Look About You
Stretching Incredulity Beyond Understanding
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Sunday, March 20, 2011, D–6&7 (middle stalls)
Actors’ Renaissance Season
The bulk of Blackfriars audiences comprises avid ASC fans or, at least, people who have attended plays there before. For this matinee it was obvious that several people were making their first visit to the Blackfriars. They were unfamiliar with the seating, a bit confused by the surroundings, and pretty much confounded by the play performed. Not meaning to sound superior here, but I was familiar with the seating, clued into the surroundings, and pretty much confounded by the play performed.
An offering of the ASC Actors Renaissance Season (actors, without directors and using only prompt copy, mount plays with only a few days to costume themselves, block, and rehearse), Look about You is set in Henry II’s court. However, the crown is claimed by both Henry II and his eldest son, Henry, and both simultaneously occupy thrones on stage (shades of The Rehearsal here). The court thus is split into factions of, seemingly, Prince Richard and Prince John plus the Earl of Leicester supporting Henry III, while, seemingly, the Earl of Gloucester, the Earl of Lancaster, and Sir Richard Fauconbridge do duty to Henry II. Gloucester goes on the run for some offense, as does Skink, Robin Hood’s servant, who, prior to the play, murdered Henry II’s mistress upon orders of either Henry III or his evil mother and Henry II’s evil wife Elinor of Aquitaine. Stay with me here.
The plot, such as it can be called a plot, is the chase after both Skink and Gloucester as these two characters take on disguise after disguise. Meanwhile, Prince Richard courts Fauconbridge’s wife, Lady Marian, with Robin Hood’s help, a subplot that also relies on a succession of disguises.
In the convention of Elizabethan theater, something as simple as a hat, apron, or cape can provide enough disguise to fool all other characters, a convention that can be a confusion in Obaman theater. Another difficulty in grasping this play is the shifting allegiances, especially that of Richard who, though of his opposite faction, strives to help Gloucester (Lady Marion’s brother). Then the plot takes a final twist at the end that comes from way beyond left field as Henry III renounces his usurpation, proclaims unconditional fealty to his father’s title, and reverses his pardon of Skink by putting the trickster in Gloucester’s hands. This all made for a two-hour WTF.
But a fun, um, two-hour's traffic, nonetheless, thanks to the talent. Any character named Skink who takes on eight disguises may have been written in 1595 but was created expressly for John Harrell, the master of winking deviousness and wry characterization. The many-voiced Benjamin Curns played Gloucester in his four disguises. These two had their climactic moment on the stage when, both disguised as the hermit, they engaged in a sword fight that not only utilized slow motion but concluded in an entanglement that had both actors breaking character to unravel.
Patrick Midgley, he of the Mr. Universe body, played Robin Hood. The script calls for a teen-age Robin, but for the scenes in which he was disguised as Lady Marian (otherwise sweetly played by Miriam Donald) it was far funnier seeing the muscled Midgley resisting the advances of Prince Richard (Gregory Jon Phelps). Jeremiah Davis played Prince John as a greedy, arrogant, egotistical, conniving, and just such a mean guy, unremittingly so. It wasn’t always comic, but it was convincing and commanding (cast Davis as Shakespeare’s King John now!). Chris Johnston played Redcap, a stuttering simpleton constantly jogging, even in place at times; the humor in this role came as Skink and Gloucester, each later disguised as Redcap, imitated Johnston’s portrayal.
At the interval we heard around us a few “do you understand what’s happening?" But nobody left. And at play’s end, the performance got a standing ovation, proving that in the hands of ASC, even an anonymous, obtuse play performed in strictly Elizabethan style can triumph.
March 22, 2011