Review: Festive, Joyous DANGEROUS DREAMS TOUR from American Shakespeare Center

By: Jan. 06, 2016
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You know you're in for a different kind of show when half an hour before curtain, the cast shows up onstage with instruments in hand, singing and dancing to a deft medley of contemporary hits. You sing, stomp and clap along, get rowdy-and stay that way for the rest of the evening.

The American Shakespeare Center's current "Dangerous Dreams" tour-featuring Julius Caesar, The Life of King Henry the Fifth and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest-is an absolute blast from start to finish. Packed with some seasoned talent and boundless energy, you'll be swept up in the drama, the warmth and good humor in spite of yourself.

I mean, it's classic drama and it's a helluva lot of fun. Who knew?

Now, if you're not familiar with ASC's approach to Shakespeare's plays you can always leaf through the program, click on their homepage and read all about the "Original Staging Conditions" back in Queen Elizabeth's day. What these nerdy notes don't tell you is that ASC doesn't do this to be academically, historically (yawn, stretch) correct: they do it because it's a fantastic way to do theater. That the actors routinely interact, mingle, and move through the audience only heightens the fun.

That Shakespeare intended his actors to work in full light, and to work the audience as they pleased, is a given; ASC has proven that this not only works, it's probably the best way to appreciate the Bard's genius. What's wonderful here is to realize that Wilde's immortal wit works even better in this open-air setting, with audiences drawn into those great one-liners (and, on occasion, made the butt of the character's jokes).

Three directors - Benjamin Curns for Caesar, Jim Warren for Henry V, and Kevin Rich for Earnest-have taken a cast of relative newcomers to ASC, who more than prove their mettle in the course of these three often grueling shows. What is especially heartening is to see how vital and memorable many of the supporting roles here are.

Given the fairly even distribution of talent here it is appallingly unfair to single out specific actors-and, for each actor, it is appallingly incomplete to only remember them for one or two roles in each, let alone in each play. Take Andrew Goldwasser, for example, whose Casca in Julius Caesar becomes newly prominent in the assassination plot led by Cassius (the passionate Tim Sailer) and Brutus (the solid Josh Innerst). When Goldwasser resurfaces in Henry V it is to play many often contradictory roles, perhaps most memorably as that insufferably pedantic Welshman, Captain Fluellen. Neither of these turns, however, prepare you for his Lady Bracknell in Earnest; the imperious persona he develops elsewhere is a perfect fit for this cross-dressing role.

Then we have Cordell Cole and Jessica Lefkow (pictured here as Pistol and Mistress Quickly) whose supporting roles, like Goldwasser's, are often revelatory because they force seasoned critics like myself to revise our most cherished assumptions about a play we thought we knew - until now. Cole, who is also solid and cool as the French king Charles VI in Henry V, gives just about the most commanding performance of Algernon's butler Lane in Earnest I have ever seen. The idea that Lane's status as butler is merely a convenience, and that he is every bit a co-conspirator in Algernon's escapades, is a delicious new twist. Meanwhile Lefkow's range is on full display, moving with ease from the dour Flavius at the opening of Caesar to Quickly as well as the hilarious, impeccably-accented attendant to Princess Katherine in Henry V. She's a treat too as Miss Prism, whose legendary absent-mindedness in Earnest prompts one of the theater's most bizarre denouements.

Oh - and the leads are good too. (What, you expected me to write them up first? Silly reader, this is a repertory company.) Chris Bellinger is every inch the willful Julius Caesar, and lends the right amount of gravitas to his turn as the Duke of Exeter in Henry V. Ross Neal ably manages the combination of youthful insouciance and imperial will as King Hal himself, and cuts a fine authoritative figure (albeit briefly) as Octavius in Caesar. Tim Sailer and Josh Innerst, meanwhile, prove their tragic and comic chops, in a somewhat ingenious pairing of roles for each: one minute they're Cassius and Brutus, swallowed whole by the revolution they helped to instigate in Caesar, and the next they're hoist on their own petards to amusing effect as Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff in Earnest.

The costumers here have accomplished the not-insignificant feat of evoking bygone days while adding contemporary touches, so that we're reminded how like ourselves these characters all are. Jennifer C. Bronsted gives us a touch of biker chic along with the skirts, armor and waistcoats in Henry V, and Jenny McNee gives us some truly elegant Renaissance wear for Caesar. Christina Leinicke, when she's not giving us the nice Victorian-cum Edwardian look in Earnest, pulls out all the stops (and a feather or two) in her get-up for Goldwasser's afore-mentioned Lady Bracknell.

The performances I saw, during their brief "holiday visit" to the Blackfriars Playhouse in nearby Staunton, Virginia, bode well for the months to come; the ASC's "Dangerous Dreams" Tour has stops from Northern Virginia to the Deep South and beyond, before returning to the Blackfriars Playhouse for a home season-by which time the cast should have acquired even more highs and nuances than they already have in their ample kitbags.

Production Photo: Jessica Lefkow as Quickly and Cordell Cole as Pistol in THE LIFE OF KING HENRY THE FIFTH. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

Running Times: Julius Caesar, 2 hours 15 minutes with one intermission;
Henry V, 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission;
The Importance of Being Earnest, 2 hours 15 minutes with two intermissions.

For the tour itinerary and more information about tickets please visit: .


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