The American Shakespeare Center’s 2011 Actors’ Renaissance Season is now history. It’s really a remarkable thing that they do: the company of actors, without directors or designers, mount five shows that run from early January to the end of March (April 3 this year). It’s a wonder. And somehow makes for theater with great energy.
This year, the repertoire consisted of just two Shakespeare plays: The Comedy of Errors and Henry VI Part 3. They also did John Marston’s The Malcontent, Thomas Middleton’s A Trick to Catch the Old One, and an anonymous play that hadn’t been performed in about 400 years, Look About You. I managed to see all the shows once and I was going to try to get to some of them a second time, but as often happens during this compressed season, time got away from me. But all five shows were wonderful.
The season began with The Comedy of Errors. This play is now somewhat familiar to playgoers at The Blackfriars, as it’s been done here at least three other times in the ten-year existence of the theater. But the gradual changes that take place in the company, and the home-stand appearance each year of the touring company, mean that each production is unique. This year one of the highlights was the pairing of Gregory Jon Phelps and Tyler Moss as Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus, respectively. Both actors have a wide range—I’ve enjoyed them both in dramatic roles—but for these parts played the comedy to the hilt.
Next was The Malcontent, which I’d not seen before. The character of Malevole (the exiled Duke of Genoa in disguise) is the memorable feature of this play, and Benjamin Curns, who has made a Blackfriars career of playing these dark connivers (like his Iago last season), made the role—Malevole is actually the good guy, which is even more fun—zing.
Look About You by Anonymous was unusual. Among other features, we get the character Robin Hood, who isn’t quite the way we remember him to be. What’s really interesting about the play, though, is that it fits into the History Cycle of Shakespeare plays. But what really makes it standout is the number of disguises the characters use. John Harrell as Skink was fantastic, shifting from one disguise to another. There’s a nice article about the play in ASC’s The Playhouse Insider
Next up was Henry VI, Part 3, this season’s contribution to the history cycle. The more I’ve seen of the history plays the better I understand them, not surprisingly. Gregory Jon Phelps was wonderful as the weak/thoughtful King Henry VI, and so were all of the House of York, especially Jeremy West as Richard, Duke of York, John Harrell as Edward, and Benjamin Curns as the vile young Richard (fitting nicely into Curns’s niche). I was also impressed with Chris Johnston as Lord Clifford, who is a merciless warrior who meets a bloody end. But the one most memorable feature here I think is Sarah Fallon as Margaret, King Henry’s wife. She just takes over when Henry shows signs of giving in to York. It’s a great part, and Fallon was all over it.
Last but not least was another play I’d never heard of, A Trick to Catch the Old One. This was a fun story about a guy in debt—Theodorus Witgood, played by Gregory Jon Phelps—who has been cheated by his uncle, Pecunius Lucre, played by John Harrell. Witgood launches a scheme involving Jane, played by Miriam Donald, to get Lucre to release Witgood’s mortgage and pay off his other debts. The joke is that Jane is a courtesan, which provides ample opportunity for bawdy humor. Donald’s performance is the stand-out for me here, but the whole production was wonderful.
It was a terrific season. I only wish I’d had time to get back to see the shows a second time. And now we start the Spring Season featuring the touring company. They’re doing Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and As You Like It, starting this Wednesday, April 6 and running through June 19.
We’re truly blessed to have this theater in our small city.