The final show now streaming on BlkFrsTV, from the American Shakespeare Center’s Renaissance Season, is A King and No King. Not familiar? Can’t recall which Folio that came from? Well, it is not a play by Shakespeare. So, why is the American Shakespeare Center putting it on? Let’s back up for some history.
Ralph Cohen, developed the concept that became the American Shakespeare Center, some decades ago. The troupe’s original name was the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. It was a traveling group that when to schools, municipalities, even the Folger Shakespeare Library stage in Washington, D.C. They wanted to re-create as much of the staging conditions that existed during the time that Shakespeare was writing and performing.
About the time that we came upon the American Shakespeare Center (see my review of Much Ado About Nothing), they had just constructed a replica of one of Shakespeare’s acting troupe’s indoor stages, the Blackfriars Theatre. With this addition, the American Shakespeare Center developed two acting companies. One continued with the traveling, education mission. The other became a resident company.
In addition to having a home base, they could now implement a consistent set of staging techniques that Shakespeare would have written for. First is universal lighting. The house lights, in essence are the only light for the stage (multiple rings of wrought iron candles, though electric now). This allowed the audience to see the performers, the performers to see the audience, and everyone to see each other.
Thus, the performers and audience are frequently interacting (if you watched Much Ado About Nothing, you might recall the Benedict “hides” in the audience. It was little odd for the video, but when we saw the live performance, Benedict, literally slipped into the audience, sat next to patrons and interacted with them, and climbed a few rows back to be more hidden). Also, the performers may enter or exit via the seating area (if you viewed, Henry IV, Part 1, Falstaff slowly makes his way from the back of the auditorium, down the stairs, then up on the stage, lamenting the long walk he has had to make because his friends stole his horse.. and the gout in his big-toe).
Another feature of their productions is how fast the scenes change. Rarely do long, silent bits of action to tell the story. The language tells the story. Thus, often as one set of characters exits, say out the door on stage right, another set is entering in full dialogue from stage left door. Let’s just say this is not an August Wilson style, in which we might watch someone spend 2 or 3 minutes doing something around the stage to set the scene before a word is spoken. Shakespeare’s audience expected rants, rituals, wooing, and sword fights to burst on to the the scene (remember how Henry IV, Part 2 erupts with Hotspur and Hal re-enacting their fight scene from Henry IV, Part 1 in a matter of seconds before Romour walks on reciting the epilogue that recounts that scene, espousing how the reports of the battle came back distorted and full of speculation).
Part of that style was because Elizabethan audiences were much more noisy that we are today. No silence in the audience. Raise your goblet in a toast. Much on your peanuts. Sit on stage so everyone could see you Dressed-to-the-Nines. Seduce the lady or lord sitting across the stage from you. The actors had to keep your attention with constant action and dialogue, because everyone could see everyone else, and a boring show just let everyone ignore it.
Finally, in Shakespeare’s time, acting troupes did not have an October to May theatre season. They did not have weeks and months of rehearsal time. They did not develop a production in Seattle, to sent it to Chicago, to refine it in D.C. or Boston, with the aim opening on Broadway after two years of regional theatre development. No one had TV, nor Youtube, nor Netflix, or Amazon Prime, etc. Everyone when to the theatre. Shows were constantly being brought to stage, dropped if they flopped, extended or revived if they could fill the theatre. Thus, rather than our style of a production lasting 6 weeks, the troupe usually have multiple plays going at once.
That brings us to what the Renaissance Season is about. They American Shakespeare Center started this about a decade ago. The resident troupe would stage 4 to 5 plays from January through mid-April. They had no director. They had limited support crew to edit scrips, rehears and block scenes, develop and choreograph musical numbers, select costume styles, find props, etc. They had about one week to put up the show. Thus, the cast and crew for the Renaissance Season starts just after the holidays and begins putting up shows in rapid succession. By the end of January, or into mid-February, they have four shows running. Often, they refine the production over several weeks of performances. If you like to see this development, attend an early production to see a raw and spontaneously brilliant play. Come back later in the season and enjoy well executed, refined play. This is living theatre.
This brings us to A King and No King, written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. These playwrights were contemporaries of Shakespeare’s. The troupe would have not just performed Shakespeare’s plays, they would have performed plays by other members of the company. Thus, for the Renaissance Season, the American Shakespeare Center often finds other plays from the time period to add to the list (this also includes a recent initiative Shakespeare’s Contemporaries to solicit new scripts spinning off from Shakespeare’s plays which they plan to perform). By producing A King and No King, they give us more of a sense of how the season would have looked, and a contrast of styles that other playwrights used compared to Shakespeare’s plays which we are familiar with.
Because you probably have never heard of Beaumont’s and Fletcher’s plays (have you ever heard of them?), a quick summary: Arbaces (Benjamin Reed) a victorious king returns from battle with Tigranes (Ronald Roman-Melendez) captured in the war. Arbaces gives Tigranes the ransom option to marry his younger sister, Panthea (Zoe Speas), whom Arbaces has not seen since she was a little girl. Of course, upon meeting her as a young woman, Arbaces falls madly in love with her and she with him. Or, shall we say they are both bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, but with an implied incestuous spin. Shall we say the rest of the play is their hard-on dilemma of how they can be lusting after each other and still be siblings. Okay, I get it. This is a Seinfeld episode, not an Arther Miller play! But, then everyone was not Shakespeare either!
No Spoiler Alert. I’m not saying more about the plot. But, for the acting, this is Zoe’s and Benjamin’s smoker, flame, char-broiler, volcano performance. The Rolling Stones and Police might as well be singing “I’m so hot for you” and “Don’t stand so close” at the same time. They sizzle Beaumont’s and Fletcher’s shallow character plot in contrast to Shakespeare’s nuanced, robust, full bodied Beatrice and Benedick which they will do on alternative nights. Hey, the company has to work with the script handed to them.
Of course, the rest of the cast, too many to recite here, add lots of twists and turns to keep us guessing how this will all resolve. Tension, tension, tension. Don’t even think of dozing off, or wandering off to the loo or fridge while this show is on. But, thanks to streaming technology, you can push pause if you need a brew to cool you off, or a hot-toddy to warm you up. And, go ahead, use the loo while your up. You don’t want to delay the gratification of seeing the next scene!
Now, back to the usual Renaissance Season. If you are really a Shakespeare junkie or theatre-spotter, their style of performances let you binge-watch to your gluttonous content. You could watch Much Ado About Nothing at 7:30 Friday. Pop into a Bn’B for the night. Shop Beverly Street in Saturday morning, have lunch at one of the many restaurants or coffee shops, see Henry IV, Part 1 at 2 p.m., pick up some dinner, then gelato at the Split Banana, return for Henry IV, Part 2 at 7:30 p.m., and return to the Bn’B. Sunday morning, churches abound within walking distance, and you are back for A King and No King at 2 p.m. before driving home, satiated in any number of ways. We’ll leave the rest to your imaginations.
But don’t let BlkFrsTV Renaissance Season be imaginary. It will end in a week, April 19th (sorry if you are reading this after that date). Then the touring shows will come along through May!