In 1592 the plague spread across the City of London. Among other measures the leaders took to limit the spread of the plague was to close the theatres. Some acting troupes may have taken their costumes and props on the road to regions less effected by the plague. Some would resume productions in London later in 1593 and 1594. Some author’s wrote poems or published scripts of their plays which literate folks could read privately or put on in their homes. I imagine that they would have embraced our Internet technology, streamed shows from their kitchens, and posted images from their windows. Some historians argue that the theatre closings had less to do with health concerns than Puritanical disdain for entertainment that they considered sinful. Society does not change much. Outbreaks of the plague would come and go over the following decades, with additional shutdowns of commerce and entertainment.
We saw our last live theatre productions in February and March of 2020: “Much Ado About Nothing”, at the Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA; and “Pippin”, at Howard University. Pippin was especially memorable because a family friend, Deimoni Brewington, played the lead role. How often do you get to take the star of a show out for Pho before seeing him on stage? More on that later.
For the next few months, we would be rather distracted and distant, working odd days and shifts on the Covid Units of our hospital. The plague, up close and too personal for my intellectual and abstract taste. I found my Monty Python moments (remember the plague skit, “Bring Out The Dead?”) in all of it. And, we discovered streaming services on our Roku, specifically Marquee TV, on which a number of the productions of the American Shakespeare Center were broadcast over the spring and summer of 2020. The world was right there in our cozy home theatre (aka basement).
The American Shakespeare Center did re-open for a few months in late summer of 2020, with productions, at the Blackfriar Theatre and an out-door venue. We saw the last performance of “Othello” before the doors shut down again as Covid cases surged, and our election cycle turned into something like Richard III.
In May, 2021, the lights came back on. This time under a tent. The American Shakespeare Center utilized the Rose Terrace at Mary Baldwin University, just up the hill from their home performance space. This was an excellent choice for their return production of Macbeth. With all the unpredictability of natural and super-natural images in “Macbeth”, outdoors is a great option for staging. The Chesapeake Shakespeare Company brought “Pericles” to another outdoor venue, the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park, in Ellicot City, MD. And, then the American Shakespeare Center re-opened its Blackfriar Theatere for productions of “Henry V” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”.
Four productions of Shakespeare in one summer. What a way to “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow the Covid-Delta-Variant shall surge”.
After a year of Covid-19 and Hyper-Masculine Election chest beating, what could be better to wash one’s hands of 2020 than “Macbeth”. Death. Death. Death. With board swords and pikes, no less. Being outdoors was even better, as Scotland is a place outdoors, or at least in cold, drafty castles and huts.
After a year of off-and-on performances and sheltering in place with Zoom rehearsals, on-line musical fund-raising nights, regrouping on stage takes a bit of work. The chore team stomped and strutted the doomed royal couple, spooked us with weird sisters for foretelling forbidding prophecies, and scattering the stage with new performers hacked to bits until McDuff does Macbeth and his Lady in.
This was a visual show, which the outdoor venue accentuated. Of course, the air conditioning system in the bushes behind us and old ears sort of took out a lot of the language. We will be seeing the same production later in the season in-doors at the Blackfriar Theatre, so we will have a chance review it sans “vmmmmmmmmmmmmmm”.
”Pericles” is a great romp from port-to-port around the Mediterranean Sea, skillfully performed on a multi-level ship built into the corner of the stone ruins of the Patapsco Female Institute Historic Park. The audience sat in folding chairs on one side of this ship. Better yet, we reserved one of the picnic tables too enjoy our feast and wine before the show.
To keep us oriented as to where the hapless Pericles might be on his adventure, the cast would hoist colored flags and done similarly color tunics, shirts, scarves, or hats for each scene. This helped to keep us afloat with the fast paced production, especially later in the play as characters from various locations came together to re-unit the separated family.
The cast generated increasing energy with each entering and exiting scene, round of “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor”, and bold-knights fighting for the princess’ hand. They even some how conjured up a ten minute thunderstorm in the middle of the second half. All that distant lightening and rumbles… well, we were on top of a hill.
Even more exciting was that our friend Deimoni was in the show. From graduation to rehearsals to production in one summer. What fun to have a character walk off stage to great you and introduce other cast members before and after the show.
Back in the theatre, “Henry V” reigned triumphant. Whatever concerns we might have had about some of the new cast members keeping up with the seasoned performers vaporized as they brought us a prince-become-king, unruly drunkards, brave and not-so-brave soldiers, and princesses-to-become-queens in Elizabethan English, French, and Spanish. If Macbeth were to be vanquished and haunted by ghosts of his own hand, Henry V is to be cheered and toasted for ending the chaos of war and sit and dine in a period of peace.
Time for a comedy. Technically, “All’s Well that Ends Well” is a comedy: the fated couple is coupled in the final scene. Helena gets Bertram. But, at the end of pre-show music set, Christopher Johnston summed up the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s plot with a hilarious welcome about “My tears are tears of joy. Your tears are tears of sorrow”. The cast then took us on a two hour rodeo round-up of the cad.
As we walked back to our car, we both asked “Why would you want to marry that jerk. If he would do that (i.e. run from you and chase other women) while your are courting, he’ll do it to you again”. We cannot tell Shakespeare’s motivation for this plot. Maybe he was just saying “This is how people are”, or maybe he intended to say “What kind of fool are you”. I’m inclined to interpret that later, as the Countess of Rousillion says in Act I, Scene I, “Love all, trust few, Do wrong to one”.
Whether tragedy, adventure, or comedy, in the theatre, the evening ends with resolution. Evil is destroyed. Good governs. The separated couples and families are reunited. And, we can go home with a sense of order.
But, life is more cycles than two hour productions. Periods of chaos and peace revolve around historical contexts. A power-turned-delusional obsessed king and queen are eradicated, usually be be replaced by another power-turned-delusional version of leadership. We drive the Taliban into the mountains, leader-by-leader destroy Al Qaeda, only to have ISIS rise and fall, to then find that the Taliban are re-taking city-by-city as we withdrawal our military. The Reagan era is replaced by the Newt era is replaced by the Tea Party, is replaced by Trump era is replaced by Q-Anon. Now the GOP is the Party of Tin-foil hats, Pround Boys, Three-Percenters, and Oath Keepers. The peaceful reign of one king lasts as long as the king, or was never that peaceful anyway. Did we really think that the Biden Inauguration love-fest would lead to a term of the lion and lamb settling down together? The three plays that brought Henry V to the thrown will be followed by three plays of Henry VI, which go from bad to worse. Given the trajectory of separation-to-reunion for Pericles and his family, can we expect that all will go well after the lights go down? Is the Covid-19 pandemic really over? I’m not celebrating. I’m keeping my mask on, and thankfully the Blackfriar Theatre never let us take our off. At least not everyone is a fool.
History grinds on. The tragedy or comedy occurs on a human level. We as individuals live our lives in those historical contexts. Sometimes we lives in peace and resolution. But, most of the time we live in the small dramas of personal chaos. Theatre may help us to continue on to the next scene. Or, maybe I’m just in a bad mood because my dog died. Hmmmmph.