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Love's Labour's Found

THE BALTIMORE SUN

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them into shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

-- A Midsummer Night's Dream

The Blackfriars Playhouse, William Shakespeare's other theater, opened in Staunton, Va., last month after closing almost 400 years ago in London.

The arrival of the playhouse, a replica of one of the earliest theaters in the English-speaking world, is the centerpiece of a building and restoration program that may well put this historic town of 24,000 on the map for tourists and theater enthusiasts.

Most people associate Shakespeare with the open-air Globe Theatre. But the original Blackfriars -- the first Elizabethan theater to be roofed -- is often claimed to be the venue Shakespeare preferred most.

Ralph Cohen and Jim Warren, co-founders of Shenandoah Shakespeare, the acting troupe that inspired the Blackfriars project, set out 13 years ago with a simple goal: "To present Shakespeare as Shakespeare intended it," Warren said.

"We didn't dream about a building -- at first," said Cohen. "We dreamed only of making people love Shakespeare. ... I think it's fair to say that what's happened here has outstripped our basic dream."

The Blackfriars has outstripped everyone's dreams -- the architect's, the actors', the builders' and the city of Staunton's.

The intimate, 320-seat, timber-framed theater was built with Virginia white oak and features handcrafted wrought-iron chandeliers and intricate woodworking done mostly by local craftsmen.

"This theater is like a beautifully made piece of furniture," Cohen said.

Shenandoah Shakespeare has scheduled the four plays currently being offered -- A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hamlet, The Alchemist by Ben Jonson, and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard -- so that all can be seen in a single weekend. The theater will present Shakespeare works year-round.

The original Blackfriars was closed in 1642 with other London theaters by a Puritan Parliament that pronounced them "spectacles of pleasure ... too commonly expressing Mirth and Levitie." The theater later burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Because there were no extant drawings or physical remains of the Blackfriars, Tom McLaughlin, the architect who designed the playhouse, had to assume the role of architectural detective.

He studied plans of various other 17th-century theaters, made trips to England to experience existing Elizabethan buildings, combed through Shakespeare's few stage directions for clues, and consulted with scholars and historians of the Elizabethan era.

One of those scholars, Andrew Gurr, former director of education for London's reproduction of the Globe Theatre, which opened in 1997, said, "When Shenandoah Shakespeare completes the Blackfriars, it will immediately become one of the top five most historically important theaters in the world."

Indeed, a conference at the theater recently drew 150 Shakespeare scholars from around the world to help launch an Education Center, which will offer seminars, tours, camps and classroom activities.

One of the challenges McLaughlin faced was designing an exterior that would fit into its immediate, more residential neighborhood as well as into the greater downtown area with its old Victorian buildings. One could almost walk past the theater's brick building on North Market Street without noticing it, so integrated and discreet is its design.

"What we've done," the architect said, "is a mirror image of what Burbage did back in 1596." James Burbage, a carpenter and father of the leading tragedian of the day, Richard Burbage, constructed a modern theater inside the mid-14th-century Blackfriars monastery.

"Here," McLaughlin said, "we've constructed an old theater inside a modern building."

In the original, roofed Blackfriars, branches with candles were extended over the stage for illumination.

Staunton's theater is lit by nine wrought-iron chandeliers with electric candles and single-candle sconces, all done by local artisans. Most of the 250 workmen who built the playhouse were local.

"I've come in here on weekends," said Cohen, "and found the carpenters showing it to their children."

"I can show this to my father, and my daughter," said John McGlaughlin, a cabinetmaker who did the coffered ceiling and railings. "She'll show it to my grandchildren. It's something that will be a keepsake of my work locally. I'm very proud of that."

"It's a living thing," said Paul Borzelleca, who made the theater's benches and doors. "It's a piece of history that will become part of the fabric of this community."

"We're wood guys," added Stuart Dawson, who made the wainscoting and wall trim. "We want to make it right -- to make it pretty, so you can still feel it's put together by hand."

The actors are equally thrilled with the project.

"Even in our darkest days out on the road," recalled David Loar, who has been with Shenandoah Shakespeare for about two years, the idea of a permanent theater "really kept us going."

"When we first walked in here," said Becky Peters, on her second tour with the company, "tears welled up in our eyes. It's a beautiful space and it means we'll be here for 10 months and on the road for only two."

Most actors in the troupe sign on for a year and, until now, spend 10 months touring. The company currently has three troupes of 12 actors each, the same number as in Shakespeare's troupe. Since its inception, the theater company has taken its show to 47 states, six foreign countries and hundreds of high schools and universities.

