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Agecroft Hall celebrates Shakespeare’s 450th birthday

What better place for area families to celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth than a 500-year-old Tudor manor from the Bard’s own era!  Amazingly, that is possible, even though our nation is merely half that age.

Just an hour’s drive away from Fredericksburg  overlooking the James River, stands Agecroft Hall, which in the 16th century was located  in Lancashire, England, in one of the neighborhoods where Shakespeare’s acting troupe performed. After facing the threat of demolition in 1925, the manor was purchased, carefully dismantled stone by stone, shipped across the ocean and reconstructed at its current Richmond site.

This Saturday, Agecroft will join with a local Shakespearean theater company to celebrate  the birth of that passionate, playful poet and playwright. Throughout the day, members of the Henley Street Theatre/Richmond Shakespeare Company will bring the estate to life, performing monologues and  scenes from three of Shakespeare’s plays.

“Teens from our Festival Young Company will literally skip across the grounds to visitors and, in costume and Elizabethan dialect, offer to perform a selection of monologues,” said artistic director Jan Powell. “One or two of the professional actors’ performances will be done in the courtyard, as they were in Shakespeare’s time, when a traveling troupe would pull up and perform on their wagon.”

In addition, slack-rope walker Signora Bella will entertain throughout the day, and Agecroft’s first-person interpreters will stroll through the grounds. Demonstrations and instruction on Renaissance dances will be offered and Elizabethan games will be played on the lawn. Meanwhile, children can search the grounds for the replica of Shakespeare’s tombstone and families can explore the estate’s enchanting gardens, which are expected to be in full bloom.

Agecroft’s executive director Richard Moxley applied his innovative creativity to provide visitors with a full experience of the Elizabethan era.  In a re-created London street scene, barrels, baskets and wheelbarrows will display foods and dry goods of the time against a 30-foot backdrop of an enlarged etching of the town.

Not content to feature just sights and sounds of the 16th century, Moxley found a company in England that produces smells. Agecroft’s town scene will include the tantalizing aromas of meat pies and warm, crusty bread as well as the more pungent odors of smoked fish in a barrel and the riverbank of the Thames.

“We’re trying to make it a total experience,” said Moxley. “The celebration will be educational, fun, relaxing and free for all to attend.”

Powell, who was first introduced to the Bard’s works as a child, recalls, “I grew up thinking of Shakespeare as a really exciting, very accessible kind of theatrical experience.”  

As the years went by and her theatrical career progressed Powell’s appreciation for the Bard’s works continued to grow.

“More than in anyone else’s body of work, Shakespeare articulated what it is like to be human,” she said, “His characters are so individual and he describes their lives from the inside so eloquently. I think he was incapable of creating a one-dimensional character.”

Powell contrasts the star-crossed young lovers of “Romeo and Juliet”: A smitten teenage boy who swears his love by the moon versus his down-to-earth beloved who declares she needs a commitment more constant than the phases of that celestial orb.

Powell goes on to describe how the protagonists’ story will resonate with their counterparts in the 21st century. “I am somewhat of an evangelist about the power of theater for young people and, particularly, the power of Shakespeare. The story of Romeo and Juliet is about being young and trying to find your way and define yourself and discover who you are,” she said. “And Shakespeare was written to be seen, not simply read. The cadence of the language mimics the beating of the heart and as emotional intensity increases, so does the heartbeat and the language.”

The Henley Street Theater/Richmond Shakespeare is committed to bringing that powerful theatrical experience to adolescents, as well as adults. In addition to the Festival Young Company, it offers  workshops, internships and apprenticeships.

Likewise, Agecroft Hall includes active outreach to children, hosting tours for classes as well as school programs that explore the flora, fauna and lifestyle on a manor and the  beginnings of  life in the “New World.”

The estate is open to the public throughout the year as a fascinating museum featuring authentic artifacts from the 1600s, including the first-known lantern clock, beautiful handcrafted furniture and household objects that provide a glimpse into daily life centuries ago—including a still house where remedies would be concocted from herbs.

Shakespeare’s 450th birthday celebration provides not only a fun-filled, exciting family excursion but also an introduction to the offerings of its hosts for children and youths throughout the year.

What: Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday Celebration

Where:  Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Road, Richmond

When: Saturday, April 26, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Cost: Festivities and exploration of grounds and gardens: Free of charge. Tours of the manor house: $8 adults, $5 students. Children ages 6 and under, free.

Info:  804/353-4241; agecrofthall.org

Collette Caprara is a local writer and artist.

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