It's a season of firsts for the Shenandoah Shakespeare Company just over the mountain in Staunton. In the past few months, their brand-new Blackfriars Playhouse, a performance space fashioned after the Globe Theater in England, opened for business.
They collaborated with the National Endowment for the Humanities to offer a course for teachers exploring the work of the Bard. They have just established a new M.F.A. program in Renaissance Literature and Performance in partnership with Mary Baldwin College. And now they are adding to the list the first CommonWealth Performance Festival, featuring 12 companies and 14 shows over a two-week period.
Nine of the 12 companies are based in Virginia; two of them, The Ash Lawn Opera Festival and Foolery, call Charlottesville home. Joining the locals will be theater companies from Richmond, Lexington, Williamsburg, Abingdon, Washington, and California.
"The CommonWealth Performance Festival will offer a diverse selection of theater that will appeal to nearly all ages and all theatrical tastes," says Festival Director Bill Gordon. "And we've arranged the schedule so that no show will be performed twice in the same day."
Foolery will offer an encore performance of the show they recently staged here, Vassilisa the Brave, a retelling of the Cinderella tale. Ash Lawn Opera Festival singers present a showcase of music from the three shows they produced this summer. The Barter Theater, one of the oldest professional theaters in the country, brings two pieces to the Festival, a shortened version of Romeo and Juliet and Rattlesnake, a one-man play by John Hardy.
The African-American Theatrical Ensemble of Culver City, California, transports their play Home for a three-night run. The off-Broadway rock musical, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, comes courtesy of the Firehouse Theater Project of Richmond; ShenanArts offers How I Learned to Drive and The Dark Kalamazoo; Theater at Lime Kiln in Lexington does all 37 of Shakespeare's plays in 90 minutes with The Compleat Works of William Shkspr. (Abridged); and Wayside Theater from Middletown covers the younger set with Fractured Fairy Tales’ Greatest Hits on selected Saturday mornings.
Rounding out the schedule is Williamsburg's Wiley Coyote Production's Shakespeare for Two, Please; Cliff Chamberlain's Paper dreams and plastic promises, a one-person show that looks at childhood imaginings; and Washington's newly established non-profit company, Feet of Clay, doing George Bernard Shaw's Don Juan in Hell.
"It's going to be a very exciting week and a half," Gordon promises. "The Festival looks incredibly strong for a first-time event, and I know it's going to get better and bigger every year."

Be part of the inaugural audience by planning a little trip west. The CommonWealth Performance Festival runs August 14-25. Call for details and ticket prices. Blackfriar's Playhouse, 10 South Market St., Staunton. 540-885-5588 or shenandoahshakespeare.com.

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