The Verona gentlemen were hilarious, their sweethearts intelligent and beautiful. But the real star of Shakespeare Northwest's open dress rehearsal Saturday was the old rock quarry where they performed.
Walls of ancient rock embody a natural amphitheatre at the village of Rexville, a tiny piece of what is so quietly good about the Northwest. Here at the south end of the Skagit Valley, there's the Rexville Grocery with its fine little café, there's the historic Rexville Grange Hall, and now — as of last Saturday — there's Rexville Blackrock Amphitheatre, in a setting created 100 million or so years ago by whatever force you care to name as The Impresario of Massive Rock Walls. This is the new home of Shakespeare Northwest.
Valley farmers blasted into the rock in the 19th and early 20th centuries, hauling away material for the early dikes that transformed the Skagit River floodplain into some of the world's most productive farmland. The quarry they abandoned sat mostly unseen for generations, growing weeds and blackberry tangles. All that time, Shakespeare was waiting for somebody to clear the brush and put on a play.
Here on the afternoon of the first rehearsal in the first amphitheater of Rexville, this spring of love does not resemble (Proteus, Act One, Scene Two) the uncertain glory of an April day which now shows all the beauty of the sun and by and by a cloud takes all away. There are no clouds. The sunshine is pleasantly warm as title characters of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona," with their conspirators, love interests, and rivals, tread the meadow between the rock walls and a thick grove of Douglas Fir and Big Leaf Maple. Gold finches flash across the grassy stage.
Valentine and Proteus make splendid fools of themselves in their backhanded scheming to win the hands and even more desirable parts of Julia and Silvia. Robins in full voice explore the clouds of ocean spray, in full blossom on the cliff sides. Love, a bearded, big-bellied troublemaker in diaper and combat boots, creates romantic chaos with his dart gun. A bald eagle cruises the sky under a white webwork of jet trails.
Actors work harder here in the open than on an inside stage. The action space is big. Making a turn from stage right, there's a long stretch of grass between the actor and stage left. A long way especially if the performer, as Shakespeare comedies often require, leaps, races, or falls across the stage.
"The ground is unbelievably hard," says Ben Stahl, Silvia's superbly funny Valentine. "You never think about how much this play calls for hitting the ground until you do it here, and you're hitting rocks on every fall."
The artistic director of Shakespeare Northwest, John Gonzales, is delighted with his players and the new venue. He's been at the quarry since early morning, rehearsing a few scenes and helping to clear a few last blackberry briars.
"For a dress rehearsal, I thought it was fantastic," he says. "Everyone adjusted to the new space, and began to take advantage of it to create some very funny scenes. It'll be even better by the time we go public with it."
That will be Saturday, July 10, at 2 pm, the official public premiere of the Rexville Blackrock Amphitheatre, and part of the summer-long Skagit River Shakespeare Festival, which has performances in Mount Vernon, La Conner and Bellingham as well as here in Rexville. (The schedule of the Skagit River Shakespeare Festival is here).
Members of the Rexville Grange, led by Cathy Savage, a board member of both the Grange and Shakespeare Northwest, helped wrestle the rock quarry into shape. They had imagined its potential for years, she told Crosscut, and started clearing the jungle last fall.
"It was nasty in there," she said. "Tangles of brush and trash, fallen trees and swampy holes. But the possibilities were so clearly great. Our volunteers worked so hard, in cold rain and mud, in boots and jackets, with chain saws and shovels. My, the place was a mess. We had to bring in loads of fill and haul out truckloads of brush."
Shakespeare Northwest has for some time rehearsed at the old (1927) Grange Hall. They store props, risers, and scenery there. Grange members become Shakespearean actors, T-shirt sellers, costumers, props managers, and Shakespearean grubbers of blackberry vines. In giving Shakespeare Northwest a home, they've also provided their local Grange a sense of purpose at a time when many fraternal and social clubs are dying out.
The number of local Granges has fallen drastically since the years when the the organization was the state's dominant social, political, and educational force, pressing for women's rights; state support of local schools; government control of oil wells, refineries, and mines. It was also promoting family farms and chemical-free food production, long before that was called organic gardening. Some Granges exist now as ghosts of what they were, with a few aging members maintaining and renting out empty halls.
Here in the scenic time warp of the Skagit River, the Rexville Grange is humming. Membership is growing. Young people are joining. There are community dances, weddings, classes, potlucks and memorial services here. And now, there is Shakespeare Northwest.
"You have to keep things flowing," Savage says. "You have to keep new people coming in. Shakespeare's a way to do that. Young people find that they love Shakespeare. He's funny and inspiring."
Shadows cover the grass by the time Julia, in boy's clothing, reveals her identity to her undeserving Proteus. A small plane growls across the sky on its way from Verona to Mantua (maybe not). It's the only distracting noise of the afternoon, and it's nothing serious; the players project to the back of the meadow and the rock walls, varnished by centuries of heat and rain, provide acoustical support as Proteus repents, Julia forgives, and Silvia's doubting father accepts Valentine.
Beside the wooded entrance to the quarry, a small sign reads, "Imagine, with us." The imagining is easy: more plays, or an a cappella chorus, or a string quartet having a fine afternoon in the grassy angle by the two rock walls.
It'll take some work, but the hardest stuff is done. It is a place by industry achieved and perfected by the swift course of time, as Shakespeare would have said, and did.