For 27 summers, founding artistic director Terry O’Brien and his Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival players have willed Will Shakespeare’s plays into life using the sparest of recipes: actors, text, audience.
Props are at a minimum; sets are non-existent; Hudson Valley is about words delivered and received under a tent on a well-worn spot of earth.
From now through Sept. 1, festivalgoers will head to Boscobel in Garrison, to picnic with a majestic view of the Hudson before settling in under the tent for three shows in an eclectic repertory schedule:
The tragedy “King Lear,” directed by O’Brien and starring festival regular Stephen Paul Johnson as a sovereign losing his kingdom, his family and his sanity;
The comedy “All’s Well That Ends Well,” directed by Russell Treyz (who directed last year’s crowd favorite “The 39 Steps”) with a cast of one woman and seven men, some of whom will play women; and
A contemporary adaptation of the swashbuckling adventure “The Three Musketeers” by Ken Ludwig, author of “Lend Me a Tenor,” full of swordfights and directed by associate artistic director Christopher Edwards.
There are changes this year, with a longer preview period and opening nights on consecutive Saturdays: “All’s Well” opens June22; “Musketeers” June 29 and “Lear” on July 6. The festival is also reaching out to younger audiences, with a new Revelers program inviting those 21 to 35 to attend select performances for $20 per ticket and get discounts on merchandise and at the festival café.
Shakespeare as Sherpa
Stephen Paul Johnson has heard the references before.
“Everybody uses mountain-climbing imagery when they talk about ‘King Lear,’” he says. “It’s the Everest of roles.”
“But there are some moments when I’ve never felt so much supported in the palm of Shakespeare’s hand than when I just get to say those words and they play themselves,” he says with a bit of awe in his voice. “They play themselves.”
Take, he says, the speech when Lear and his estranged daughter Cordelia are being taken off to prison. She protests, demanding that they see her sisters, the cause of their imprisonment. His response is “just some of the most beautiful poetry ever written and if you just say it, it carries you where you need to go,” he says.
Where Johnson needs to go is on a journey, led by O’Brien, directing his first “Lear.”
“Lear” is the story of an aging king who divides his kingdom in thirds, determined to give each of his daughters – Regan, Goneril and Cordelia – her share. In a nod to his vanity, before handing each her bequest, Lear asks each how much she loves him. Regan and Goneril swear their undying and total love. When the youngest, Cordelia, refuses to gush as her sisters have, the enraged king disowns her, along with the Earl of Kent who springs to her defense. What follows is Lear’s downward spiral into madness.
“Lear upsets the apple cart by, in a sense, going against nature,” O’Brien says. “God said you’re the king, therefore you have to stay the king. When he decides to split his kingdom up and give it to his daughters, he’s going against God’s order. And that’s what makes everything start to go wrong.”
Watching all of this is the king’s fool, played by Wesley Mann, the festival’s rubber-faced resident clown, who finds his role a particular challenge, as he must endure his sovereign’s fall (and abuse at the hands of his daughters) without having a joke to soften their blows.
“Not having anything to say makes it much more difficult,” Mann says. “There are scenes where I am standing there for 200 lines watching him throw a temper tantrum, get beaten down, throw another temper tantrum, get beaten down again, and see him destroyed by degrees. It’s difficult to watch and difficult to figure out how to react, too.”
For ‘All’s Well,’ 8 is enough
“All’s Well That Ends Well” is about Helena, a woman who loves above her station. She is smart, pretty and driven to marry Bertram, a gentleman who doesn’t act like a gentleman and has no interest in her. When Helena’s abilities grant her the husband of her choice, she chooses Bertram, who makes things even more difficult for her.
Director Treyz leads a cast of one woman (Jessica Frey) and seven men, some in dresses.
“Most people tend to think of this as Helena’s play, but I think it’s really about Bertram and Helena and Parolles,” Treyz says. “All three want something desperately. She wants to marry Bertram; Bertram wants to become the count; and Parolles is a soldier of fortune who would like to better himself in the world. By the end of the play, they’ve all achieved their goal, but not necessarily with the joy that they thought they would have. It’s a study of what happens when you go for your goal and beware of achieving it. It may not be what you’ve pictured it.”
Despite a tradition of men playing women for laughs at Hudson Valley – regulars recall a hilarious Mann in “The 39 Steps” last year or Christian Jacobs as an amorous Latina in “Bomb-itty of Errors” in 2010 – Treyz says playing it straight will set the tone early that these are men playing women, not strictly for comic effect.
“Some of the men dressed as women are played for comedy, but when Dan Matisa plays the countess, the character is not a comic character,” Treyz says. “She’s a dignified countess who has her own hopes and dreams. We just play it very frankly. I like the idea of it having Elizabethan roots and the fact that with Helena played by the only woman in the cast, it really is Helena versus the masculine world. She is completely outnumbered.”
Girl power in ‘Musketeers’
Last summer, Angela Janas played a luminous Juliet at Hudson Valley. This summer, she’s a swashbuckling Sabine, d’Artagnan’s kid sister who announces that she’s tagging along on the musketeer’s adventure to Paris.
What? You don’t recall Sabine in Alexandre Dumas’ story? That’s because she’s a creation of Ken Ludwig, whose door-slamming “Lend Me a Tenor” is a fixture in community theaters.
“She gets herself into trouble as they journey to Paris,” Janas says, “but you soon realize that she’s a much better fighter and much more intelligent than you initially think. I’m hoping all the 10-year-old girls in the audience say ‘Yes! We love her!’ That would be success.”
With a cast of 13, nearly everyone handles a weapon at some point, says Janas, who is the show’s fight captain.
“I was exhausted after those ‘Romeo and Juliet’ shows because it was so emotionally exhausting,” she says. “I have a feeling this summer I won’t be emotionally exhausted. I’ll be beat, physically.”
Director Chris Edwards directed “Romeo and Juliet” last year, but for years before that, he led productions of the tricky “third show” in the summer repertory, with smaller casts and a reckless abandon: “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
“This is the small cast version taking on an epic romance, a classical scope with a contemporary sensibility,” he says. “It’s a hybrid of that third show with a Shakespearean comedy. There are 16 fights, and that doesn’t include when someone smacks somebody. There are 20 something acts of violence and 16 swordfights.”
So … bring the kids?
“Bring the kids and bring a shield,” Edwards says with a laugh. “It’s like a musical. I look and I see a fight there, a fight there and a fight there. It’s really like a musical with fights where the songs would go.”
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s 27th season, Boscobel Restoration, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison. In previews. “All’s Well That Ends Well” opens June 22; “The Three Musketeers” opens June 29; “King Lear” opens July 6. See company’s website for calendar, which runs through Sept. 1. $27 to $75. Package discounts available. 845-265-9575 or www.hvshakespeare.org. Boscobel’s grounds open two hours before curtain for picnicking.
Photos, from top: Stephen Paul Johnson, as Lear, cradles his daughter Cordelia (Jessica Frey) in Hudson Valley Shakespeare’s production of “King Lear.” (Photo by Travis Magee); Stephen Paul Johnson by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News; Terrence O’Brien by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News; Wesley Mann by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News; Russell Treyz by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News; Angela Janas as Sabine gets the drop on Kyle Nunn as Aramis. (Photo by Travis Magee); Angela Janas by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News; Christopher V. Ewards by Carucha L. Meuse/The Journal News.