Fifty miles north of New York City, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival playfully subverted audiences’ expectations with a radical rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

[Images of Hudson Valley Shakespeare by T. Charles Erickson. Other images by Emily Finch]

The scene was reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Families, couples, friends sprawled on the lawn of the historical Boscobel estate, accompanied by wicker baskets, wine glasses and cheese boards.

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This loyal crowd of patrons arrived early to enjoy the view of the river before an evening of theatre at the respected Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Excitement about the sold out performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream buzzed as everyone packed up their blankets and headed towards their seats under the tent’s canopy.

And yet, despite such a positive beginning, many audience members became disenchanted by the production. Disenchanted enough, in fact, to bale out in the middle of it. About 20 percent of the seats were empty at the actors’ final bow.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream usually promises a fun, crowd-pleasing evening – what made the audience walk out? Well, very little about this production felt normal. Where so many Shakespeare productions attempt to rationalise everything – to answer every possible question an audience member might have – this production consistently resisted the urge to simplify and clarify, and instead said, “Why not?”

Why not have Bottom and Puck be played by the same actor?
Why not let Demetrius speak Spanglish?
Why not use five actors for all 20 parts?
According to actor Mark Bedard, these choices came out of rehearsals where director Eric Tucker constantly challenged his players, saying: “We could do the scene that way, the expected way. Or we could find a different way, a harder way.”

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The lack of scenery, props or elaborate costumes placed the responsibility for the success (or failure) of the play squarely on the actors – the aforementioned Mark Bedard, along with Sean McNall, Joey Parsons, Jason O’Connell and Nance Williamson.

As HVSF artistic director Davis McCallum put it, limiting the cast to five actors forced “radical creativity” on behalf of the performers and director to overcome the obstacles, the least of which being the numerous scenes with six or more characters.

The end result was a fresh and raucously hilarious interpretation of this most frequently performed of comedies. Those looking for an evening of conventional theatre were sorely disappointed. The rest of us were beside ourselves with mirth.

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“This isn’t Shakespeare that’s over people’s head,” McNall says. “It’s Shakespeare between their legs.”
Of course, the actors cannot help but notice the depleted audience as the evening unfolds.
“Sometimes, it is a little hard,” Parsons concedes, “to walk on in the second act and see an entire row gone.”

For Williamson, the polarity of reactions validates the unconventional choices. “It’s exciting when you don’t have just a wave of love every single night,” she says. “That’s theatre. The job is not to please everybody.”

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As hard as it is for the players to witness their patrons walking out, it must be said that the majority of the audience remain completely enthralled by the performance.

“We’ll have audiences that are really quiet, and obviously not happy,” says Bedard, “and then we’ll have audiences where it’s like a rock concert.”
Apart from the interpretive casting decisions, the open-air location lends a special life to the productions.

“Boscobel has this beautiful backdrop that makes the play have a lifted grace that it sometimes doesn’t have inside,” explains Williamson.
“The plays can never get stale out here,” adds O’Connell. “Every performance is wildly different just based upon the variables of the time of summer or what’s going on in the air.”

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For McCallum’s first full season as artistic director, he chose plays that would connect the audience with the production through the power of storytelling. “A group of people are gathering,” he says, “in this really unique spot, under this canopy, to be told a story.”

For the past 29 years, HVSF has been sharing stories with roughly 40,000 patrons each summer, along with thousands more through continuous educational outreach. For a summer festival with only five year-round staff members, those numbers prove this company is doing something right, something beyond being an idealistic picnic destination.

“For the sake of our artistic health, we want to do a wide range of things,” says McCallum. “Not just summer Shakespeare comedies.”

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Preparing for the Festival’s 30th anniversary next summer, McCallum plans to continue subverting expectations, delivering entertaining art that challenges as well, putting the little town of Garrison on the theatrical map.

“Our vision for the theatre is that it can be a real destination for audience members,” he says. “Not just from New York City, but from further afield.”

The five-person production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream played at New York City’s Pearl Theatre until 31 October.

Go here for more on Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

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