There's much ado about the Bard in Virginia A quaint town boasts the most authentic Shakespeare this side of the Atlantic, in a replica theater just like the Bard's.

Posted: July 14, 2002

STAUNTON-UPON-I-81, Va. — Think of country music. Nashville.

Movies? Hollywood.

Shakespeare? Much ado about the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

The Bard lives on a side street in downtown Staunton, home to a $3.7 million re-creation of Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse, his theater on the banks of the Thames before he headed outdoors to the Globe in the early 17th century.

Since September, Shenandoah Shakespeare has been luring theater fans and scholars from all over the East Coast to this quaint town in the valley's rolling hills, not far from the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway.

Those looking for slick staging, ornate sets, and even soft seats will be disappointed.

Shenandoah Shakespeare aims for authenticity, with its staging and its Blackfriars Playhouse.

Since Shakespeare's original Blackfriars no longer exists, architect Tom McLaughlin used notes and a 17th-century design to turn out a two-story brick masterpiece. The 300-seat interior is a termite's fantasy - a wood-pegged, post-and-beam structure with unpainted carved oak posts and balusters.

You've heard of theater in the round? The Blackfriars is theater in the square. Just as in Shakespeare's day, the audience sits on hard wooden benches in front of the stage, in galleries alongside the stage, and even on the stage - on so-called gallants' stools, where they may be called upon as extras. (One important concession: seat cushions and seat backs for rent.)

The lighting is also true to the original spirit. There are no spotlights. The entire house, from audience to stage to balcony, is illuminated equally by chandeliers. T-shirts and signs proclaim: "We do it with the lights on."

Most important to founder Ralph Alan Cohen, an English professor at James Madison University, is the authenticity of the staging. Under Shenandoah Shakespeare's charter, no more than 25 words may be changed in any play.

Thou must listen carefully to the Elizabethan English.

The dozen eager young actors - including women, defying tradition - use skulls, swords and boxes as props and keep the action brisk; most plays come in under two hours, with no intermissions.

Shenandoah Shakespeare stages several shows in repertory - with the same actors - so it is possible to catch two or three shows over a weekend.

Audience members frequently become part of the action. During As You Like It a few months ago, the character Orlando stuck notes on audience members' foreheads. During Romeo and Juliet, an actor shushed a particularly vocal (and tipsy) patron with a simple: "Hey! This is my scene!"

The Blackfriars marks the convergence of two dreamers: Cohen, the scholar who longed to stage Shakespeare's works exactly as he had written them, and Staunton, the sleepy town that wished to awaken as something more than the home of the Statler Brothers. (Say the town's name STAN-ton, by the way.)

So far, the dreams have come true. Since opening in September, the Blackfriars has seated nearly 80,000 patrons, 25 percent more than projected.

To justify their $2 million investment in the playhouse, Staunton officials looked to Ashland, Ore., home of the popular Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Staunton likes to point out that about 20 million people live within a four-hour drive, as opposed to three million in Ashland. (Philadelphia is about 4 1/2 hours from Staunton.)

Staunton's collection of warehouses, storefronts and old houses - mixing Romanesque, Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian styles - has yielded to a collection of cute cafes and restaurants, shops and inns to entertain visitors. A free trolley makes a 20-minute downtown loop on weekends.

Recounting his company's history, Cohen said Philadelphia provided a crucial turning point.

Shenandoah Shakespeare Express - as it was then known - was founded in 1988 by Cohen and one of his students, Jim Warren, at James Madison, a half-hour north on I-81. They spent $300 of their $500 seed money on two swords. The company traveled and gained notice.

"I was a Shakespeare professor who was afraid of looking like a dilettante," said Cohen. Then came the 1990 meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America, held at the Sheraton Society Hill in Philadelphia.

As part of a discussion on acting and improvisation, Cohen brought in his student actors to stage Julius Caesar, in tennis shoes, jeans and tunics. As some of the world's leading Shakespeare authorities watched, "I sweated bullets," Cohen said. After the show - staged in a brisk hour and 55 minutes - Cohen joined his actors in the hotel broom closet that doubled as the dressing room.

When he opened the door, "there was a line of professors and scholars, asking, 'How can I help?'"

Cohen and Warren got invitations to perform at various colleges. By 1992, they had formed a professional touring company because the students needed to be in class.

By the late 1990s, Cohen and Warren had found a kindred spirit in Staunton. They moved there in 1999, in anticipation of the playhouse.

Shenandoah Shakespeare keeps two troupes - one in residence, the other on the road.

Now that Blackfriars is as he likes it, Cohen has a new dream: re-creating the outdoor Globe. He expects it to open in Staunton in 2005.

Contact Michael Klein at 215-854-5514 or mklein@phillynews.com.

Shakespeare and Staunton

Getting there

Two ways: Take Interstate 95 south to the Washington Beltway (I-495 west) to Route 66 west to I-81 south, or the Pennsylvania Turnpike west to Exit 16 (Carlisle) to I-81 south.

Accommodations

Staunton has the major chain motels, including Holiday Inn, phone 540-248-6020; Hampton Inn, 540-886-7000; Econolodge, 540-885-5158; and Microtel, 540-887-0200. There's the Frederick House, 540-885-4220, and bed-and-breakfast inns in town include the Belle Grae, 540-886-5151; Sampson Eagon Inn, 1-800-597-9722; Thornrose House, 540-885-7026; and Twelfth Night, 540-885-1733.

Touring

Guided walking tours start at 10 a.m. Saturdays, through Oct. 28, at Woodrow Wilson Birthplace, 24 N. Coalter St. Call Historic Staunton at 540-885-7676.

The town offers comprehensive walking-route maps at its visitor center, New and Johnson Streets, adjacent to its spacious (and sometimes free) garage. The downtown, which is fairly hilly, can be walked in a couple of hours. A free trolley makes a 20-minute loop of the downtown area on weekends.

The theater

With a repertoire of several plays, Shenandoah Shakespeare performs year-round at the Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market St. The current lineup is Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Love's Labour's Lost. See the schedule at www.ishakespeare.com/p-bfsched.htm or call 540-885-5588.

Information

Call the Staunton Convention and Visitors Bureau at 540-332-3865. Also, visit the Web site at www.stauntonva.org

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