For 21 years, The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has performed the works of the Bard—the old chestnuts as well as the lesser-known plays—to Elizabethan fanatics and groundlings alike. While high school traumas of being force-fed “The Merchant of Venice” die hard, HVSF has amassed a faithful following. Each summer they trek out to the grounds of the sumptuous Boscobel mansion in Garrison. There, perched on the high banks of the Hudson under the stars, they savor Shakespeare’s enduring poetry and stagecraft.
This year, however, HVSF changes gears by offering the first contemporary play in its history, albeit a Shakespeare-inspired piece. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)”, which runs through August 28, is Willie the Shake as you might have craved him during those attention-deficit days of high school English class: In the course of 97 minutes, three actors stage pieces from all 37 of the master’s works, with an emphasis on speed and chaos.
Will purists balk at such monkeyshines, claiming an irreverence to their hallowed idol? Terrence O’Brien, Artistic Director of HVSF, dismisses the notion. “The Complete Works” admittedly “makes fun of Shakespeare, but at same time is an homage to Shakespeare, and to the theater and the Elizabethan theater in particular.”
But a lighthearted dissection of their god is not out of step with the HSVF philosophy. From the first performances beginning in 1987, O’Brien and his HVSF colleagues aimed to rescue Shakespeare from his hidebound scholarly limbo. As their mission statement explains, “We communicate the stories with energy, clarity, and invention and we distill rather than embellish the language and action. We challenge ourselves and our audiences to take a fresh look at what is essential in Shakespeare’s plays.” While all play texts are preserved, the company seeks to bring the playwright into the modern world, occasionally excising archaic 16th-century words and instead mining the situations for contemporary meaning. Therefore, last year’s “Richard III” became a sobering meditation on the abuse of power (any relation to the current occupant of the Oval Office was entirely coincidental) and this year’s “Twelfth Night,” a romantic romp about masquerade and mistaken identity played up the modern travails of sexual and gender politics.
“The Complete Works” allows the brisk wind of improvisation to air out some of the more musty texts in the Shakespeare canon. In fact, the authors of the 1987 parody, known as the Reduced Shakespeare Company, encouraged individual interpretations by theater groups. In the stage directions of the play, they urged actors to insert as many asides and contemporary political references as possible. (This selfsame technique illuminated productions of the long-running “Godspell.”)
When O’Brien first saw a staging of “Complete,” he was dazzled by the agile company, who were groomed in clowning and vaudeville. Accordingly, he cast an eclectic trio of actors for the HVSF production. While all have been groomed as “strong classical actors” and possess “very quick minds,” Christopher Edwards has a strong background in the physicalities of stagecraft, especially choreographed combat. Noel Velez can assay a mean pratfall and Jason O’Connell took his first show business lumps as a stand-up comedian.
While the company had only three and a half weeks of rehearsal, O’Brien feels too much polish would undercut the strength of the play. “It is meant to feel as if the production could fall apart at any minute.”
The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival will perform “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” through August 28, in repertory with “Cymbeline” and "Twelfth Night,” at Boscobel in Garrison. (845) 265-9575; www.hvshakespeare.org.