Shakespeare in the Shenandoah

Head to Staunton, Virginia for authentic Elizabethan-style theater.

An onstage audience member engages with actor Kyle Powell in the role of Sampson in Romeo & Juliet. Photo by Tommy Thompson

Many of the contemporary songs, which come before the play starts and at intermission, wink at the play’s plot sequence. Marc Antony belts out a creditable version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and an actress—will she be stabbing Caesar later in the evening?—follows up with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Feel Lucky.”

Quirky and entertaining, the musical prelude gives me a chance to make my Blackfriars theatrical debut. I stride onstage and order a beer from the bar that pops up when the play’s not in progress. Then I find my seat on a long bench, which thankfully is equipped with comfortable backrests. (Be forewarned: The benches in the balcony have no backrests. For true comfort, you may want to vie for a Lord’s Chair near the stage, which looks like a miniature throne.)

Soon, the singers exit the stage and an actor delivers the first line of the play. At his words, some theatergoers scramble into seats near the front. Though each ticket includes an assigned seat, an unusual rule at this modern-day Blackfriars holds that after the first words of the play are spoken, you’re free to claim any empty seat.

With the lights on and the people around me sipping wine and munching Gummi Bears, the performance in this intimate 300-seat theater feels relaxed and lively at the same time, like seeing Shakespeare performed in your living room. The lack of real sets—actors may add a simple chair or table to the scene when needed—reinforces the illusion. The bare-bones staging puts the focus squarely on the young cast members, who hail from points all across the U.S. and fizz with energy. Soon, I notice that some of the Roman senators are being played by women.

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