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A CurtainUp Festival Feature
All the world's a Stage at the Hudson River Highlands
Background and Reviews
By Chesley Plemmons

Hudson Valley
The Festival Tent
When you see an * before one of the titles below, just click it to read our review:
*Arabian Nights
*Midsummer Night's Dream
*Winter's Tale

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, New York will officially open its 28th season on June 27th with a production of The Winter's Tale directed by the festival's new artistic director Davis McCallum. Performances are staged in an elaborate theatet tent on the grounds of the Boscobel House and Gardens. Located on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River, the restoration site offers sweeping southern views of the river and of West Point on the opposite shore. The action of the play often spills out onto the manicured grounds surrounding the tent.

The season will include two other productions now in previews: The Arabian Nights, opening on June 18 and A Midsummer Night's Dream directed by Eric Tucker which opens on June 20. The three plays will be presented in rotating repertory style until the Festival's September 1st closing.

Lileana Blain-Cruz will direct Arabian Nights written by Mary Zimmerman and adapted from The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. It's the classic tale of the beautiful Scheherezade who saves herself from death by telling stories each night to her cruel captor, King Shahryar. The fairy tale ambiance of the setting should offer ample opportunities for the company to show off its flair for anything goes staging. A popular feature of festival productions is the inclusion – no matter how dark the play - of a rousing, often hilarious dance.

In addition to the above, the season will also feature two special performances with limited runs of five performances each: An Illiad, based on the works of Homer. Veteran festival performer, Kurt Rhoads, will star in the one-man work. There will also be a presentation of The Tempest performed by the festival's Conservatory Company.The

All performances begin at 7:30 but the grounds open two hours before the performance for Theatergoers to bring picnics to enjoy before the show. A concession tent on the ground offers sandwiches, wraps, snacks, wine and beer as well as seasonal potables. Gourmet picnics can be ordered through the box office.

Performances are generally Tuesdays through Sundays with certain select Monday night shows. Contact the box office or visit the festival web site for exact scheduling.

Ticket prices begin at $30. There are a variety of discounts available for children, seniors, families and groups. The festival is located at 1601 Route 9D just south of Cold Spring. For reservations or additional information call the box office at (845) 265-9575 or visit the web site at

When you see an *asterisk before a title below, just click it to read the review.
*Arabian Nights
* Midsummer Night's Dream
*Winter's Tale

Winter's Tale
Why, then the world and all that's in't is nothing
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing
My wife is nothing — Leontes' anguished view of the world after he doubts his wife's virtue
The Winter's Tale is a theatrical BOGO. For those of you who don't frequent supermarkets, BOGO means Buy One, Get One (Free). Shakespeare's play, now in repertory at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, is divided into two acts as different as night and day. Thus you get a two-for-one, a dark first act tragedy and a giddy, sun-filled romantic comedy in the second.

The first act is all angst — Leontes, King of Sicilia, goes slightly off his rocker and wrongly imagines that his beloved wife, Hermione, has betrayed him with his best friend, Polixenes, King of Bohemia. He further thinks she is carrying Polixenes' child. In a mad fit, and despite an intervention by the Oracle at Delphi, he decrees that Hermione, her unborn baby and Polixenes should die. And this is just in the first twenty minutes or so of the play. Obviously matters are off to a sour start — and things get worse, leaving Leontes at the act's end a broken man, overcome with grief and remorse for the wrongful death and despair he has provoked.

This opening is classic Shakespeare filled with beautiful language and powerful emotions. HVSF is blessed with good – nay, even glorious performances by the three principles: Thomas Michael Hammond (Leontes), Francesca Choy-Kee (Hermione) and Jason O'Connell (Polixenes.) They're given solid support by Sean McNali as Camillo and Gabra Zachman as Paulina who later steals the act in a scene in which she forces Leontes to look at the baby he swears is not his. She's equally powerful in the second act when she explains (demands) that Leontes "awaken" his faith.

Choy-Kee is a radiant actress, and whether engaged in playful (innocent) banter with Polixenes, or pleading for understanding and mercy from her jealousy mad husband, she grounds the story with a depth of feeling and heart that makes this tale of redemption so moving.

The second act is a bird of a different color. Set in Bohemia— I suspect Paradise or Eden would have been too much of a reach for the Bard. Yet he often has his characters flee the courts for sanctuary and serenity in the woods, a verdant spa, if you will. The laughs begin even before the dark first act is finished with the arrival of the company's multi-talented Nanci Williamson sporting a mangy mustache and attempting to convince us she is a lowly shepherd of sheep.

