Like Beatrice—the buoyant leading lady of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”—describing the “merry hour” of her birth, the plays of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival also come to life at night, on the rolling lawns of Boscobel in Garrison this summer.
All directors strive to achieve a specific look for their production, often transposing one period for another. As part of the HVSF’s 23rd season, director John Plummer’s take on “Much Ado” turns this notion on its head, liberating it from the restrictions of a certain time in history. This open interpretation of Shakespeare allows the audience to relate to the play in a new way. “To reduce a play is to diminish it, to diminish the audience’s imaginative capability in accessing [it],” he says.
“Much Ado” is a typical Shakespearean comedy, with pairs of lovers, double-dealing, and hidden identities. Nance Williamson and Jason O’Connell star as Beatrice and Benedick, a feuding couple who epitomize the battle of the sexes. Katie Hartke and Ryan Quinn play Hero and Claudio, the naive young lovers. True to the HVSF mission of distilling rather than embellishing the language, the actors emphasize gestures and physical comedy to bring the script to life, and strain the Shakespearean English through the cadences of contemporary speech. Even the Bard-phobic will find themselves laughing. “I’m not trying to translate it at all, I’m actually trying to find the true meaning of it,” says Plummer. This approach produces an unexpected result: By stepping away from Shakespeare it is remarkably easy to get back to it.
While Plummer believes it is the director’s job to honor the intentions of the playwright, he is also a strong advocate of not restricting the look of a production. The result? Ray guns and Southern accents. Instead of lutes, expect bagpipes. Renaissance strains—so unfamiliar to 21st century ears—are replaced by songs with a modern flair. At times it can be hard to place the quirky mix of costumes: aviator goggles, Venetian masks, and feather boas. But as it happens, this is the goal. “We want people to feel that it’s their time, it’s their place, it’s any time, it’s any place, it’s every time, it’s every place,” says Plummer.
The tent at Boscobel has seating in the round, just like the Globe Theater, Shakespeare’s original haunt. The local version, however, is much smaller: The Globe seated approximately 3,000 while the HVSF tent seats 534. Staging in and amongst the audience maximizes the feeling of intimacy under the tent. As the sun sets over the Hudson River each night, darkness descends on the audience like a cloak, narrowing the focal point to the actors in the honeyed spotlight of the earthen stage.
“Much Ado About Nothing” will be performed by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in repertory with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” and “Pericles” through early September at Boscobel in Garrison. (845) 265-9575; www.hvshakespeare.org.