All the world's a stage, especially when Mother Nature is your backdrop.
Just ask Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival actress Jessica Frey. When her parents first visited her at the acting company's headquarters at Boscobel -- whose lushly wooded 68-acre property overlooks the Hudson River in Garrison -- she couldn't resist downplaying her surroundings. "I brought them over the hill, and they were just stunned by the view," said Frey, 27. "And I was like, 'Welcome to my office.'"
Showcased in a 525-seat tent theater high above the banks of the Hudson, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has returned for its 27th season, with opening night on Saturday, June 22 running through Sept. 1. And while new productions and programs are planned this year, Boscobel audiences can expect the usual drama and comedy, as well as surprises from Mother Nature along the way.
LETTING EACH PLAY 'SPEAK FOR ITSELF'
In keeping with the tradition of presenting one drama and one comedy by William Shakespeare, as well as a third show by another scribe, the festival will stage "All's Well That Ends Well" (with an opening night of Saturday, June 22), "The Three Musketeers" (June 29) and the troupe's first staging of "King Lear" (July 6, with a lawn party). Other than Mondays, the festival will stage previews most evenings leading up to the Saturday premiere of each production.
Terrence O'Brien, the festival's founding artistic director who has worked with students at The Juilliard School, is directing "King Lear," which follows the title character's descent into madness after he divides his kingdom among his daughters.
"The more I've worked with Shakespeare, the more I've realized that it works better to do less to the play -- to let the play speak for itself," said O'Brien, 60. "With a play like 'King Lear,' it's very emotionally complex. I feel like it's my job ... to give the play an opportunity to speak to our audience through our actors."
Russell Treyz, who helmed last year's festival production of "The 39 Steps," is directing "All's Well That Ends Well," about a young woman, Helena, who falls in love with a man outside of her class. And Christopher Edwards, the festival's associate artistic director, takes on the swashbuckling trio of "The Three Musketeers," one year after directing "Romeo and Juliet."
MOTHER NATURE PLAYS A ROLE
Los Angeles resident Wesley Mann, a character actor who has appeared on screen in "Back to the Future II" and, more recently, "Veronica Mars," has been a part of the HVSF company for a decade. This year, he's literally playing the Fool in "King Lear," as well as Lavatch, Lafew and the Old Widow in "All's Well That Ends Well." He said he keeps returning to the festival because of the cast, the audiences and the setting. "There's no venue like this, in my experiences, where the scenery and backdrop for the shows is Mother Nature itself," he added.
And we're not just talking trees and sunsets, either. Mann cited the festival's 2005 production of "The Tempest," when actor Stephen Paul Johnson -- who plays the title role in this year's production of "King Lear" -- had an unexpected scene partner in a luna moth that had been fluttering about the stage.
"It came to light in front of Steve, on the ground, and he was doing Prospero's speech about breaking his staff and burying it, which is analogous to Shakespeare, hanging up his pen and finishing his career," Mann recalled. "Steve, being the actor that he is, actually picked up the moth. The moth sat in his hand, and as soon as Steve finished the monologue, the moth flew away. It was one of those moments that chokes you up, even to tell it."
O'Brien recalled less graceful walk-ons by a three-legged cat and, on another night, skunks. "The amazing thing that we discovered," he said, "is that the white stripe on the back of the skunk is almost phosphorescent when you light it [with stage lights]."
Frey, a Lexington, Ky., resident who's playing Cordelia in "King Lear" and Helena in "All's Well That Ends Well," said weather sometimes plays a leading -- and unscripted -- role.
"We were doing 'Much Ado About Nothing' in 2009, and there was a torrential downpour," she said. "And we were trying to keep the show going, so the actors were literally just having to stand and scream their lines to be heard. That was funny and fun to experience."
NEW PROGRAMS WELCOME 'REVELERS'
Adding to the unique outdoor theatrical experience is the picnicking, which festival ticket-holders can enjoy on the lawn of Boscobel for up to two hours before each show -- BYO picnic basket, or made-to-order on site.
This year also marks the debut of new programs, including Revelers, which targets 21- to 35-year-old theater fans with discounts, social opportunities and priority access to HVSF events; family nights, which feature festival actors' hands-on workshops for kids and adults for $90 per family of four, and $25 per additional child; and Friday Night Tastings, which, for an additional $12 per show, offers preperformance tastings of regional food, wine and beer.
Among those most excited for this year's new programs is Chappaqua resident Abigail Adams, the festival's managing director for the last 13 years.
"The biggest thrill is watching somebody be dragged to the theater, saying 'I don't like Shakespeare,' and the next year being the first person at the box office," she said. "We just transform people into Shakespeare lovers."
O'Brien agreed. "If you've never seen Shakespeare before," he said, "I can pretty much guarantee we're your best introduction to Shakespeare."
IF YOU GO
What: Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival
When: Through Sept. 1; shows begin at 7 or 8 p.m., with free picnicking open to ticket-holders for up to two hours before showtime
Info: Boscobel, 1601 New York 9D, Garrison; 845-265-9575; www.hvshakespeare.org or www.boscobel.org; $27-$75