Williamson, who is no patsy when it comes to competing with others in stealing scenes, has her work cut out for her here with the arrival of Mark Bedard as Autolycus, a crafty rogue and traveling salesman. Whether playing his guitar and cadging tips from the audience, or purloining purses from front row ladies, he's a burlesque comic, a role Shakespeare envisioned ages before the birth of burlesque and his antic spirit dominates the second act.

It's a large cast and we're introduced to them as possible escapees from an asylum that may have raided a costume store. They all acquit themselves admirably, though there is often a lack of projection. Its theater in the round I know, but that's what rehearsals are for. Another cast standout is Babak Tafti as Florizel. He's a hair too young now (though suitably hirsute) but perhaps later an Othello? And while doing Fantasy Casting, how about Zachman as Portia.

Over the twenty plus years I have been covering the festival, I have noticed the company's fondness for quirkiness has grown steadily. It began with the insertion of an unexpected (and often unrelated) wild dance by the cast... Now, anything goes. I hope this emphasis on pleasing audiences with madcap comedy will not weaken the festival's mandate to the worth of the Bard's well-balanced canon.

Directed by Davis McCallum
Cast: Thomas Michael Hammond (Leontes), Jason O'Connor (Polixenes), Francesca Choy-Kee (Hermione) Sean McNali (Camillo), Mark Bedard (Autolycus), Nanci Williamson (Shepherd), Babak Tafti (Florizel), Gabra Zachman (Paulina), Ara Morton (Clown), Triney Sandoval (Antigonus), Susannah Millonzi (Perdita).
Ensemble: Imani Jade Powers, Jensen Olaya, Emily Ota, Joey Parsons, Aleksander Danilov, Alexander Louis, Cameron Jamarr Davis and Brian Reisman.
Scenic design: John McDermott
Costumes: Charlotte Palmer-Lane
Lighting design: Eric Southern
Sound design: Mikhail Fiksel
Props: Sue Rees
Choreographer Tracy Bersley
Speech/Voice coach: Shane Ann Younts Stage Manager: Maggie Davis

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission.

Arabian Nights
And so in this production. . .we seek not to represent 8th century Baghdad under the reign of the mythologized Harun al-Rashid, but rather, a vision of the past and present synthesized.— Program notes by the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz
Some of my most enduring childhood fantasies were about Baghdad, particularly stories involving flying carpets, beautiful women, and cruel Wazirs. At the movies, the young Indian actor Sabu, was the hero of many such adventures, and I remember cringing at the sight of huge curved swords, which were usually used for beheadings .So, the story of Scheherazade, who postponed such a fate by telling one story every night to her captor, was catnip for me.

Playwright Mary Zimmerman gathered together some of the stories passed down through the years and supposedly related by the crafty Scheherazade. She used them as the basis for her adaptation of the classic The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night which was first produced on stage in the early 2000's. Titled simply The Arabian Nights, Zimmerman's work is currently playing at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival with a frisky mixture of classic and contemporary humor.

Before the play begins (and as you try to get to your seat) the theater tent is a throbbing bacchanal of music and dancing. Cast members encourage playgoers to join them in exuberant dancing to the accompaniment of a three piece "Middle East" combo. It's an unmistakable clue this is going to be one of the Festival's lively, freewheeling nights.

Under the speedy direction of Lillian Blain-Cruz the large cast doubles and triples in roles. Susannah Millzoni is a lovely and appealing Scheherazade, and Babak Tafti the handsome but emotionally challenged King Shahyrar. He's taken Scheherazade and her little sister prisoners planning to kill them both after he beds the older girl. Seems he discovered his wife in bed with a lover and has vowed revenge on all women. Together Millzoni and Tafti supply the necessary love interest for this ultimately corny joke fest

Zimmerman suggests that Shahryrar is a sucker for dumb jokes and in the first half of the play (500 nights?) Scherherazade tells, and the ensemble acts out, short stories that include among other things phallic jokes, a fart joke and a "knock knock" joke. In the second half the play settles down to a more reflective tone with stories about love, truth and justice — though much of it is staged as a television quiz show.

Standouts in the versatile cast include Triney Sandoval as a wig-topped, cantankerous waizir as well as other characters played with droll precision. Thomas Michael Hammond who plays a madman in what is a veritable snake pit of actors is good, as is Kurt Rhoads a staple of the company. Notable also was Gabra Zackman who has a sharp, wry delivery that helped land even some lame punch lines.

Murell Horton's costumes were colorful and apt when the actors stood still long enough for us to take them in, and scenic designer John McDermott provided wooden platforms and boxes which were used to create everything from a privvy to a throne (no joke intended.) I found the evening enjoyable, but lightweight, like a night out with a group of eager improv performers.

