July 2, 2015

Blackfriars Playhouse Saves “Philaster” from Oblivion

Gregory Jon Phelps and Sarah Fallon make promises in "Philaster." Photo by Tommy Thompson.

In most respects, Philaster, or Love Lies A-bleeding is the same old story.

“It’s about virginity,” said Dr. Ralph Cohen, the founder of the American Shakespeare Center, in a lecture on Valentine’s Day.

The play was co-written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, who worked alongside Shakespeare at the original Blackfriars Playhouse in London, and it’s onstage now at the new Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton. Cohen said that Philaster was the only one of the many plays written by Shakespeare’s co-workers and performed by the King’s Men that graduate students are routinely forced to read. “And looking at it on the page,” he added,  “you can’t figure out why.”

Here’s what happens: The good prince and the king’s daughter love each other, but the king, who cares only about power, has promised the girl to the bad prince, who cares only about sex. The sex prince asks the girl to join him in some pre-game warm-ups, but she snubs him so he works out with the slut, who tries to convince people that the princess has been sleeping with the boy whom the good prince gave her as a steward and message bearer, which makes the good prince hate the princess and the boy, until the boy reveals that he’s a girl.

Cohen has read the play repeatedly over the years, first as a student and then as a teacher, and he says that as soon as he finishes reading, he forgets the plot, every time. It isn’t memorable.

“But now I won’t forget it,” he said, “because of these guys.”

He’s referring to the ensemble that runs the Actors’ Renaissance Season, a dozen hugely talented men and women who somehow learn five plays and keep them in simultaneous production for twelve weeks. Sometimes they do one play in the afternoon and another one at night.

Arethusa clings to her beloved. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

The idea behind that frenetic activity is to recreate conditions actors and audiences would have experienced at London’s Blackfriars Playhouse when Shakespeare worked there. That means no directors, designers, or producers. The actors do everything themselves: blocking, costumes, props, music, choreography, “and any other details of production that might arise, all in a fraction of the rehearsal time granted to them in other seasons,” according to the ASC website.

It also means performing Shakespeare’s plays alongside the work of other playwrights, such as Beaumont and Fletcher, even though many of those plays aren’t good. Cohen notes that since each actor does the work of six or seven people during the Renaissance Season, nobody has time to sit around and ponder what things mean or which plays have some kind of lasting value. They just learn their lines and their cues and jump into the show. Then they change their clothes and jump into the next one.

Paradoxically, that no-time-now-to-sit-and-think approach appears to be the saving grace of plays that nobody remembers, because it takes the entertainment burden off the plays themselves and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the actors. If the actors are good enough, even forgettable plays like Philaster can bring down the house. And this group is extraordinary.

One’s astonishment at their capacity begins before the play does. For twenty minutes prior to the curtain, the actors entertain us from the balcony above the stage with music, some of which they’ve apparently written themselves. Two guitars, upright bass, accordion, snare drum, mandolin, xylophone, trumpet, piano: they take turns on all those instruments, passing them from hand to hand as they shuffle positions in tight quarters, dashing off a solo on the trumpet or a chord progression on guitar between costume changes, as it were.  After a couple of songs you start to wonder if they used to be a bar band. Aidan O’Reilley, for example, has an Irish tenor vibrato that makes you want to shout for “Danny Boy.”

Gregory Jon Phelps stands tall before the throne. Photo by Tommy Thompson.

The conventional pre-curtain announcements are delivered in rhyming couplets by Benjamin Curns, accompanied by John Harrell on guitar, Daniel Kennedy on bass, and Jeremy West who brushes out a jazzy tempo on the snare until Curns asks him to demonstrate what happens to people whose phones ring during the performance, at which point West puts down his brushes, comes to center stage, and appears to suffer a series of convulsions that turn him into a cannibal, who then pretends to eat the owner of a phone. This cool-jazz trio riffs and rolls for several minutes while Curns explains the principles behind the Renaissance Season, including the multiple roles per actor, the dearth of rehearsal, the lack of director, the universal lighting, the prompter in the wings, the seats for patrons on the stage, all delivered nonchalantly, in an amelodic rap-like rhyme, synchronized exactly with the trio’s groove. It would have taken normal people days to make that work.

Then Chris Johnston comes down from the balcony and primes us for Philaster with a song from his new album, which is on sale in the lobby. By the time the play finally starts, I’m willing to watch these people do anything–and they haven’t yet begun to do the thing that they do best, which is convince me that they’re not themselves at all but rather people who were put on paper more that 400 years ago, and who at last have come to life.

My experience was not like Cohen’s: seeing the play on stage did not fix it in my memory. I loved it, but I’ve forgotten it already. What I loved was not Philaster, the work of Beaumont and Fletcher, but rather the work of this ensemble, the latter-day King’s Men. O’Reilly plays the villain Pharamond with exalted buffoonery, in a curly wig, with a Spanish accent so inflected that you wonder if his mouth is full of olives. Allison Glenzer plays his sporting partner, Megra, with such wanton disdain and desire for men that every time she appears on stage you wonder where she was and what she was just doing. Add Gregory Phelps as Philaster and Sarah Fallon as the Princess Arethusa and you have a pleasure I would liken to watching the exploits and the grace of exquisite basketball players in an exhibition game.

Who won?

What difference does it make?


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About Mark Dewey

Mark Dewey teaches English at The Potomac School and writes about life near the Shenandoah River. He loves mountain streams, his wife, his children, winter, and the Camino de Santiago. He is a member of the American Theater Critics Association.

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