A boost for Staunton

"We've never had a draw here," said G. John Avoli, who has been Staunton's mayor since 1990. Ten years ago, during the filming in Staunton of a movie (Assault at West Point: The Court-Martial of Jonathan Whittaker), the mayor took the film producer to dinner one evening and a seed was planted.

"He said to me, 'Mr. Mayor, do you know what you have in your town? You have a place here that Hollywood spends millions and millions of dollars to re-create.' "

Avoli reported the producer's words to the City Council, and not long after a downtown revitalization program began. Now, the tourist office has maps to walking tours of Staunton's five major historic districts and another map to the numerous artists' studios in town.

Shenandoah Shakespeare decided to build Blackfriars in Staunton partly because of the town and its location, Cohen said, and also because "Staunton wooed us."

Shenandoah Shakespeare's goal is to make Staunton a national center for the study and performance of Shakespeare's works. Plans are under way to add a replica of the Globe theater, a 1,500-seat venue scheduled to open in 2007.

"In the past five years, 67 new businesses have opened in the downtown area," said Avoli. "And now we've got three other major projects besides the Blackfriars in the works, all of which are within a few blocks of each other."

An 1890s former hotel is being restored to house a fine arts center and museums for the Historic Staunton Foundation and the Augusta County Historical Society. Around the corner, the old Dixie Theatre will be restored to its original 1913 use for films and live performances. And up the hill, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson will be expanded to accommodate a research library of his books and papers.

In the midst of all these old buildings is a new parking garage whose facade is a row of simulated Victorian building fronts that cleverly hide its utilitarian interior. And two free trolleys are scheduled to start operating this month in the downtown area.

"Staunton is returning to the glory of a former era," said Joe Harmon, an area native and local historian who owns the Frederick House, a downtown bed and breakfast. "A hundred years ago, within a block of where the Blackfriars is, there were 2,300 theater seats available. Back then, there were trolleys and 35 trains a day came through."

You can still come by rail to Staunton, although trains are few and being on time is not one of their strongest suits. But the city has restored its Victorian train station, which has shops and two restaurants. The station is within walking distance of the theater and many B&Bs.;

Magic of theater

On opening night at the Blackfriars, I ate at the Belle Grae Inn on Frederick Street, five blocks from the theater. The restaurant offers a $20 pretheater dinner in a quietly elegant setting that feels as if you've shown up at a dowager aunt's Victorian home for supper. It's gracious without being stuffy or self-conscious.

People were sitting in the conservatory having drinks and out on the front porch in wicker chairs enjoying the view over the rooftops of town. I could have stayed there all evening, but the Blackfriars was calling. I joined the flow of evening-dress-clad theatergoers converging on the front door of the theater.

The lobby is modern in a minimalist sort of way -- designed to enhance the dramatic contrast to the theater within -- and the gift shop feels tawdry in its offerings (Shakespeare slippers!). But when the doors open, you step back in time four centuries.

The stage is bare except for four 20-inch-square wooden boxes, the only props that will be used throughout the two-hour production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. There will be no inter- mission and costuming will be kept to a minimum and incorporate some modern dress, which is the way Shakespeare staged his plays, according to Warren and Cohen.

"It was the Victorians who took hold of Shakespeare and made it untouchable," said Cohen. "We're bringing it back to the way it was originally."

He and Warren sat on the beautiful but hard, cushionless and backless benches. (You can rent back rests and either rent or bring your own cushions.)

"We've invented a lot of tricks in the theater in the last 400 years," said Cohen. "We want to uncover some of the magic that tends to get masked by all those tricks."

The first actors came on stage clad in leather with dark glasses and combat boots, fingers clicking rhythmically like a moment from West Side Story. Two of the three fairies in the play were men in fluffy tutus and wings; the other fairy was blowing bubbles through a wand. Puck was in leather, too, beating a bongo drum, mischief and insouciance personified.

The actors used every door and walkway in the theater and engaged the audience in the action, at one point even calling two audience members to the stage to play nonspeaking roles.

"Whatever we do in this space," said Cohen, "we do it together. We share emotion. Shakespeare couldn't have put his plays on in a theater like this, all lit up with the audience on three sides, and not engaged the audience. It's just not possible."

"We always get asked," Cohen said, "who did our translations of Shakespeare." He smiles. "We can't convince them that we haven't amended a single word. These are Shakespeare's words just as he wrote them. All we're doing is giving them back to the people, the way Shakespeare intended."

