Reviewed by Stephanie Hughes
My family and I had a wonderful time last weekend at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, performed in (and around) a big circus type tent on the grounds of Boscobel, one of the great estates that line the Hudson River as it approaches Manhattan. Rather than a painted backdrop, the audience sees the action taking place before a living vista of the valley as day draws slowly down to night. Located at one of the most scenic junctures of the river, facing West Point on the western shore, the river dotted with sailboats, it’s as though one of the great nineteenth century paintings from the Hudson River School has come to three-dimensional life.
Like most of the audience, we picnicked first on the lawn. Once within the theater tent where protected from the weather — though luckily we needed no protection on this beautiful evening — we observed the odd behavior of some beings from another time. We could have been sitting with the English Court on the lawn of some great estate in one of the summer bowers built to keep off the weather, watching the original cast perform this play.
Although the director calls his preferred style of costume design steampunk, the result for the audience is a happy submersion in the holiday world that Shakespeare portrays in most of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, parts of Twelfth Night, Act IV of A Winter’s Tale, Act V of Two Gents, and most of As You Like It, holiday plays meant to be performed out of doors in good weather. Far more than we could ever be in a theater, here at Boscobel we are in the Old English holiday world of merry-making where there is no past or future. One enters into it, has as good a time as possible, and leaves it when it’s time to return to the workaday world of clocks and calendars. In this world there is no past or future, so costumes can relate to any period. It’s the audience who, oddly dressed in T shirts and shorts, seem tourists from another time.
Much Ado is a comedy, of course, so out under the summer sky these professionals played it broadly and yet not so broadly that the tenderness is lost, for this is one of the most delicately tender of the Shakespeare romances. The actors who perform the roles of Beatrice and Benedick are more than up to the challenge, Jason O’Connell in particular bringing a wonderfully silly vision of Benedick as a louche narcissist who literally falls all over himself when he finds himself falling in love, while Nance Williamson is all anyone could wish as the as the sharp-tongued but tender-hearted Beatrice. “Everybody plays the fool, one time, there’s no exception to the rule,” goes the old song, and Shakespeare, and this wonderfully intuitive version of Benedick express this timeless message, so welcome on a warm and timeless midsummer eve.
I urge all who live in the New York area to see the show. The work is played in repertory with Pericles through July 31 in Garrison, New York, 8 miles north of the Bear Mountain Bridge on Route 9D. Directions from Manhattan, New Jersey, and Westchester are on the website: http://hvshakespeare.org/.
The director of Much Ado, John Christian Plummer, is an Oxfordian — with a TV series based on Mark Anderson’s biography, Shakespeare by Another Name, up his sleeve — and although I don’t see how knowing that affects a particular performance, if in any way it inspired this excellent version of this wonderful play, then efforts to get the Oxford story told have borne some truly excellent fruit.
Stephanie Hughes is an educator and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. She is a former editor of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter and the SOS journal, The Oxfordian. Her work can be viewed on her blog, Politic Worm at http://politicworm.com.