(July 6, 2007)

Shakespeare, With Varmints

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

Locals in the know flock to Garrison and the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on summer evenings.

They are pulled in by the promise of one of the region's most spectacular picnic spots, lovely gardens and the best plays the English language has to offer.

For the opening of "As You Like It" last weekend, the guests included some uninvited neighbors: two wild turkeys and a couple of skunks who made repeated, if distant, entrances.

This is Shakespeare out of doors, under a circus tent whose arched entrances frame majestic views of the Hudson Highlands.

Skunks and all.

Mercifully, the varmints were seen and not smelled, but there was definitely something in the air: love.

There is love at first sight, love unrequited, selfish love, selfless love, shepherdly love, eye-rolling love, chaste love, chased love, poetic love, pathetic love and, in the end, brotherly love.

Kurt Rhoads, a fixture at the festival for 13 years, directs the top-notch troupe, setting the scene in cowboy country.

(It's a transition that is easily made and unlikely to offend: The Children's Shakespeare Theater in Palisades made a similar setting for their production last January.)

Typically, there is one big dance number at Hudson Valley Shakespeare shows, but Rhoads makes this a night full of music, borrowing from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "Buffalo Gals," "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "The Magnificent Seven" in a production that is fast, funny and joyful.

"As You Like It" involves a good duke, a bad duke, shepherds, evil brothers, wronged brothers, loving cousins, more shepherds, a philosopher-curmudgeon and, in the end, several weddings.

Noel Vélez plays the lovesick cowboy Orlando with the blend of moral outrage and ardor that the part requires.

He has fallen for Rosalind, a sharp-shooting cowgirl played deftly by the remarkable Joey Parsons, an energetic actress who can change gears faster than a NASCAR pole-sitter.

Rosalind, banished to the forest by her angry uncle, disguises herself as a shepherd named Ganymede. When Orlando - similarly banished by his brother - meets Ganymede while hanging love notes to Rosalind throughout the forest, Ganymede (the disguised Rosalind) proceeds to school him in the ways of love.

If the story sounds convoluted, it is. But in the capable hands of 17 wonderful actors - with no sets and just the most minimal props - it is crystal clear.

The festival, now in its 21st year, is presenting "As You Like It" in repertory with the dark but riveting "Richard III." This year, for the first time, the festival will perform on select Tuesdays at 7 p.m. Those performances, all of "As You Like It," will be July 31, Aug. 7 and 14.

The supporting cast is, as always, first-rate.

Richard Ercole is priceless as the wild French equestrian LeBeau - ad-libbing to his horse.

Michael Borrelli evokes plenty of fun early on as the rootin', tootin' wrestler Charles, a la Yosemite Sam.

Clark Carmichael is Orlando's evil brother, Oliver. He also plays Amiens, one of the good duke's men, contributing a sweet rendition of "Bang the Drum Slowly."

Wesley Mann, an HVSF stalwart, plays the evil duke, a shepherd and Hymen - the Greek god of marriage - in a costume that must be seen to be believed. In each role he is compelling and completely believable, a study in focus and commitment to the work.

Paul Bates plays Orlando's loyal servant, Adam, and a second role that defies description here. Bates, who last year played Bottom in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," is comic gold.

"As You Like It" is one of Shakespeare's most romantic and lighthearted plays, best known for an oft-quoted speech given by the melancholy philosopher Jaques, an adviser to the good duke.

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts..."

Jaques, typically played as a grizzled old man, is played here by Nance Williamson, Rhoads' wife and a longtime HVSF player. She wears a long coat and hat pulled down over her eyes and she moseys in and out of the action. But the text is not changed to reflect the fact that she's playing a man's part.

This being a Western, Williamson delivers the speech with a twang. She takes her time with it, as if settling in to tell a bedtime story around a campfire.

The speech itself is appropriately cynical for a self-described "melancholy:" It chronicles the seven ages of man, from the entrance at infancy to the exit at infirmity, "sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."

Closer to the real heart of the play is the oft-interrupted speech by the unrequited lover Silvius, played with an aching heart by Borrelli.

When asked to tell what it is to love, he says, in part:

"It is to be all made of sighs and tears ...

"It is to be all made of faith and service...

"It is to be all made of fantasy, All made of passion and all made of wishes, All adoration, duty, and observance, All humbleness, all patience and impatience, All purity, all trial, all observance...."

All this love leads to weddings - and altered hearts.

In the end, even the rotten brothers change their tunes and embrace love.

Some skunks can change.

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