That makes the evening sound far more doleful than it actually is. For “The Willard Suitcases” — a show that in 19 numbers calls forth the ghosts of a shuttered Upstate New York insane asylum — resounds with beguiling ingenuity and, therefore, a freshness of imaginative spirit.
It also betokens the exhilarating handoff that has occurred in the ASC’s leadership from founders Jim Warren and Ralph Cohen to McSweeny, a Washington native who worked innovatively at Shakespeare Theatre Company on classics as varied as Aeschylus’s “The Persians” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” The ASC’s fall season offers up, in addition to its first original musical, some of the fare for which its loyal fans tend to turn up again and again: two of Shakespeare’s Roman plays — “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” — and a thematically linked “Caesar and Cleopatra” by George Bernard Shaw.
Several of the ASC’s star actors, most notably the wit-exuding John Harrell, continue with the company, but the directorial ranks have been filled for the fall offerings with a band of nationally known directors: McSweeny handles both “Julius Caesar” and “The Willard Suitcases”; Sharon Ott, former longtime artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Company and now theater chair at Virginia Commonwealth University, stages “Antony and Cleopatra”; and Eric Tucker, who helms New York-based Bedlam, which devises clever cast compressions for classics on a shoestring, takes on “Caesar and Cleopatra.”
I caught “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra” on a whirlwind Staunton weekend, productions that loosely incorporate Renaissance practices — notably, performances in full light — in the long-standing ASC tradition. Both are good, workmanlike interpretations that reflect the company’s deep devotion to the text rather than to oratorical fireworks. If you stay for both plays, as the schedule allows for this quartet of shows running through Dec. 1, you’ll catch some smart linkages.
For example, casting the excellent Geoffrey Kent as Marc Antony twice offers playgoers a textured through-story for the character: We follow his growth as a man of both words and action in “Julius Caesar,” the earlier of the two plays, while we note a certain fondness for drink. That hedonistic streak shows up even more potently in “Antony and Cleopatra,” as his passion for the Egyptian queen — portrayed with alluringly youthful guile by Zoe Speas — proves his fateful Achilles’ heel.
My previous visit to Staunton coincided with the company’s annual spring installment of “The Actors’ Renaissance,” an interlude in which the directors take a hike, and the actors put on a passel of plays. It makes for an illuminating change, but in the current roster of productions, there’s a clearer sense of one pair of eyes and hands deftly presiding over the proceedings. The perception is strongest in the choreographing of big scenes — in the case of “Julius Caesar,” the aftermath of the assassination of Caesar (a finely imperious turn by David Anthony Lewis).
McSweeny deploys actors all around the Blackfriars Theatre space and has the furious rabble all but drown out Kent as he begins Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans, countrymen” eulogy; the crowd’s switching of allegiance to Antony as he repeats that rhetorical device dripping with irony — “For Brutus is an honorable man” — is rarely so crisply revealed.
The surprising capstone, though, is the transformation of Blackfriars into a stage for a persuasive rendition of Davis’s musical. The piece was inspired by the work of Jon Crispin, who photographed suitcases found in Upstate New York’s Willard state mental hospital, which opened in 1869 and closed in 1995.
McSweeny furnishes the stage with suitcases, trunks and carryalls. Like the tales contained in the melodies, many of them performed in singer-songwriter style by the 11-member cast, they come in all shapes and sizes. There’s no overarching structure or rigid timeline or even a singular presentational song style, which adds to the evening’s freshness. The linkage comes in the sharing of the secrets of minds confined to sad spaces, anguished memories and disordered reasoning.
“What Would You Pack,” the song by a guitar-strumming troubadour (Chris Johnston), frames the evening. It poses a parlor-game question about the one thing you would pack on a journey, but it refers to a trip no one would want to take. And over the course of about 90 minutes, we learn what’s locked in those fragile containers. By which I mean psyches.
In “Dear President Mr. Herbert Hoover,” the divine Nancy Anderson vents the spleen of a paranoid inmate awash in comically wild grievances and hallucinated threats. In the superb “All in a Day’s Work,” Annabelle Rollison portrays a nurse who took on the perverse role of angel of death, and in “Little Sailor Suit,” Leighton Brown sings as a woman who couldn’t bear up under the most profound kind of grief a parent can experience.
So the stories spill out, in a riveting cascade. You’ll be reminded at times of other shows with this kind of motif, such as Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins,” or “Working,” a song cycle based on interviews by Studs Terkel. The actors here supply the musical accompaniment — another ASC specialty. They do something else kind of wonderful: give vibrant flesh to the souls of the forgotten.
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market St., Staunton, Va. 877-682-4236. americanshakespearecenter.com.