like a fire station in Telluride. The main lobby, too, is austere and forgettable. That's apparently by design, as walking into the theater itself is the moment of real drama. The post-and-beam space is almost all wood, from the broad plain stage to the necklaces of hand-turned, Virginia oak finials surrounding two levels of balconies. The stage is unadorned, even during performances. And the house is flooded with light from nine hand-wrought chandeliers that stay bright all through the show.

The light can be disconcerting for theatergoers used to a wall of darkness between them and the stage, but that's how they did it in the olden days, and Cohen and company swear it makes for a more intimate connection between players and audience. "Our actors don't just speak to an exit sign in the back of a dark room," says marketing director Kim Glassman. "They speak to you; they're engaged in a conversation with the audience."

The seats, now filling with construction workers and their families, are simple benches (removable backs and cushions, anachronistic but spine-friendly, are available for an extra $2). The theater holds just over 300, about half of what the original Blackfriars managers squeezed into the same dimensions. "They had skinnier butts and no fire codes back then," says artistic director Jim Warren.

When the house is almost full, there is an expectant moment when the lights . . . don't go out and the actors take over the stage that these craftspeople have built for them. If the folks with rough hands have any uncertainties about two hours of old English poetry, they seem to evaporate pretty quickly, and Cohen quickly gets his wish of an involved, boisterous audience. Judged on belly laughs from woodworkers, Staunton has a hit on its hands.

"This started out as a job, but it got to be more than just what we do for living," says electrician George Taylor, who laid more than 90,000 feet of cleverly concealed wiring in the building. "This was special."


GETTING THERE: Staunton, Va., is less than three hours from Washington. Take I-66 west to I-81 south.

SHAKESPEARE: The Blackfriars Playhouse (540-885-5588, www.shenandoahshakespeare.com) has shows every day but Monday, with matinees Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range between $10 and $26 with detachable seat backs available for an additional $2. The current repertory includes "Hamlet," "Rosencrantz & Gildenstern Are Dead," "The Alchemist" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

STAYING THERE: The Twelfth Night Inn (402 E. Beverley St., 540-885-1733, www.12th-night-inn.com), a new B&B, is just a few blocks from the theater in a neighborhood of beautiful small-town Victorians. Rooms and suites range from $75 to $125. Also close to Blackfriars and in the same price range are Frederick House (28 N. New St., 540-885-4220, www.frederickhouse.com) and the Belle Grae Inn (515 W. Frederick St., 888-541-5151, www.bellegrae.com; also with cottages up to $299). The Belle Grae is often mentioned by locals as a good fine dining option.

BEING THERE: Staunton, which bills itself as the oldest town in the Shenandoah Valley, already had good instincts for entertaining tourists before Shakespeare came to town. The downtown district is wonderfully preserved and chock-a-block with antique shops and galleries. The Woodrow Wilson Birthplace and Museum (18-24 N. Coalter St., 540-885-0897, www.woodrowwilson.org) is worth a visit, as is the Frontier Culture Museum (540-332-7850, www.frontiermuseum.org), where four old-time farms are re-created near I-81.

INFO: Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau, 540-332-3865, www.stauntonva.org.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company