William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, from the 
American Shakespeare Center, at UMass Amherst

For over twenty years, the American Shakespeare Center (formerly the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express) has been pursuing a distinctive style of production, marked by speed and intimacy. The troupe attempts to recreate the conditions of Shakespeare’s theater, including universal lighting, minimal sets, and on-stage seating (to recapture some of the effects of the thrust stage, unavailable at this venue). At their staging of Romeo and Juliet at U.Mass.’s Bowker Auditorium, some audience members, still chatting and wending their way to their seats in the brightly lit auditorium, were taken aback when Ginna Hoben stepped forth as the Chorus, speaking right over the hubbub and starting the play at eight on the dot (too rare an event these days). From this moment the play never slowed down, running a neat 129 minutes without an intermission, and the swift scene changes brought a real intensity.

Royall Tyler’s The Contrast at The Metropolitan Playhouse, New York: the very earliest of American plays lives on!

Now in its eighteenth season, New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse continues its mission to reexamine America’s theatrical heritage. Past productions have ranged from key nineteenth-century works such as John Augustus Stone’s 1829 “Indian” drama Metamora, Anna Cora Mowatt’s 1845 comedy Fashion, and Dion Boucicault’s depiction of slavery in The Octoroon (1859), to seldom seen twentieth-century plays including Langdon Mitchell’s dissection of modern marriage in The New York Idea (1906), Susan Glaspell’s free-speech drama Inheritors (1922), and Arthur Arent’s “Living Newspaper” Power (1937). Now, in their most recent production, the Metropolitan goes back to the beginning, staging Royall Tyler’s comedy The Contrast, the first play by an American to receive a professional production in the United States.

Francis Beaumont, The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Renaissance Center Theater Company, Amherst, MA

Among plays about the theater, Beaumont’s Knight of the Burning Pestle stands out for its sheer lunatic energy. First staged around 1607, this Knight is a trove of mocking allusions to the theatrical pieces of the time, particularly the “citizen” plays displaying the bold adventures of London’s apprentice boys and the moralistic, materialistic “prodigal” dramas, in which the wayward learn harsh lessons in thrift and prudence. But even those theater-goers who are not scholars of Renaissance drama, and who have not come across such works as Thomas Heywood’s Four Prentices of London or the London Prodigal (of unknown authorship) can appreciate the over-the-top tour of Shakespearean highlights, particularly one sequence in which we move, at warp speed, from a parody of Romeo and Juliet (in which the apparently deceased lover bolts upright) to one of Macbeth (in which a ghost politely warns of his impending and inconvenient appearance at the dinner table).

Menotti’s The Consul at Glimmerglass Opera

One doesn’t often get the chance to see a fully-staged production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Cold War opera The Consul, a great hit after its debut in 1950. This is an opera of inaction, of waiting. John Sorel (baritone Michael Chioldi) comes home wounded from a meeting of dissidents. He must flee the country. He tells his wife Magda (Melissa Citro) that she must go to the Consulate for a visa so that she, their child, and his mother can join him in exile. At the Consulate, Magda joins a crew of hopeful, then hopeless, supplicants.

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Glimmerglass, a Theatrical View

Purcell’s perennial favorite Dido and Aeneas often receives stately, if not opulent productions, emphasizing the work’s elevated and tragic elements. Jonathan Miller takes a very different tack in this concert staging for Glimmerglass Opera’s 35th season. Severe gray walls suggest an almost institutional setting, and the youthful cast (even the principals are on the young side), casually dressed, look like something out of a Gap commercial. Color is used sparingly. This counterintuitive approach highlights the opera’s intense, hurtling emotions. The Queen Dido (silken-voiced mezzo Tamara Mumford), suffering unspoken love, is watched carefully by her courtiers, led by the lady-in-waiting Belinda (Joélle Harvey). Her secret revealed, they promptly egg her on to pursue the hero Aeneas. Cupid, they assure her, is “ever gentle, ever smiling.” What could go wrong?

Richard Wagner, Das Liebesverbot, after Shakespeare, Glimmerglass Opera

From the sprightly start of the overture, you know this is not Bayreuth’s Wagner. The Glimmerglass Opera, as part of its Shakespeare-themed season, presents the North American fully-staged premiere of Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love), Wagner’s own topsy-turvy adaptation of Measure for Measure. It was only his second full-length piece (the first was Die Feen—the Fairies—another rarity), initially staged in 1836. The overture sets up the quarrel to follow between somber ascetic and antic carnivalesque impulses. If you know Shakespeare’s play you think you know who wins, but Wagner makes some significant alterations.

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