A standing ovation greeted the end of the play. In the audience were the architect, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and most of the benefactors who gave their time and money to make the Blackfriars Playhouse rise from the ashes of London's Great Fire of 1666 to be reborn all these years later in the Shenandoah Valley.

AN IDEAL DAY

8 a.m.: Breakfast at the Beverley.

9 a.m.: Spend the morning at the Frontier Culture Museum, a 220-acre living-history museum, with authentic 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century European farmsteads that show the evolution of the early-American farm.

Noon: Lunch at the Depot Grille in the restored train station downtown.

1 p.m.: Tour Woodrow Wilson's birthplace.

2:30 p.m.: Walk one or more of the five mapped walking tours of historic Staunton, or tour the numerous artists' studios and antiques shops downtown.

4:30 p.m.: Visit Gypsy Hill Park to play golf or to walk. Feed the ducks and geese.

5:30 p.m.: For elegant dining in restored Victorian splendor, try the Belle Grae Inn, walking distance to the theater.

7:30 p.m.: The curtain goes up at the Blackfriars Playhouse.

9:30 p.m.: Sample the dessert smorgasbord at the Belle Grae Inn.

WHEN YOU GO ...

Getting there: From the Washington Beltway, take I-66 west to I-81 south. Take Exit 222 to Route 250 west into Staunton. Train service from Baltimore is also available. Call 800-872-7245 for more information.

Shenandoah Shakespeare's Blackfriars Playhouse, 10 S. Market St., Staunton, VA 24401

* Phone: 888-682-4236

* Online: www. shenandoah shakespeare. com

* Hours: The schedule varies and is listed on the Web site, but in general, at least one performance takes place daily Tuesday through Sunday. Evening shows begin at 7:30 and matinees start at 10:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m.

Lodging:

The Frederick House, 28 N. New St., Staunton

* Phone: 800-334-5575

* Online: www.frederickhouse.com

* Small, pleasant bed and breakfast two blocks from the Blackfriars; rates from $85 to $150

The Montclair, 320 N. New St.

* Phone: 877-885-8832

* Online: www.bbonline.com / va / montclair

* A restored 19th-century Italianate townhouse two blocks from the playhouse; rates from $90 to $160

The Sampson Eagon Inn, 238 E. Beverly St.

* Phone: 800-597-9722

* Online: www.eagoninn.com

* An elegant antebellum mansion one block from the playhouse; rates from $98 to $125

Thornrose House, 531 Thornrose Ave.

* Phone: 800-861-4338

* Online: www.thornrosehouse.com

* Stately Georgian Revival brick home adjacent to a 300-acre park that offers golf, tennis and swimming; rates from $70 to $90

Travelodge, 268 N. Central Ave.

* Phone: 800-578-7878

* Online: www.travelodge.com

* Recently renovated motel within walking distance of the playhouse. Rates: $69, which includes one $26 ticket to the playhouse

Dining:

Mill Street Grill, 1 Mill St.

* Phone: 540-886-0656

* Open for dinner only, the restaurant has the atmosphere of an English pub; specializing in ribs, seafood and steaks. Dinner entrees start at $9.95

Belle Grae Inn, 515 W. Frederick St.

* Phone: 888-541-5151

* Pretheater cocktails at 5 p.m., then at 5:30 p.m. a set meal for $20 per person in an elegant Victorian setting. After the theater, drinks and a smorgasbord of desserts offered.

The Pullman, 36 Middlebrook Ave.

* Phone: 540-885-6612

* Victorian decor in the restored train station; open for lunch and dinner. Dinner entrees start at $10.95.

Depot Grille, 42 Middlebrook Ave.

* Phone: 540-885-7332

* Rustic decor featuring train memorabilia and photos. Serves sandwiches, seafood and steak. Dinner entrees start at $9.95.

The Beverley, 12 E. Beverley St.

* Phone: 540-886-4317

* Family-owned and operated for 45 years, offering country cooking, homemade breads and pies in a restored 19th-century building. Dinner entrees start at $4.95.

Activities:

Woodrow Wilson's birthplace, 18-24 N. Coalter St.

* Phone: 888-496-6376

* Online: www.woodrowwilson.org

* Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. March through October; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday from November through February

* Admission: $2 to $6.50

Frontier Culture Museum, P.O. Box 810, Staunton

* Phone: 540-332-7850

* Online: www.frontiermuseum.org

* Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas

* Admission: $4 to $8

For more information about Staunton, including walking tours of the historic district, contact the Staunton / Augusta County Travel Information Center at 800-332-5219.

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