Alumni of the Shakespeare and Performance graduate program at the American Shakespeare Center have founded or taken on the leadership of, a number of classical theater companies, drawing on the ASC’s scholarship and aesthetic, but with their own unique twist. Just off the top of my head: Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival (Arizona), Pigeon Creek Shakespeare (Michigan), Sweet Tea Shakespeare (North Carolina), Brave Spirits Theatre (DC/Virginia), Steel City Shakespeare (Pennsylvania). And now, Starling Shakespeare.
Starling’s model is small-cast touring shows, with the intention of touring widely. I caught their preview performance of Romeo and Juliet (directed by Matt Davies) in Staunton, VA, but most of their shows this summer are on Mackinac Island, in Michigan.
Small-cast shows are practical for touring; fewer people means simpler logistics and lower overhead. The small-cast thing can become a bit of a gimmick, but Davies handled it brilliantly. While some moments highlighted the goofiness inherent in having five actors play a couple dozen roles, the show relied far more on solid storytelling and connection. I loved the contrast between the quick shifts of scenes with lots of characters (in some cases, actors had to put one character’s hat on their hand, making their secondary character into a puppet, essentially) and the deeply grounded acting of scenes with only two or three characters. A real surprise of this production was how many things could have been gimmicks and then…weren’t. Jessie Lillis had an over-the-top upper Midwest accent for the nurse, and initially, I thought, This is very fun and goofy, but where does it go when the play turns dark? The answer is that it went deeper. The accent that Lillis played for laughs early in the show let her express something real, grounded, and overwhelmed when she found Juliet “dead.”
The physical work was truly impressive. I don’t just mean Amberlin McCormick’s literal acrobatics as Mercutio, but also the shifts in where Naivell Steib held their weight as they transitioned from Lord Capulet to Benvolio to Friar Laurence and Heron Kennedy’s subtle but consistent posture changes from Juliet to Peter and back. The stage pictures were beautiful, particularly the ending tableau—Davies managed to stage the whole thing without a bier (genius for touring!), setting the dead inside of vertical cones of mosquito netting, and the effect was ethereal and surprising. After the show, I complimented several of the actors on their physical work, and on the drive home I realized that might sound back-handed—I hadn’t said anything about their text work, which was excellent as well. I think it’s just that I’m used to hearing Shakespeare spoken well in Staunton. I’ve come to expect it. The ASC’s approach to text is so much part of the cultural groundwater there that even ten-year-olds doing school talent show monologues know where the beats are and exactly what they’re saying. Ryan Wilson, as Romeo, had a few line readings that made me see the play in a new way, particularly where he asked questions I always thought of as rhetorical, as … just serious questions. Starling’s text work, across the board, was on point. The best text work is the kind that frees an audience from noticing it, and this fit that bill.
This show was everything a Romeo and Juliet should be, which is to say, a whole lot of fun until it isn’t. I was so thrilled I got to see it, and I’m hoping to catch their Much Ado in Michigan in a few weeks. If you’re in northern MI, catch the ferry and go check out this show. It’s delightful.