Nestled in the quiet, picturesque town of Garrison, New York, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its 30th successful year in bringing a wide variety of theatrical events and Shakespeare plays to the surrounding area. Since its inception in 1987, founding artistic director Terry O’Brien and others have worked hard to develop this integral piece to the artistic landscape. Their latest, As You Like It, maintains and advances the spirit of the theater as evident in the thought and design to its presentation and production values, firmly rooted in the spirit of revelry and reflection. As such, not only have the theater’s offerings been some of the most inventive and enjoyable experiences the Hudson Valley has to offer, but the play is also just a part of the full cultural experience.
Located on the historic grounds of Boscobel (a 19th Century house and garden estate overlooking the lush and gorgeous Hudson Valley), theatergoers are invited to enter the grounds two hours before the show to enjoy the vast and inviting lawn, a café filled with food from local businesses, and jaw-dropping vistas that overlook West Point and the Hudson Highlands. So, several groups tend to take advantage of the offer and allow themselves to lounge and engage with the surroundings, wandering the gardens and picnicking on the grounds, thus setting the tone and mindset for what awaits. Like the main characters of the play, who are banished to the forest because of city-based corruption and find themselves renewed and recentered as a result of immersion in the wilderness and natural surroundings, so are the theatergoers who frolic on the grounds, retreating away from the hustle of daily life.
The HVSF twelve-week season traditionally includes two well-chosen Shakespeare plays, along with an additional non-Shakespearean, and sometimes original, choice, all housed in a beautifully lit, open-air theater tent with stadium style seating. For the theater’s anniversary, this season offers three Shakespeare plays that include Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and As You Like It. Differentiating themselves in the vast summer Shakespeare festival landscape, the troupe takes a page from the recent trend in Shakespeare theater and has developed their Macbeth with an all-female cast showcasing only three actresses. Although used sparingly throughout the years, this all-female trend has been recently popularized by St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, with their productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV and The Public Theater’s recent Taming of the Shrew. However, HVSF’s risks in generating female driven theater through clever means is the mark of a theater never content with standardized staging, one willing to take deep risks that clearly reveal a strong love of the material and the man behind the drama. For the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, you can see the visionary work in the variety of off-kilter and non-traditional approaches in so many decisions contributing to the formation of their productions, but it’s As You Like It’s brilliant attention to the dissection of human relationships and an empathetic understanding of human need that reflect their brilliance not only as Shakespearean interpreters but also as individuals who have closely studied the human condition and have chosen to juxtapose our cultural understanding on top of it.
Written in 1599 (just barely pre-dating Shakespeare’s prolific period), the play hasn’t always been seen as a masterpiece. With an excess of spoken exposition, events that are somewhat too agreeable, an apparent lack of a true fool, and a conclusion that’s just a bit too tidy, it’s a not exactly a problem play, but it does have its issues. That this production makes you forget about all of those issues is a testament to how well the audience is transported to their realm where lovers are pursued and wit is sharpened. Set in the Forest of Arden, the audience feels as if we are in the forest along with the actors as the surroundings contribute to said transportation. The magnificence of the grounds is utilized as a natural extension of the upstage area, and actors’ entrances and exits can be seen as far as fifty yards away, making movements grand and actions harrowing and ominous. When we first see Rosalind and the masked party guests entering from afar, we sense trouble afoot. When we watch Silvius shouting his desire’s name aloud and running through the fields, we feel the depth of his innocence and devotion. It really is a great use of the area, especially well-chosen for this play’s sense of place.
With a sparse open round filled with dirt, sand, and little to no set dressing, the reliance for place then turns to what actors can physically bring to the area. So, a white stripe baseball field marker turns the area into an immediate wrestling ring; a few logs and a prop campfire transform into Duke Senior’s private camp; a rolling piano and a string of lights make for a carnival-like setting. Props and pieces whir in and out as we are thrown from one place to the next, almost without warning. (Clever casting replays the effect as sudden onstage donning of costumes draw from the same whiz-bang effect.) It’s theater of the mind, and HVSF gleefully pokes and prods at it.
