Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0622. Thursday, 17 August 1995.
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Thursday, August 17, 1995
Subject: Re: My Vacation in Harrisonburg with the SSE
I returned last Sunday from a wonderful and relaxing week in Harrisonburg,
Virginia, a lovely place with friendly people and plenty of things to do -- the
mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, Skyline Drive, the various caverns, shopping
outlets, historical locations, and the unbelievable Green Valley Book Fair.
The Shenandoah Valley, while being a beautiful vacation spot, is also the home
base for the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, and the principal reason for my
visit was to see the four plays of the SSE's current season: *Hamlet*, *The
Tempest*, *Twelfth Night*, and *Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead*, the
company's first non-Shakespearean production.
I should begin by saying up front that I unabashedly love the Shenandoah
Shakespeare Express. My first exposure to the company was, as was many of
yours, seeing its 1990 *Julius Caesar* at the SAA's annual meeting in
Philadelphia. Of the five seasons of plays I have seen, I believe that this
year's company is the finest ensemble Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren have put
together, and the SSE is truly an ensemble company. This week and last as I
reflected on the versatility and skill of this year's company members, I have
concluded that, as with a choir, to praise individuals is to miss the point.
All the members of this company contribute to the total impact of each
production; the individuals work together, one night performing a leading role
while the next, with equal gusto and talent, playing one or more "minor" or
character roles. The overall impression of seeing all the productions of a
season in the same week is stunning, and all members of the company deserve the
highest praise: Scott Duff (Ghost, Player-King, Fortinbras, second Gravedigger,
Cornelius, Stephano, Boatswain, Juno, and Feste), Hep Jamieson (Gertrude,
Alonso, and Viola), Tricia Kelly (Rosencrantz, Bernardo, Miranda, Fabian, and
Valentine), Philip Lortie (Claudius, Prospero, Sebastian, and Captain),
Margaret McGirr (Gravedigger, Voltemand, Player Queen, Reynaldo, Captain,
Antonio, Olivia, Soldier, and Player Sidekick), Matthew McIver (Guildenstern,
Osric, Marcellus, Ferdinand, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Thad McQuade (Hamlet,
Ariel, and Malvolio), Keith Odums (Laertes, Gonzalo, Orsino, and Alfred),
Michelle Powers (Ophelia, Sebastian, Maria, and Priest), Paul Riopelle
(Polonius, Francisco, Priest, Ambassador, Trinculo, Ceres, Adrianisco, Antonio,
and Curio), and Darius Stone (Horatio, Caliban, Iris, and Sir Toby Belch).
What follows are not meant to be thorough reviews of the productions; instead,
I have recorded some of my selected impressions and reactions to them.
I first saw *The Tempest*, directed by Jim Warren. The SSE includes
contemporary music in all productions, always opening with a song. When
Prospero, Ariel, and Caliban alternately sang The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for
the Devil," I was, of course, set up for a "dark" interpretation of the play.
This Prospero was an angry Prospero, throughout delivering his lines in a high
register. I did not, however, detect any overt New Historicist readings, like
portraying Caliban of indigenous or African heritage -- the words alone carried
those meaning. I did find the presentation of Ariel fascinating. This Ariel
was no sycophant or delicate creature; instead the sprite was portrayed as a
strong, sometimes unwilling but subjugated servant, greatly relieved to be
released from his bondage at the conclusion of the play. One perennial
contemporary problem with *The Tempest* involves the staging of Prospero's
masque. Initially, I found this production's Iris-Juno-Ceres, red-robed,
Gladys-Knight-and-the-Pips style imitation a bit too cute, but by its end I was
convulsed with laughter.
The following afternoon I had the opportunity to see the restaging of *Twelfth
Night* by the participants in the NEH Summer Institute at James Madison
University's Center for Renaissance and Shakespeare Staging (C.R.A.S.S.). The
production was staged at the Artful Dodger -- a Harrisonburg coffeehouse,
located on the Courthouse Square. The SSE members were loose and obviously had
lots of fun. The next evening I saw the SSE's version of *Twelfth Night*,
directed by Murray Ross. This production exemplifies what many of us have come
to associate with the SSE -- fast-paced and skillfully blocked -- performed at
the SSE's home space, the stage at the James Harrison Middle School. This
space is perfect for the SSE. The stage is small but thrusts out. A series of
steps around it lead to a small playing area below, with seats on three sides
and the rows rising up enough to provide clean sight lines from every seat. The
company took advantage of all these spaces as well as the five aisles that
extend upward to exits in the back of the room.
With the season identified as The "Words, Words, Words" Tour, *Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern*, also directed by Jim Warren, was an excellent choice for the
SSE's first non-Shakespearean production. The SSE's approach to Shakespeare
works equally well with Stoppard, whose work is as verbally dense as
Shakespeare's. The actors played the same roles they do in *Hamlet* with the
addition of Stoppard's character Alfred. (You remember: "We can present you
*The Rape of the Sabine Women*; or rather woman or rather Alfred.") Even
though I had heard time and time again that *R and G Are Dead* is difficult to
stage, I found the hour and a half's production extremely entertaining,
engaging, and satisfying and one I will remember for sometime to come.
For six months or so, the SSE's *Hamlet*, directed by Ralph Cohen, was blocked
with an arras on the stage and the actors appearing only when they are supposed
to be present. The production followed the Q1 scene structure and lasted two
hours and fifteen to twenty minutes. When I saw *Hamlet*, the SSE was
forty-eight hours away from leaving for the Edinburgh Festival, where they were
assigned only two-hour time blocks. The Saturday night performance I saw was
the first time the company performed a completely reblocked and shortened
version that will be the way the play is performed and Edinburgh and for the
rest of this year's season. The result was magnificent, and if I had not been
told by Ralph I would not have suspected that what I saw had been performed all
along -- these are very talented professionals. In the past, I considered the
SSE's forte to be comedy, but this *Hamlet*, even with the few rough spots one
would have to expect from the first performance of a newly conceived
production, was among the finest SSE performances I have ever seen and also one
of the finest *Hamlet*s I've ever seen. The Q1 scene structure worked and
worked extremely well. The company brought in this just short of 3000 lines
production in two hours and five minutes, and Ralph was sure he could cut the
production down to an even two hours. I was impressed.
My family and I had such a good time that we are planning to make an annual
pilgrimage to Harrisonburg to repeat our wonderful experience, and I would
encourage others to follow our example next summer or look into booking the SSE
at your institutions. The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express can be reached by
, by telephoning at 1-540-434-3366, by FAXing at
1-703-434-4375, or by writing to SSE, P.O. Box 1485, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.
Finally, I want to offer my deepest appreciation and warmest thanks to Patricia
Kloss (Booking Coordinator), Paul Menzer (Director of Development and Locator
of Babysitter), and Jim Warren (Managing Director). Of course, my extra special
thanks to Ralph Cohen (Executive Director), whose gracious responses to my
e-mail queries made our vacation possible.
PS: It was also a great pleasure to meet those SHAKSPEReans who were
participants in the C.R.A.S.S. institute -- both those I've met before and
those I met for the first time.