Lend me your ears. Broadway hath nothing on the Bard in Alabama and neither does jolly olde England. I should know. I've enjoyed some of London's and New York's best stage shebangs and marveled at the large-scale productions where headliners float on massive hydraulic sets amid fireworks and fancy costumes. I can honestly tell you that I've never had a better theater experience than at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF).
Theater Is the Thing
Alas, I can't deny that Montgomery, the state's sleepy capital, seems an unlikely place for the world's sixth largest Shakespeare festival. There's even a running joke among visiting actors and designers seeing the Carolyn Blount Theatre for the first time. "They often make a loud exclamation," says ASF artistic director Kent Thompson. "They never expect the splendor and elegance of this building, especially in Alabama." It's true. When rounding that slow curve in Wynton M. Blount Cultural Park and taking on a full view of the sprawling 100,000-square-foot complex, it's hard not to gasp. The redbrick structure, based on the designs of a 16th-century Italian architect, stands regal before a small lake, complete with black swans.
Hours Upon the Stage
If you think the approach is great, just wait until the curtain rises. July is actually the finale of ASF's repertory season, which means six shows continually run in either the 750-seat Festival Stage or The Octagon, a 225-seat black box theater. Naturally, the Bard's timeless works take the lead, but the theater is as well-known for its contemporary productions as for its classics. Plays by modern greats, such as Tom Stoppard and Neil Simon, share billing with shows by up-and-coming playwrights.
Of course, a play is only as good as its acting, and this season's company is made up of players from all over the country. "We recruit the finest actors from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, among other places," says Kent.
The diverse composition of talent, the phenomenal facilities, and the high-quality plays provide a complete theater experience. I stand behind my claim that pound of flesh for pound of flesh, ASF holds its own with any theater around.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival:
1 Festival Drive, Montgomery, AL 36117; 1-800-841-4273 or www.asf.net. Tickets: Shows are $12-$45 depending on the production and seating preference. Call for multi-play packages and group rates.