A Guide To Enjoying Shakespeare

How to get the most out of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s pimps, prostitutes, love, and laughter

William Shakespeare—just reading that name transports you back to high school, to your English teacher calling your name, asking you to read Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” monologue aloud as all your classmates stare at you stumbling through the passage in your nerve-racked, pre-pubescent voice, while you secretly wish you were never born. That was the end of Shakespeare for you, but it doesn’t have to be.

The Bard of Avon never meant for his plays to be confined to the page. They were designed to come alive onstage through the talent of dynamic actors and innovative directors, and if there’s any organization doing that right, it’s Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF). Under their tent on the Boscobel House and Garden grounds in Garrison, “The audience is a key part of the way the play unfolds,” says HVSF Artistic Director Davis McCallum

Music played by the actors keeps the atmosphere alive.

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“At our theater, we approach a Shakespeare play as an experience that happens here and now between the actors and the audience,” he explains. “It’s a completely different way of thinking about these plays.”

Imagine opening scenes set to Alabama Shakes. Or comedic introductions sprinkled with Donald Trump comb-over jokes. Even more, envision an environment totally open to interaction between actors and audience members, where everyone feeds off the energy of each other and makes genuine emotional attachments to the characters without having to strain through lines of complicated text. That’s the HVSF experience.

So, if you feel like being pleasantly surprised (or reaffirming your zeal), it’s worth crossing the county line to check out one of HVSF’s daily performances, which run all the way through Aug. 29. And as a primer, we’ve put together some quick tips to ensure that, no matter your familiarity, you get the most from a truly unique Shakespearian experience.

Pack a picnic (and don’t forget the wine). Before each show, visitors are invited to hang out on Boscobel’s grounds, which span 60 acres of trails, gardens, and a particularly stunning Hudson Valley panorama. It’s the perfect opportunity to loosen up before the performance. McCallum encourages first-timers to “come early, have a picnic, and enjoy the view with a glass of wine.”

HVSF uses Boscobel’s stunning view as a living backdrop to their performances.

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Take a deep breath, and don’t worry. Nobody goes to a Shakespeare play and understands every single word, and that’s OK. Actor Kurt Rhoads, who plays both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior in HVSF’s production of As You Like It, describes the first 30 minutes of a play as the “warm-up period” for audiences to pick up on performers’ vocal intonations and body language, which often speak louder than the text alone. “Sometimes we see a Shakespeare play and feel like we have to put our thinking hats on and you don’t really have to,” assures McCallum. “Audiences are absorbing the story. You just have to tune your ear to listen to what the intention of the actor is, and if you miss a word or two, let it go.”

Actor Kurt Rhoads dresses in drag to play a cheeky bawd in Measure for Measure.

Leave your expectations at home. HVSF is a community experience, from the intimacy of the audience to the contagious laughter that arises when an actor pulls a spectator onstage to crack jokes. No two performances are ever exactly the same: Actor Nance Williamson recalls a monologue during a previous production of As You Like It when Rhoads, her husband, entered the stage with a plastic hanger dangling from his costume. “Everyone in the audience started cracking up and I had no idea why,” she explains. “I turn around and see Kurt like that, and we all just joked about it and laughed.”  

On a different note, actor Annie Purcell experienced first-hand the connection spectators form with certain characters when, as Isabella in the final scene of Measure for Measure, an unexpected marriage proposal compelled a woman from the crowd to shout, “No! Don’t do it!”

“The actors play off the audience and play with the audience, and that injects into the play a little bit of unpredictability,” McCallum forewarns. “So you have the experience when you’re watching a play here that anything might happen. And a lot of times, something does.”

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There’s a Shakespeare play for everyone. Now, understand that not every performance can be for all comers; this summer’s production of Macbeth features three female actors playing the entire cast, which might be difficult for a child to follow. (For the kids, HVSF is performing a clown show called So Please You that’s actually an original Shakespeare spin-off, and is short and packed with humor.) On the flip side, Purcell describes As You Like It, about a female protagonist who cross dresses to pursue the man she loves, as the “original romantic comedy.” And Measure for Measure, directed by McCallum, holds an alluring mix of drama and comedy that keeps people laughing at the edge of their seat, emphasized by Lucio’s portrayal as a dynamic bachelor sporting a southern drawl.

Pimps and prostitutes play a huge role in McCallum’s production of Measure for Measure.

“Shakespeare delivers pleasure to an audience,” McCallum sums up. “But at the same time he reminds us of the things we all feel but don’t always articulate to each other about being alive and falling in love and losing someone.”

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