It’s a new era at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival with Davis McCallum now at the helm as artistic director, replacing Terrence O’Brien, who put HVSF on the map for 27 years. McCallum has stuck to O’Brien’s credo of enlivening Shakespeare and making the Bard accessible, but one can see a fresh new layer of innovative whimsy, especially in the current production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Keenly directed by HVSF newcomer Eric Tucker, Two Gents is a straightforward plot about how true friendship is swept away by wacky romance where love is not only blind but renders one totally off the wall. This early Shakespeare play leaves plenty of wiggle room for Tucker who pulls out all the creative stops. Think over the top, kitschy Italian angst and you have a romping cast that cavorts with uproarious panache. The Felliniesque spectacle of wildly vivacious hand gestures and Godfather body language is blithely contrasted by the two young, lovelorn couples. Valentine is played by Ethan Saks whose stage presence is electrifying as the young man smitten by Silvia. With apt poignancy Saks splendidly serves up the play’s most famous lines when Valentine is banished from Milan and from Silvia. (Some may recall these magical words from the film “Shakespeare in Love” when Gwyneth Paltrow, dressed as a man auditioning for a part, emotionally recites these words to Joseph Fiennes who portrays Shakespeare). “What light is light, if Silvia be not seen? What joy is joy, if Silvia be not by?” Andy Rindlisbach deftly plays Valentine’s friend Proteus who betrays his friend when he vies for Silvia, expertly switching gears from cool headedness to crazed infatuation. Magan Wiles is brilliantly expressive as Julia, Proteus’ shunned lover and Susannah Millonzi is the perfect feisty, seductively pouting Silvia.
But it’s the crazed and zany supporting characters in Two Gents that careen like random satellites whose orbits cast a sardonic light on human frailty. Seasoned HVSF veterans Nance Williamson and Kurt Rhoads are edgy characters punching out titillating and hilarious social commentary — the kind you can’t get enough of. Williamson plays Lucetta, Julia’s waiting woman, costumed in brassy couture — think Gina Lollobrigida or Sophia Loren — tucking black cigarettes in her blouse as she mocks Julia for her vacillating love for Proteus. Rhoads is Proteus’ servant Launce whose dog Crab (yes a real English Bulldog, stage name Rex O’Reilly) keeps us giddy with expectations that at any moment, the canine might disobey Rhoads and go astray — which happens a few times when both man and dog veer off to interact with the audience. Launce epitomizes the Shakespearean rascal and clown who has unrequited love for Crab and can forgive the dog any and all bad habits, a simple, deep affection very unlike that of the young, flighty lovesick couples.
Tucker recasts Valentine’s male page Speed as Valentine’s sister, a geeky, bespectacled, braided smart aleck superbly played by Jennifer Johnson. Leopold Lowe as Silvia’s father, the Duke of Milan, gives us mannerisms wonderfully redolent of the gangster type (think James Cagney). The outlaws who capture Valentine are a bawdy, gun-licking motley mix of slavic raunch. Choreographer Alexandra Beller’s driving disco dance sequences to Andy Rindlisbach (Proteus) original music has us itching to pop out of our seats and join in, which easily happens at the end of the play. The staging is brilliantly minimal and transparent allowing for subtle, symbolic expressions. Actors transform from characters to living sculptural forms, some unmistakably Roman fountains where mouths are water spouts and statues becomes a nuanced cliché on Italian tourist hot spots. With supporting actors as stage props, in one seamless scene Valentine, Proteus, Julia and Silvia are gracefully transported to a bed that morphs into a floating gondola and then a picnic scene.
The HVSF 2014 season also includes Shakespeare’s Othello directed by Associate Artistic Director Christopher V. Edwards and David Ives’s hilarious adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s The Liar directed by veteran Russell Treyz. All three plays will be presented through August 31. For 28 seasons the festival has performed in a beautiful, castle-like open-air theater tent on the grounds of historic Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, using the spectacular view of the Hudson River as a theatrical backdrop.
Featured image: Ethan Saks, Susannah Millonzi, Andy Rindlisbach and Magan Wiles:
Photo by William Marsh
Abby Luby is a writer/journalist based in Westchester County. www.abbylu.com