Originally published on July 25, 2023 by by Charles Isherwood in The Wall Street Journal.
“a pilgrimage to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival [is] a rewarding endeavor”
“I couldn’t shake the happy notion that watching the mostly young cast performing the plays with infectious exuberance was akin to observing precociously clever kids playing in a sandbox.”
In its new location, the long-established Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival brings a youthful verve and overlapping cast to the playwright’s popular war story and introspective romantic comedy
It has become rare to see two Shakespeare plays running in repertory with overlapping casts. This alone makes a pilgrimage to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival a rewarding endeavor—the theatrical equivalent of a trek to a zoo or a botanical garden to check out the exotic species on view.
What’s more, the plays programmed by artistic director Davis McCallum are smartly contrasted: “Henry V” is Shakespeare’s most popular and accessible history play, while the rarely produced “Love’s Labor’s Lost” represents his comedy at its most esoteric, despite the farcical machinations of its plot.
The company, founded in 1987, is in transition, having moved last year to a new campus, a former golf course that is being landscaped to make audiences less likely to imagine a shanked ball knocking them unconscious. A new amphitheater is under construction, but the current, tented space is pleasingly intimate. The stage is simply a square expanse of sand, and I couldn’t shake the happy notion that watching the mostly young cast performing the plays with infectious exuberance was akin to observing precociously clever kids playing in a sandbox.
“Henry V,” with its mighty conflict between England and France and rah-rah fervor, lends itself to pomp and pageantry. (It has been lavishly filmed twice, by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.) But this stripped-bare production, directed by Mr. McCallum, is closer to what audiences might have seen in Shakespeare’s day; the prologue acknowledges the impossibility of representing the momentous events depicted and calls on the audience to “let us . . . on your imaginary forces work” and to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts.”
One is easily persuaded to obey the invitation since Sean McNall, who plays the chorus, offering further elucidation of the action throughout, is superb. He delivers his speeches with conversational ease while displaying a tight grasp of Shakespearean style and rhythm.
The contemporary production is marked by many other fine turns. The comic subplot featuring the squabbles among the lowly characters—Francis Pàce-Nuñez’s Bardolph, Luis Quintero’s Pistol and Carl Howell’s Nym—are robustly funny. Duane Boutté also stands out in two contrasting roles, the scheming Archbishop of Canterbury and the noble King of France.
The one disappointing performance, unhappily, was Emily Ota’s in the title role. Swaggering in a red-and-white motorcycle jacket, she presents a commanding figure. But when delivering Henry’s exhortations to his troops, including the well-known set pieces, before Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach . . .”) and the St. Crispin’s Day speech (“We few, we happy few . . .”), Ms. Ota sometimes resorts to shouty bluster and a surface bravado that falls short of bringing the language to poetic life. Fortunately “Henry V” is so rich in incident that even a less than fully satisfying turn in the title role cannot dampen its durable dramatic appeal.
“Love’s Labor’s Lost” is also presented in contemporary costuming, and director Amanda Dehnert’s freewheeling production aims to bridge the distance between the play’s coruscating, at times devilishly hard-to-parse language and the sensibilities of today’s audiences. Ms. Dehnert has brought out the scissors, vigorously trimming Shakespeare’s words, in part to make room for original songs she composed with André Pluess. While some might frown at this as desecration, it struck me as an inventive way of translating Shakespeare’s depiction of the follies of youth and romantic infatuation into the zeitgeist of Gen Z, or whatever Gen we are currently dissecting.
The deliciously devised plot ignites when the King of Navarre (a stately Omar Shafiuzzaman) invites three of his lords to join him in forswearing all diversions—mainly women—for three years, devoting themselves only to study. The plan, initially agreed to with varying degrees of reluctance by Berowne (the insouciant Stephen Michael Spencer), Longaville (Mr. Pàce-Nuñez) and Dumain (Lennon Xin Wen Hu), quickly goes spectacularly awry.
No sooner have the lords committed themselves than there arrives an embassy from France, led by the Princess (Phoebe Lloyd, regal but approachable) and—wouldn’t you know?—three of her ladies, Rosaline (a stately, sharp-tongued Antoinette Robinson), Maria (Ms. Ota, radiant and unrecognizable as the same actor who played Henry) and Katharine (Mayadevi Ross). The men’s vows are tossed in a paper-shredder as they tumble into besotted adoration of the comely ladies.
The convolutions of Shakespeare’s scenario are too detailed to delineate. A major subplot, wonderfully unfolded here, involves the rivalry between Sir Adrian O. Dearmaddow (an anglicized version of Don Adriano de Armado), played with pompous good humor by Kurt Rhoads, and the “clown” Costard, portrayed with cheeky appeal (and a red rubber nose) by Mr. Quintero, over the affections of Jaquenetta, imbued with a wised-up attitude by Melissa Mahoney. Timothy Bright brings a tartly witty buoyancy to his role as Sir Adrian’s page and comic foil.
Unlike most of the comedies, “Love’s Labor’s Lost” concludes on a note of melancholy, as the Princess receives news that her father has died. This puts to an end the barbed and witty exchanges between the lovers. “Youth isn’t wasted on the young,” sings Jaquenetta in the opening song. But the play’s ending acknowledges that youth, with its innocence and headlong emotional abandon, must evolve into maturity, and the attendant ambiguous wisdom it brings. This playful production does not attempt to gloss over the shadows encroaching, but leaves its characters in an uneasy limbo between heedlessness and responsibility.