However, what truly sets the production values apart from most is the director’s and crew’s decision to tie costume and music not to a specific place, but to individual characters. At some point, someone realized that these characters are so distinct that their looks and musical choices should transcend genre and be linked to arc and motivation. Hence, cast members sing southern blues and songs that evoke slavery, dressing like Robin Hood’s merry men by way of an Army/Navy surplus store’s patchwork quilt. Bass booms and actors rap, dancing about like a Rihanna dance troupe as the play draws to an exciting conclusion. And a priest dressed as Elvis flies in on a golf cart wedding chapel to highlight the hastiness of an impending marriage. Trombones blare, pianos groove, harmonicas hum, guitars strum, and kazoos buzz. And that’s not even mentioning the goofball, hayseed sensibility that pervades every scene with Corin and William, working like a comedic Deliverance, or Touchstone’s wild colors, seizure-inducing prints, and overdone makeup that make him resemble a Batman villain. Sure they reveal his comical foolish arrogance, but the added layers show that he’s still the smartest man in the room, and highlight actor Mark Bedard’s natural ease and familiarity with the language (and at getting a laugh). Every choice made here in costume, prop, set-piece, makeup, and so on, adds a multitude of layers to each character, granting great depth to the smallest of roles. The entire production, although stripped down, is a feast for the eyes, as well as the ears.
With such careful planning to production, a strong supporting cast, and a central focus on the main love story, the two leads are given numerous moments to put their talents to good use. Julia Cofffey (who recently joined the production) is a standout as Rosalind, playing her endearingly plucky and happy-go-lucky, she emerges as an adorable force of nature who has a greater grasp on human relationships than we first think. When we first catch sight of her, she is breaking down in sobs over her banished father, and Ms. Coffey’s emotive gestures project a weakened spirit. However, as she deftly manipulates Orlando to her will while convincingly spouting such sage wisdom as “Men are April when they woo, December when they wed,” and juggling four different relationship outcomes under such misfortune, we see not just how strong a woman she is, but how strong a person. Ms. Coffey’s performance oversteps gender and embraces humanity.
A great foil to her Rosalind, LeRoy McClain as Orlando is able to handle quite a range of emotions, working from dishonored son, to vicious fighter, to schoolyard boy with a crush in a matter of minutes, changing from one emotion and back again on a dime. The audience will try to put McClain’s Orlando into a neat little box, but the actor refuses to be contained to one, raging in anger one minute and flirting with giggles the next. And when Rosalind and Orlando first lay eyes on each other, there is palpable heat and sparks. The chemistry between the two actors makes you root for them the entirety of the play, firmly grounding the audience in their love story.
It’s a tribute to the director, Gaye Taylor Upchurch, who instead of allowing the audience to become too awash in the spectacle, emphasizes the small moments of kindness and human connection to show where the play’s true heart beats. In addition to when the main lovers’ initial meet, when Duke Senior invites Adam, almost at death’s door from lack of food and water, to partake in the camp’s meager accommodations as the banished gently nurse him back to health, it’s in these moments where we glimpse Shakespeare’s understanding of man. When a disguised Rosalind is wooed by an unknowing Orlando, and rhetoric around the mystery of romantic relationships is laid bare, Shakespeare’s commentary on the nature of love is revealed, and Upchurch wisely quiets the production to let the audience linger on these moments.
Part college philosophy course, vaudevillian stage show, southern gospel confessional, and depression era travelogue, it’s the director’s clear vision that makes this production such a strong mix of disparate elements. Through this juxtaposition and approach, the production is over the top when it needs to be, introspective and clever at just the right points, loud and brash when called to be, and passionate and moving when it should be. Sure, it all ties up just a little too neatly at the end, as we expected it would, but with this production and cast, we are too distracted by all the right things to care.
Correction (08/08/16): The review incorrectly described another show in the HVSF season.