For those turned off by classical theater, Montford Park Players 44th season opener, staged at the gorgeous Masonic Temple, may change their outlook altogether. An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare includes the one-act plays The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw and The Upstart Crow by Vincent Dowling.
Both plays are cleverly stitched together by director Scott Keel, and although it may be perplexing at first, stay with it. Revealing anymore about this brilliant craftsmanship would spoil the surprise.
The evening starts with the parody The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. In 16th century London, Shakespeare attempts to meet his girlfriend, The Dark Lady, on the sly, but is halted near the palace gates by Beefeater the guard. A cloaked woman arrives but is soon revealed to be none other than Queen Elizabeth who Shakespeare immediately crushes on.
All of the actors are engaging from the get go. Will Storrs makes a believably lovelorn Shakespeare, sharing tongue-in-cheek banter with Beefeater, played by Keel. However, the standouts are Scott Bean as Queen Elizabeth and especially a shy-yet-haunted Haven Volpe in a small but pivotal role as The Dark Lady. Bean’s amazing scenery-chewing presence dominates with no trouble, but Volpe’s beautifully subdued and androgynous performance was too often lost behind other actors on a tight platform. This could be prevented with more use of the lower stage floor to open up the blocking.
The crux of the evening is spent with The Upstart Crow. The play begins sometime after Shakespeare’s death when his daughter, Susannah, wanders into the Globe Theatre. On a desperate quest to find resolve, she bombards Richard Burbage, Shakespeare’s friend and famous actor, with questions. Richard uses passages from Shakespeare’s works to guide Susannah toward the answers. But will she ever truly understand why her father abandoned his family, and how will she ever learn to forgive him?
Leads Trinity Smith as Susannah and Darren Marshall as Richard give two of the best local stage performances in recent memory. Their commitment to these characters deserves major admiration. Smith commands the room like a pro, honing Desdemona’s vulnerability, Lady Macbeth’s wrath, Ophelia’s insanity and Juliet’s lost youth. These are all women of Shakespeare, and Smith perfectly entangles them together into one whole character. Smith is absolutely fantastic and a force to be reckoned with.
Marshall and Smith’s connection is undeniable. Their most beautiful moment together is when Susannah kisses a very real tear rolling down Richard’s cheek. Marshall conveys the deep pain of losing a best friend with purpose. Accurately channeling such loss isn’t easy. It takes a remarkably courageous actor to wear his wounded heart on his sleeve. Marshall is magnificent in a role he calls “his favorite” and it shows.
By the end, the weeping audience had successfully traveled to another time period. (The lovely movie Shakespeare In Love accomplished something similar.) Sometimes period pieces can feel contrived, but these actors are motivated by a strong director. There’s certainly something special between everyone connected with this show.
Worth noting: Montford Park Players always keeps a watchful eye on their costume design and Victoria Smith has done a great job here. Devyn Ray’s makeup design is also splendid.
Sometimes a viewer can catch a feeling from a production the moment he or she walks through the door. An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare: The Dark Lady Of The Sonnets & The Upstart Crow gives off a positive vibe. John Russell, managing director of the Montford Park Players, delivered a very welcoming curtain speech during which he explained that all shows this season would be by donation only. What a bargain, considering how polished and nearly flawless this production is.
WHAT: An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare: The Dark Lady of the Sonnets & The Upstart Crow
WHERE: Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway St.montfordparkplayers.org WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays April 1, 2, 8 and 9, at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 3, at 2:30 p.m. By donation.