I spent this afternoon at the performances of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra put on by Session 2 of the ASC's Young Company Theatre Camp. While I'm always excited to see the YCTC shows, I was extra-enthused, since these are two of my favorite plays.
Today's performance -- in a Blackfriars Playhouse again crammed to overflowing with parents, friends, former campers, grad students, ASC actors, and members of the Staunton community -- began with a choreographed pre-show performance involving all of the campers. Eastern-influenced music played as the campers presented a stylized version of Cleopatra's death scene. A line of campers in theatre blacks and red scarves formed a chain and acted out the striking of the asp, in a development of an activity that originated weeks earlier, at their auditions. The effect was visually striking and quite impressive. After that, we saw Alexi S. as Shakespeare, trying to pen the Battle of Actium, and eventually deciding -- despite actors engaging in combat and building ships out of their bodies -- to leave the famous battle out of the play. The pre-show demonstrated some of the skills campers acquired in their Master Classes during the last three weeks, including Elizabethan dance, belly-dancing, combat, and details of Shakespeare's Staging Conditions. The pre-show culminated in a song based on a poem that Jane J. wrote for the "What You Will" talent show, detailing the plots of each show.
Doreen then stepped up to give her general introduction, acknowledgments, and inspirational speech. She summed up this session with the word "abundance," referring to the prolific creativity of the campers. Having seen so many talents demonstrated in the pre-show, I think she definitely picked the right word. Two campers then presented a more traditional pre-show for the ASC. This pre-show also gave me a new favorite knock-knock joke -- but there's a physical component, so you'll have to ask me if you see me around town. ;)
The first show of the afternoon was Julius Caesar, directed by MFA Candidate Laurie Riffe. The show began with a version of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," modified to reflect Roman patriotism. I was impressed by the energy and vigor which the campers infused into the show. While all the campers put in great performances, I particularly liked the Cassius, Rose B., who played the role with wonderfully choleric charisma. Caesar's death was highly stylized and set to drumbeats, and it packed quite an emotional punch when Caesar, stabbed by the conspirators, stumbled into Brutus's arms, only to receive the final blow. Another interesting staging choice was the decision to have Caesar's Ghost watching the suicides of Brutus and Cassius from the balcony -- I suspect drawing inspiration from Brutus's line "O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet! Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords in our own proper entrails". Overall, Caesar was an exciting show -- anyone who's ever accused that play of being boring ought to take a cue from the YCTC cast.
Antony and Cleopatra, Part 1, directed by father-son team James and Thomas Keegan, opened with a rendition of "Midnight at the Oasis" that drew laughs from the crowd. In this cast, Hannah M. portrayed the fiery Queen of Egypt with mercurial excellence, and Margaret C. made a powerful pint-sized Antony. I was really impressed by -- and glad for -- the decision to cast a female actor as Antony. This production made fabulous use of the space and its possibilities. One great joke hinged on the use of diagonals: Cleopatra, all the way in the downstage-right corner, tells Antony, entering at the upstage-left corner, "stand farther from me". Antony then made a wonderful "where'm I gonna go?" gesture, to audience appreciation. All of the actors used the audience well, particularly the comic Enobarbus, played by Rachel B., who aligned herself with those sitting on the gallant stools at every opportunity. This cast didn't shy from the sexuality in the play, which seemed to shock some audience members, but clearly delighted others (myself included). The production ended, halfway through the play, at the moment of broken fellowship between Octavius and Antony, with an epilogue written by the students. With the cast on-stage, the key players from Part 2 came out to receive significant prop or costume elements from their counterparts. This technique was a wonderful way to link the productions and help the audience out for the beginning of ...
Antony and Cleopatra, Part 2, directed by Jeremy West. Jeremy described his cast as "uninhibited", and suggested that it was something adult performers could learn from the kids. The play opened in similar formation to the end of Part 1, using lines from the epilogue set to drumbeats. These drumbeats continued throughout the production, almost beating out the remainder of Antony and Cleopatra's lives. Daniel H. and Rebecca R. threw themselves into the tragic fall of history's famous couple, but the production was not without humor. Shakespeare puts moments of levity around both deaths, and the campers embraced those. One particularly neat staging trick -- that Jeremy West admitted had come to him from James Keegan -- was the way they lifted Antony up to Cleopatra's monument. Instead of actually bringing Antony up on the stage, Cleopatra and her handmaidens dropped a rope where they stood, but not off the front, but rather towards the back, at the same moment that another rope appeared where Antony was in the discovery space. The women pulled up on their rope as the discovery space curtains swung shut, giving Antony the time to go up the stairs and crawl under the curtain at the back of the balcony, making it appear as though he had been pulled straight up. As someone who has previously cringed watching an Antony scale the frons scenae, wondering if I was about to see disaster, I really appreciated this clever approach to a difficult bit of staging.
All three shows were wonderful, and I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon. I'm just sorry the summer's over, but I'll be eagerly awaiting next year's camps. Best of luck to all of our campers in the upcoming school year!