Sonya Rennick, at left, and Jenni Robinson are elegantly dressed at the Venetian Ball. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- Montford Park Players is launching with an audience-reaching twist its 44th season, as the longest-running Shakespearean festival in the state.
Expanding its patron-friendly sliding scale approach, this season all shows including those indoors are by donation rather than a fee, Managing Director and CEO John Russell said.He told crowds that at the season-opening An Evening Celebrating Shakespeare: Dark Lady of the Sonnets and The Upstart Crow. It concludes a three-weekend run this Friday and Saturday, April 8-9, 7:30-10 p.m. in Asheville Masonic Temple. It also launches non-profit MPP’s 20-week season, which draws total attendance of about 10,000.Scott Keel directs both one-act plays, weaving them together. George Bernard Shaw penned charming, comical Dark Lady in 1910 about an imaginary majestic encounter by Will Shakespeare (Will Storrs) in 16th Century London. He goes to secretly meet his girlfriend The Dark Lady (Haven Volpe), a lady of the queen’s court, at the Whitehall palace terrace.Instead, he chances upon a cloaked, sleepwalking Queen Elizabeth I (Scott Bean). In Shakespearean fashion of mistaken identity, in the dark he thinks the queen is his mistress. He coos how “you are my queen; and I’ll kiss those lips that have dropt music on my heart…I cannot but cling to you. We are lost, you and I: nothing can separate us now.”When he realizes who he is addressing, he touts himself and his burgeoning theater. How will the queen react?
Then Vincent Dowling’s The Upstart Crow is about Shakespeare’s grownup daughter Susannah (Trinity Smith-Keel) asking actor Richard Burbage (Darren Marshall) about her deceased, estranged father who was his best friend. Burbage answers with passages from the bard’s famous plays. Susannah embodies various Shakespearean female leads, such as spiteful Lady Macbeth. Director Scott Keel, Trinity’s husband, plays Beefeater the guard. Designers are Victoria Smith (costumes) and Devyn Ray (makeup).Indoor shows are upstairs in the renovated three-story Asheville Masonic Temple, at Broadway and Woodfin. Free parking is across Woodfin, in Home Trust Bank’s lot. The temple opened 101 years ago this month. Its original, hand-painted tapestries are a stage backdrop. Seating is 250, with half in the balcony. Richard Sharp Smith was architect for the temple.
Montford Park Players co-founder Hazel Robinson enjoys the masquerade ball. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
The season’s second show is cleverly-titled The Asheville Shakesperience. It runs May 13-28 at 7:30 p.m. in Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre. This initiates MPP’s Shakespeare in the Park summer outdoor series of five plays by the eloquent, witty Bard of Avon. Two other classics are indoors. The remaining order is: Much Ado About Nothing, Montford Midsummer Faire, Titus Adronicus, Measure for Measure, Pride and Prejudice, Julius Caesar, then the holiday tradition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
As You Like It was MPP’s first production in ’73. It was featured again in 1997 with Hazel Robinson directing, for its 25th season and Asheville’s bicentennial. This classic is also the earliest recorded Shakespearean play performed publicly in Asheville — by Prescott and McLean on Valentine’s Day of 1889 in the old Opera Hall.
Outdoor amphitheater shows are at Montford Center, at 90 Gay St. near downtown. The City of Asheville largely funded the project in 1983, and in 1997 renamed the facility to honor MPP’s co-founder and creative driving force. The flat-roofed structure houses props, and has two staging levels. The audience can picnic on a terraced hillside. Pets are welcome. The first play there was Romeo and Juliet.
A fundraising drive is to renovate the current amphitheater. Its predecessor, opening in 1973, was in Montford Park; hence the troupe’s name.
Robinson, 89, co-founded the performing company in 1973 with her husband John J. Robinson, who died last July at age 91. They were married for 62 years. They met in Arizona, and moved to Asheville in 1971. Resourceful John helped bring the amphitheater to fruition.
Byron Ballard (lady as a crow) and Joe Fioccola as a fool dance in the Montford Park Ball. Behind them, Ward Johnson dances with Kathleen Seebe Photo by Pete Zamplas.
MPP’s matriarch spoke with The Tribune at the Montford Players Ball Venetian Masquerade Ball fundraiser late last year, in the Masonic Temple. Her daughter, Margaret Huffstickler, hailed Hazel’s “vision”and dedication.Hazel Robinson said Montford Park Players remains “for the enjoyment and education of the community.”Her acting highlights include spanning a quarter-century as spunky lead in the Pulitzer-winning play Driving Miss Daisy, for Asheville Community Theatre in 1990-91.
Nancy Rogers was her hairdresser for that show. Hazel urged her to act for MPP, in Trojan Women in 1993. Rogers she has been active since then.
Such fond memories brightened the third annual masquerade ball along with dancing, drinks, hors d’oeuvres, and a benefit auction. Scott and Trinity Smith-Keel acted a scene as Orlando and Rosalind, in As You Like It.
Meda Thurston calls MPP like “family” for two-thirds of her life, since she first took the MPP stage at age 11 as Young Margaret in Richard III. Her father, Ernie Thurston, has acted with MPP since 1982.“Everyone is so welcoming,” agreed Beanne Braine, volunteer coordinator and versatile cog in the MPP brain trust.
Russell, MPP’s CEO for a dozen years, first acted with the troupe in 1983. In ’85 he was Hamlet’s antagonist, King Claudius.
He is determined to raise money to keep “providing great theater,” with donations covering one-fifth of operations. About 200 actors and technicians volunteer. He said Montford Community Center and Asheville recreation officials provided “logistical” and other support.
The $45-per-patron ball Nov. 14 was among fundraisers to expand and update the 33-year-old amphitheater. The stage front and second level will be upgraded. So will seating, with capacity rising by 500. A wheelchair-accessible row will go in. Plans are also for a paved sidewalk, 1400-square-foot welcome center with concessions under a roof, and eventually a new stage house roof, Russell said. Donors can buy an engraved brick for the entrance.
To reach Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre from I-26, go to I-240’s exit 4-C. Turn right twice at the top of the ramp, crossing the expressway on Montford Avenue away from downtown. Turn left onto West Chestnut Street. Go a block, past a stop sign then park at the bottom of a hill by a ballfield. Walk leftward behind an octagonal building, to the amphitheater.For more information, call 254-5146 or check www.montfordparkplayers.org.