I took the kids to see Merry Wives at a school matinee performance last week. They were–as usual–fidgety as all get out, but later said that they loved it. Petra’s favorite part was the fairies pinching Falstaff, and Silas said what he liked best was when Falstaff was dressed as the Witch of Brentford and Mr. Ford beats him up.

One thing I always forget about Shakespeare until I’m in the thick of it–and especially with my kids–is that a lot of these plays take some time to get going. The exposition is a lot of stage time. You have to sit through a lot of play before you get to “large man in a buckbasket.” So they were a little squirrely during the first half hour, and I can’t blame them. I wonder what I can do to prep them better for that, and, as a director, what I can do to move through that section with good energy and engaging staging, to get to the fun parts.

The show had a strong energy going, and, as it was the very end of the Ren season, there was also a bit of a manic undercurrent in the actors, a feeling of, “We’ve pulled off this completely crazy thing for another year.” The Ren Season, for those unfamiliar with the American Shakespeare Center, is a wild couple of months where a dozen(ish) actors put together four plays with about five days of rehearsal for each one, and no director or designers. They’ve been doing this every winter for a long time–I think it started in 2005?

Rick Blunt, my colleague from my grad school days, was supposed to be in this play as the Host of the Garter and Mistress Quickly. I had heard good things about his performance and was eager to see him. Unfortunately, he was understudied that day, which was fine, but not what I was hoping for. I’m a theater professional, I know that these things happen. It’s not that the understudy wasn’t good (he managed it admirably!), but just that I was curious to see how Rick has developed since I last saw him onstage, at least three years ago. Oh well, I’ll have to catch him another time.

John Harrell, as Falstaff, wore an inflatable fat suit, which was…a choice. I didn’t like the way it muffled his body movement and added an air of unreality–an almost ethereal presentation of this famously corporeal character. John, under the suit, was as always funny and charming, and watching him engage with Abbi Hawk and Meg Rodgers, as the merry wives, was a delight.

I adored David Anthony Lewis’ decision to play the “Mr. Brook” disguise as a pirate. The eye patch was a hoot, as was the massive bag of money he slings down before Falstaff. I’ve never seen it played with so much weight before.

As always in the Ren season shows, I learn a lot about what a director’s job is by seeing what happens when there isn’t one. The storytelling gets a little loose in places; there are gags that have a set up but no payoff; there are moments where an actor isn’t as funny as they think they are. And yet, these shows are among the most creative and interesting that one sees at the Blackfriars. I love watching the actors have free reign to experiment, to stretch themselves, to try something that is just a little too crazy. It’s this work that makes the ASC what it is: a place where many things are possible, and experimentation within the structures of the space is not just encouraged, but required.

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