STAUNTON, VA. — Who needs a director, anyway?
The thought is apt to cross one’s mind, sitting in the Blackfriars Playhouse in this inviting and increasingly hip Shenandoah Valley city, 150 miles or so southwest of Washington. For an intriguing interval each year, the American Shakespeare Center — a delightful company of well-drilled classicists — turns over the whole kit and caboodle to the actors. That’s right, the actors have the run of the place, for a run in the place. And the results, this year, were outstanding.
The respite from the ideas/suggestions/voluminous notes/suggested tweaks and other assorted ministrations of those bossy directors is called the “The Actors’ Renaissance.” And though I arrived in Staunton a skeptic, I left a believer. So invested was I in the idea that some singularly brilliant guide was essential in shepherding a successful evening of theater, that it didn’t even occur to me a director-less play — especially a complicated composition from the Elizabethan or Jacobean canon — could be anything but chaos.
The just-concluded “Renaissance” portion of ASC’s year-round operation seems to be in the spirit of Shakespeare himself and the bygone era of the actor-manager. This was the time before a trained individual with the responsibility of masterminding a production’s artistic design and impression became the norm. The implementation of this approach proves a useful test for a belief that even some directors acknowledge: After the writing is done, the fate of a show is largely driven by casting.
This is the inaugural season for a new artistic director at ASC, who chooses the plays, hires the creative teams and gives the company its overall vision. The new head is Ethan McSweeny, a fine director himself of the classics, represented over the years at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company in such productions as a visually stunning version of Aeschylus’s “The Persians” and a kinetically imaginative, modern-day “Twelfth Night.” McSweeny will direct his first show, “Julius Caesar,” in June in the Blackfriars — where, in imitation of Renaissance practices, the house lights always stay on. (Playing now, through June 9, is ASC’s session of plays that were on tour, including “The Winter’s Tale,” “Antigone,” “The Comedy of Errors” and “16 Winters, or the Bear’s Tale.”)
But if there’s any indication in the work of the “Renaissance” cast, many of whom are deeply steeped in classical training and professional experience, ASC may just have another renaissance in the offing. I watched the same dozen or so actors in four plays. Well, 3½ — I only had time on my last afternoon to stay for the first act of one of ASC’s commissioned works in its companion-play series, Amy E. Witting’s “Anne Page Hates Fun,” based on “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s “16 Winters, or the Bear’s Tale” is the companion to “The Winter’s Tale.”
The other works I saw included a history play, “Henry IV, Part 1”; a comedy, the aforementioned “The Merry Wives of Windsor”; and an obscure Elizabethan oddity, “Arden of Faversham,” whose authorship remains, perhaps blessedly, lost to time.
I saw the repertory on the closing weekend in Staunton, and gleaned a deep appreciation for a cast wholly versed in the language and meter of the plays. The degree to which this expertise assists listeners, even those with ears somewhat accustomed to iambic pentameter, is immeasurable. Having just experienced a cast on Broadway — in director Sam Gold’s haphazard “King Lear” — that treated the verse as choppier, normal conversation, I felt a much closer kinship to Shakespeare’s intentions as I listened to the ASC actors.
Left to their own devices, too, on a thrust stage with minimal design elements, these actors came up with lovely ideas about how to make the characters newly compelling and, in that ineffable Shakespearean fashion, wholly like us. You could look to, for instance, the acting challenge accorded to John Harrell, who offered up what you might call Sir John Falstaff two ways. Falstaff appears in both parts of “Henry IV” as comrade in debauchery to Prince Hal and, later, as a royal pariah. He shows up, too, in “Merry Wives.”
Harrell’s beguiling notion was to present two distinct versions of the character, physically and temperamentally, with just enough of a psychic link to provide a complete story of a curious comic character — one who is neither fool nor sycophant, though prone, like all of us, to selfish, stupid and loving impulses. The dual portrayals offer a robust argument in favor of Harold Bloom’s assertion that Falstaff is the most human character Shakespeare created.
The collectively well-handled “Henry IV, Part 1” was especially enhanced by the electric turns of Brandon Carter as Hal and KP Powell as the prince’s soldier-rival, Hotspur, who exists on a kind of testosterone overload. Representing the English throne and the rebels challenging the sovereignty of Hal’s father, the usurper Bolingbroke (the excellent David Anthony Lewis), the actors clashed with a dazzling athleticism, as well as a perceptive command of the emotions churning within each of them.
“Merry Wives” gave the women of the company as much opportunity to sharply define the comic consequences as “Henry IV” did in more seriously dramatic terms for the men. Abbi Hawk and Meg Rodgers were particularly winning as Alice Ford and Margaret Page, the mischievous chief cooks of this risible Shakespearean stew, and Shunté Lofton made for a sweetly self-possessed Anne Page, the ingénue beset by an assortment of unsuitable suitors. (Benjamin Reed, Calder Shilling, Katie Little and Chris Bellinger also counted among the solid gallery of performers.)
Wisely, the ASC actors turned the dizzy exposition of “Arden of Faversham” — the true 16th-century crime story of the conspiracy to murder the wealthy Thomas Arden, led by his wife, Alice — into wacky farce. The suspicion that Shakespeare can be somehow implicated in the commission of this shaky enterprise (the play, that is) is supposedly fueled by the names of two of the confederates: Black Will (played to idiotic hilt by Chris Johnston) and Shakebag (Harrell, again). The inferior poetry would argue against. But the impulse to send up the play’s endless red herrings and blind alleys seemed to have been indisputably the right one.
Which leads me back to my initial musing — and the additional conclusion, that an old theatrical adage has to be amended. There are indeed no small parts, and sometimes, you don’t even have to have them explained by a director.
American Shakespeare Center, 10 S. Market St., Staunton, Va. 877-682-4236. americanshakespearecenter.com.