Production Details:
The Arabian Nights by Mary Zimmerman, adapted from The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Cast: All play multiple roles. Susannah Millonzi (Scheherazade), Babak Tafti (Shahryr).Kurt Rhoads (Harun al Rashid) Triney Sandoval (Wazir). Ensemble: Gabra Zackman, Francesca Choy-Kee, Thomas Michael Hammond, Jensen Olaya, Brian Reisman, Imani Jade Powers, Ara Morton, Emily Ota, Cameron Jamarr Davis, Timothy Liu.
Scenic design: John McDermott
Costumes: Murell Horton
Lighting design: Mike Inwood
Sound design: Mikhail Fiksel
Choreographer: Brigitta Victorson

Midsummer Night's Dream
I dreamed it was summer
and I was in a field under a tent. . .
and fireflies were buzzing around my head
talking to me about purple moons
and there was some sort of farm animal
holding a conversation with nature. . .
and everyone looked like everyone else somehow
but I still knew who they were even when I didn't
and 30 people were talking to each other but it was really five people

Excerpts from Eric Tucker's Director's Note
The lengthy quote above is taken from a longer blank verse poem by director Eric Tucker. I offer it as a possible clue to his complex, curious and ultimately exhausting production. Having read his Director's Note before the performance and many times after, I can only hazard a guess that his vision comes from his own dream about a play that is possibly a dream. Summon the Freudians!

There's nothing wrong with a clever variation on a theme when it comes to the Bard's works, and I have seen many entertaining and satisfying productions that "transported," as Shakespeare would say, the play — many at this festival. The only caveat I insist on is that changes should enhance the source. If, in the staging, magic is lost, I'm an unhappy camper.

Tucker's Midsummer begins on a familiar festival note — creepy movie music that announces the entrance of the actors — a hint that where will be camp comedy to come. There are five actors in view: two women, three men, all dressed in dissimilar costumes that tell us nothing about who or what they are.

The play opens with Theseus and Hippolyta arguing about their up coming wedding. Egeus arrives and asks the Duke to force his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius though she loves Lysander. A puzzlement begins. The actress who was playing Hippoyla now seems to be saying lines that belong to Helena and the actor who was the Duke is now apparently, Demetrius. By Jove, I got it. These five actors are going to play all 20 plus characters, without a change of costume or radically altering their deliveries. Good luck keeping us straight, especially in scenes in which four or more character are present.

Totally weird too are the physical paces the actors go through- joining hands and weaving themselves into a knot of arms and legs until no one can move. And when one does break free, he or she begins crawling through the legs of the others -like children playing tunnel.Occasionally they line up, one behind the other, waving their arms like a Busby Berkley chorus line. There's a lot of fluttering of arms too that suggests the Swan Lake ballet.

Devoid of the magic and charm of scenery and character defining costumes, the evening rests on the performances and they rise to the occasion. Nance Williamson, who plays Hippolyta and Helena as well as a fairy and a member of the would-be actors (the "rough mechanics") always adds a distinct touch of class whether playing comedy or tragedy. Joy Parsons tackles the roles of Hermia, Titania, a fairy and also one of the sylvan band of actors. Parsons is a pro, though she wore her hair in a knot on the top of her head which looked pulled so tight I felt the pain.

Mark Bedard (Theseus, Demetrius and others) and Sean McNall (Oberon, Lysander and others) infused their roles with spirited, comic and often romantic touches. Hard to do when you're asked to look like inmates in an asylum, to fall flat on the ground at a command or after being shot by a finger ray gun. Don't ask.

The final actor in the quintet, Jason O'Connell was decidedly the heavy weight in more ways than one. An expert mugger (that's a compliment) and a limber, athletic actor — he roared, gulped, and brayed (as Puck turned Ass). Occasionally he morphed, at least vocally, into Stanley Kowalski from Streetcar. He knew how to work the audience and he did it with relish.

The ensemble pushed the envelope as far as it could go in the realm of physical innuendo with plenty of double entendres as well as an abundance of burlesque style physical comedy. A few of the comedy bits that worked: the cast standing together as a bell goes off and one of them pulls open an imaginary elevator door and they all "get off." Also inspired was having the role of Snug, a "joiner" portrayed by Williamson and Bedard, "joined" at the head like a pair of Siamese twins.

Regrets if I got any name or character wrong. Wish I knew what the director had for dinner the night he had his dream. I think I'll just have salad.

Production Details:
Scenic design: John McDermott
Costume design: Jessica Wegener Shay
Lighting design: Mike Inwood
Sound design: Mikhail Fiksel
Choreographer: Birgitta Victorson
Voice and Speech Coach: Shane Ann Younts
Running time is 3 hours with one intermission.
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