By Frank Galati
In 1966, I was teaching at USF in Tampa and drove down with friends to see a play at the Historic Asolo Theater. The tiny restored Italian opera house was wrapped in plain exterior walls and planted in the voluptuous gardens of the Ringling estate. There were giant pine trees all around and the ground was crunchy with their frail needles. Inside, shadows danced on the pale-blue grand drape, and flecks of gold ran rings around the gorgeous horseshoe of boxes. Here and there flashes of pink and green shot out of the faceted jewels set in sconces and decorative piping around the orchestra. A spidery chandelier hung high above the center aisle. Footlights drew the eye up to the simple gilded frame of the proscenium. Being there was like stepping into the 18th century. It was pure magic.
The show was pure magic as well. It was Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1. It is in this play that the young Prince Hal finds his fat friend Falstaff dead among other corpses on the battlefield:
What, old acquaintance! Could not all this flesh
keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell!
But the cowardly Falstaff is only playing dead. When Hal charges back into the “bloody fray,” the portly knight heaves himself up and speaks to the audience:
The better part of valour is discretion; in the which
better part I have saved my life.
I have never forgotten that scene. I can still see old Falstaff standing miserably downstage right making excuses for his cowardice. Most shocking of all, when he recognizes Hotspur’s body near him on the battlefield, he gets an idea: “I’ll swear I killed him.” Then he pulls his dagger and stabs the corpse.
To be in the elegant embrace of a glittering little Italian opera house and feel the charm and modesty of a production in which the miracle of speech and language was the real jewel in the crown, was to fall in love. It was then and there that I fell in love with Sarasota. How could one not love a place where the art of theater was a civic treasure?
Tony-winning director and writer Frank Galati moved to Sarasota several years ago and frequently directs for Asolo Rep.