Things will be humming under the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival tent in Garrison this week, with two opening nights to kick off the troupe’s 26th season: Thursday’s Hitchcock send-up “The 39 Steps” and Saturday’s “Romeo and Juliet.”
In a break from tradition — which in recent years has seen the festival’s three shows open with lawn parties on consecutive Saturdays stretching into early July — HVSF executive director Magge Whitlum says they’ll follow this week’s two openings with one big lawn party to open the third show, “Love’s Labours Lost,” on June 30.
“We wanted to get the shows open earlier, which has always been an issue for us, giving enough previews and hitting the opening night at the right time,” Whitlum says. “Sometimes a Saturday doesn’t line up in that sense. And we felt that three lawn parties was a bit much. So we’ll have one for the season, at the final opening.”
At Hudson Valley Shakespeare, the three plays run in repertory until Labor Day weekend: One night’s Richard Hannay in “The 39 Steps” could be Ferdinand, King of Navarre, the next in “Love’s Labours Lost.” In fact, those are the roles festival stalwart Rick Ercole plays this summer.
The festival has become a “must” on summer to-do list across the Lower Hudson Valley, drawing fans who appreciate founding artistic director Terrence O’Brien’s distillation of the process. It’s about words, actors and audience for O’Brien and his band of regulars, bolstered each summer by newcomers to keep things interesting. Props and sets are kept to a minimum.
Festivalgoers are captivated by the commanding view of the Hudson Highlands and West Point, the grounds of the transplanted Boscobel mansion seeming to welcome them back in time.
Sadly, Hurricane Irene dealt the festival a blow last summer, toppling a majestic oak that stood on the bluff, an uncredited player over the years: a piece of the Birnam Wood for “Macbeth,” a fairy outpost in “Much Ado,” a sign of land for a sea-tossed “Pericles.”
The appeal of the festival, the Lower Hudson Valley’s largest, is in its generous spareness.
What does this summer’s lineup of shows mean to its actors and directors? Here’s a sampling of opinion on the challenges, perils and approaches to this summer’s shows.
‘Romeo and Juliet’: Seeing parallels with Springsteen
Carl Howell played Romeo this spring, in a one-hour school tour that the festival dispatches across the region. For insight into the young Verona boy, the Hammonton, N.J., native looks no further than Jersey’s favorite son.
“I think a young Bruce Springsteen is no different than a young Romeo,” Howell says.
“Bruce’s early stuff, they were so desperate, they needed things to happen now. Like on ‘Born to Run,’ everything is about happening now. We’ve gotta get out now. We’ve gotta fall in love now. Because if we don’t, it’s just over. I think that’s how Romeo is wired.”
Angela Janas, this summer’s Juliet, is a brand-new graduate of the University of Minnesota in her first New York role. The fresh-faced and bubbly Minnesotan says director Christopher V. Edwards wants Juliet to be a lot like the actress who plays her.
“Chris says ‘Bring what you’ve got. If you’re goofy, she’s goofy,’” Janas says. “There’s a lot of freedom.”
For Janas, Juliet’s turning point – when she grows up before the audience’s eyes – comes soon after she learns of the friar’s plan for her to fake her death and be reunited with her banished Romeo.
“After she says ‘Love, give me strength,’ everything falls into place and, even though she’s 14, she makes some pretty big decisions and stands behind them and acts in a very rash — but, in a way, responsible — way.”
Edwards is directing his third “R&J,’ and has played Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio.
“People are asking me what spin I’m going to put on it,” Edwards says. “I don’t know that this show needs me to do that. It’s like my favorite song. I’ll listen to it over and over again and I don’t have to hear another arrangement of that song.
“I’ve always said the show should be called ‘Juliet and Romeo.’ That first act is the romantic comedy: ‘Let’s follow the romance of a young guy who has fallen in love.’ Then Juliet, this entity, walks into the room and immediately the whole play changes. The second act is a beast for the actress to carry the emotional weight of the rest of the play. It’s a challenge to find an actress who looks young enough but has the chops to carry the emotional weight the character requires.”
Exclusive video: Talking shop with Juliet
‘The 39 Steps’: One stage, 500 cameras
For Russell Treyz, directing “The 39 Steps,” a madcap retelling of the 1935 Hitchcock film, means employing the visual style of the Broadway production, even if he won’t be able to rely on projections and a traditional stage for the script’s tips of the hat to Hitchcock.
“I’m trying to do it with four trunks, three stools and two rakes,” he says with a grin. “In addition to the four actors, I’ve added two stagehands. They’ll be an armchair, the doors, the scenery, the sound effects and an integral part of the action.”
Wesley Mann, in his ninth HVSF summer, plays one of the show’s quick-changing clowns.
“I saw it on Broadway and at the end, I stood up and cheered because it was like, ‘Oh, stagecraft! Thank you!’” Mann says. “We don’t need millions and millions of dollars of lights and sounds and sets and all that stuff. We can make the imagination work better.”
Still, on Broadway, it was in traditional proscenium theaters: The American Airlines, the Cort, the Helen Hayes. At Boscobel, the actors are nearly surrounded by the audience.
“It’s a three-dimensional challenge to adapt it from a proscenium show,” Mann adds. “I guess the way to adapt it is to think that we’ve got 500 cameras around the whole house, each with its different view.”
Wherever they sit, audiences are likely to see straight-man Rick Ercole as Richard Hannay, trying his hardest to maintain composure in the face of an onslaught by three of the festival’s most adept clowns: Mann, Jason O’Connell and Larchmont native Gabra Zackman.
“It’s pretty much open season on Rick,” Mann says.
Exclusive video: Talking shop with Wesley Mann
‘Love’s Labours Lost’: A king’s mettle is tested
The rarely mounted “Love’s Labours Lost” involves a king and his buddies who swear off women and creature comforts and vow to take to the woods for three years of hermetic study. When a princess arrives with her ladies, their mettle is tested, and their resolve weakens.
Ercole says Shakespeare doesn’t make the labors of love easy, laying traps in the text.
“The way the rhyme scheme is set up, it can kind of sound like Dr. Seuss sometimes,” he says. “Our job as actors is to make it everyday speech or use it as a tool and not get stuck in that rhythm and rhyming couplets.”
How to conquer that?
“You have to find a reason for the rhymes to be there and use them for a purpose,” Ercole says.
For Denise Cormier, playing the princess means never having to say you’re sorry.
“It’s very unresolved. The guys, toward the end, say: ‘We really like you girls. We’ve been wooing you.’ And the girls say, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve seen everything you’ve done, but we’ve sort of seen it as a lark. We haven’t taken you seriously.’ It’s that kind of miscommunication.”
The story isn’t buttoned up at the end, as the story ends with the princess and her retinue returning home, having given the king and his friends tasks to prove their worth.
Does Ercole think the jobs will get done?
“Our track record isn’t so good,” he says with a smile.
Exclusive video: Talking shop with Rick Ercole and Denise Cormier
Photos by William Marsh: Top, Gabra Zackman and Rick Ercole in “The 39 Steps”; second, Angela Janas and Carl Howell in “Romeo and Juliet”; third, the cast of “The 39 Steps,” front row from left: Marianna Caldwell (stagehand), Jason O’Connell (Clown 1), Wesley Mann (Clown 2), Jack Mack (stagehand), back row from left: Gabra Zackman (Woman), Richard Ercole (Richard Hannay); bottom photo, Drew Lewis (Dumaine) and Denise Cormier (Princess) in “Love’s Labours Lost.”
Videos by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News