When people learn that “Troilus and Cressida” — one of the three plays in the 2010 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival — is a love story set in the Trojan War, expectations might build.
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But don’t expect to see huge battle scenes on the lawn beyond the festival’s tent.
This is Shakespeare, not Homer, says Terrence O’Brien, the artistic director at the festival, now in its 24th season.
“There is, on the one hand, the Trojan War, a huge piece of Western history or mythology,” the director says in a break from rehearsal. “And then there’s Shakespeare’s commentary on it. Is it a reality check? Is it a satire? We’re trying to figure that out for ourselves.”
It’s not that O’Brien doesn’t want to fulfill expectations. For 24 years, he and a rotating band of actors have been figuring out Shakespeare and raising expectations while distilling the bard to his essence: actors, words, audience.
The results are never dull.
O’Brien & Co. respect the words, but things move apace and there’s fun in the air.
Last season, in “Pericles,” a joust was choreographed to Rick Derringer’s “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo.”
It doesn’t hurt matters that the view of the Hudson Highlands from the Boscobel site is so beautiful it might easily launch a thousand ships.
But O’Brien’s approach requires plenty of craft.
“People will say, “Oh, you’re doing ‘Henry IV’ or some other war play, you have that huge field, that’ll be great,'” he says. “But as soon as we put our cast of 20 out there fighting on an acre and a half of land, they just look like toothpicks.
“It feels like we have to ritualize or abstract the battle stuff and the scale stuff and let the language describe it and make it come to life and only hint at it in some way to let the people know they’re in the middle of the battle.”
Audiences have come to expect to see “the regulars” return summer after summer to that worn bit of lawn under a tent in Garrison.
This summer, festival regular Kurt Rhoads directs “The Taming of the Shrew.”
Rhoads’ wife, Nance Williamson, plays the headstrong Katherina’s mother, reading the lines the bard assigned to her father, Baptista.
She jokes that she wants to be called “Babe-tista.”
Another regular, Christopher V. Edwards returns to direct “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop setting of “The Comedy of Errors.”
And O’Brien has “Troilus,” a rarely performed work that presents challenges.
“There’s something anticlimactic about everything in this play,” O’Brien says. “I think that’s the author’s intention. Like he was experimenting with theatrical phenomena. There’s this big fight between Ajax and Hector, but it turns out to be not so big a fight.”
There are two story lines at work here: the one between the rivals Achilles and Hector; and the love story between the title characters.
The play is set in the middle of the decade-long Trojan War, sparked when Paris took Helen from her husband Menelaus. But that was long before the action of Shakespeare’s play.
“No one really knows why they’re fighting at this point,” O’Brien says. “It’s kind of a 9-to-5 war, punching in and punching out.”
O’Brien sees parallels to Shakespeare’s other works at play here, with a twist.
Like Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida are awakened from their first love-making by a lark.
In “Romeo & Juliet,” Juliet tells Romeo to go because he’s in danger.
In “Troilus,” Troilus can’t wait to leave, claiming he has a busy day ahead of him.
Troilus’ attitude is so rushed and, well, modern, that the cast has nicknamed that scene “I’ll shoot you a text.”
“I think he’s satirizing his own work in a way, although I couldn’t say it definitively because no one knows,” O’Brien says. “But it just seems to be so similar, but he has these opposing effects.”
When Matthew Amendt began working on his portrayal of Troilus, he came with expectations of his own.
“My mom taught the ‘Iliad’ as an English teacher,” he says.
“She introduced me to it when I was very, very young, so I feel I have this strange relationship to this play. My understanding of these people was a formative part of my development as a child.”
Troilus’ world view is formed by his older brothers, Amendt says.
“Paris (is) willing to destroy the world for this woman that he loves. Hector (is) willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for honor. He’s trying to follow those in his language. He speaks about them eloquently but naively.”
Eleanor Handley — an Australian actress and New School graduate — returns as Cressida, having played Maria in “Twelfth Night” is season 22.
“We can get into a conversation about lust versus love and whether it’s too soon for them to really be in love,” she says.
And very modern, she says, adding: “I feel people will bring their own relationship histories to it in some way. No matter what I do, people will walk away thinking one way or another.”
Unlike many Shakespearean characters, Amendt says, these people don’t divulge their inner feelings.
“We’ve got to find a way to be specific about it, so that ideally people will be arguing in their cars on the way home about whether Cressida is a conquest for Troilus.”
The festival will hold a sneak-peek benefit on Saturday, in which the company will present scenes from all three plays, followed by a reception and a live auction.
Consider it their way of building expectations.
What: An Insider’s “Behind-The-Scenes” Benefit — a sneak preview of the 2010 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival season, followed by a reception with the cast.
When: 4:30 p.m., June 12
Where: Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at the Boscobel Restoration, Route 9D, Garrison.
“The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop take on “The Comedy of Errors,” opens June 19.
“The Taming of the Shrew,” the story of battling lovers Kate and Petruchio, opens June 26.
“Troilus and Cressida,” the Trojan love story, opens July 3.
The plays then run in repertory through Sept. 5
The ticket thicket
The festival’s ticket-pricing schedule is fairly daunting, but made simple on The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival Website.
Preview Shows: $29
Shows in June, July & September: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays: $32; Fridays, Sundays: $38; Saturdays: $45
Shows in August: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays: $34; Fridays, Sundays: $40; Saturdays: $47
Subscription Series: Order tickets to all three plays and save 25 percent.
Opening Night Series: Join the festivities on June 19, June 26, July 3.
Weeknight Package: See all three plays on any Tuesday, Wednesday or June 15 to July 8
Preview Bargain Package: Save more by attending previews to all three plays June 15 to July 2.