How it’s New York: This is the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s 26th year, located near Cold Spring, NY (reachable by train and courtesy bus from the station).
How it’s (Irish) English: Shakespeare in rep for the summer, along with a witty take on England’s celluloid genius, Alfred Hitchcock.

The season runs through Sept. 2. Get tickets here!
Michelle Woods loves the Hudson Valley Shakespeare, which takes the green hills for its backdrop. She discovers that “the embroidered edge of love is mortality” even in a lesser-known play…while The 39 Steps is “light and fluffy, perfect summer fare.”
There’s more than one Shakespeare in the park!

One of the continual star performers is the setting. The tent, peaked in points like a meringue, is on the lawn of Boscobel, an eighteenth century house on the outskirts of Cold Spring. The lawn opens two hours before showtime; come with a picnic and take in the mountains lolloping back to Bear Mountain bridge, the river gleaming in the late afternoon light, West Point, and the Audubon sanctuary with its marshes, neatly divided by nineteenth-century nut who decided (and inevitably failed) to make rice paddies in the Hudson.
As Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s fast-talking but also movingly thoughtful production of Love’s Labour’s Lost – played in the Festival’s marvelous tent by the most stunning view of the Hudson – was coming to an end with a ridiculous “comic” scene of entertainment (including a rendition of “Pompey the Sailor Man”), in front of four sets of lovers (why stop at one?) I was thinking that, you know, Shakespeare had his lesser moments. But then a messenger ran in to tell the Princess of France that her father was dead.
Katie Hartke (Rosaline); Jason O’Connell (Berowne)     Photo: William Marsh 
The chatter – non-stop in this play – stopped. And for the first time, I looked to the gorgeous vista beyond the tent and realized that night had descended.
Love’s Labour’s Lost is known as a problem play because, although it promises the usual end for a comedy – multiple marriages – they don’t happen, deferred for  year because of mourning. It reminds us that the embroidered edge of love is mortality.
Nothing much happens in the play. The momentum is all in the language. Ferdinand, the King of Navarre, gets his four friends to sign an oath to study in his palace for three years. One of them Berowne – played outstandingly by Jason O’Connell, who gourmandizes the language – is a skeptic, realizing what they have to give up for academe (oh, how I sympathize!):

O, these are barren tasks, too hard to keep,
Not to see ladies, study, fast, not sleep!

Sure enough four women arrive: the Princess of France with her three friends. Cue a play scaffolded in witty, flirtatious banter and the final promise of four marriages. It really makes you think how lame our current world is, where women in rom-coms never outwit the men, and certainly not in language. Four hundred years ago they snapped, toyed, turned language round, led the men by the noses through their words and wit.
HVSF stalwarts like Richard Ercole (King of Navarre) and Katie Hartke (Rosaline), along with newcomers like Denise Cormier (Princess of France) fill the language with energy. Michael Borrelli, channeling Sasha Baron Cohen, is hilarious (if you like that kind of thing) as comic relief in the character of Don Adriano de Armado. The 1930s flavor to the costumes is a gracious nod to the screwball comedies of that era.
Talking of screwball comedies, another of the plays in rep this summer (the third is Romeo and Juliet) is The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’saward-winning four-hander, a rewriting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name. It’s light and fluffy and perfect summer fare, with four actors: Richard Ercole, Gabra Zackman, Jason O’Connell and Wesley Mann playing numerous roles in a tour-de-force performance.


Front L to R: Marianna Caldwell (Stage Hand) Jason O’Connell (Clown 1), Wesley Mann (Clown 2), Jack Mack (Stage Hand) Backrow L to R: Gabra Zackman (Woman), Richard Ercole (Richard Hannay)
Photo: William Marsh

Special shout-out to the two apprentices, Marianna Caldwell and Jack Mackie, who moved stuff around, did sound effects, played rivers and cars and human armchairs (“Mein Kampfychair” the German spy cries), and who charmingly warmed-up the audience with song and tricks. Caldwell had the first funny line:

“Anything that makes a noise – like husbands – please turn off.”

The play vaguely follows the plot of the movie: our hero, Richard Hannay (Richard Ercole) is unsuspectingly ensnared in a Nazi spy plot surrounding an estate in Scotland. In The 39 Steps, he’s given a clue by a German woman, Schmidt (think Marlene Dietrich meets Lily von Schtupp) in the London Palladium (Gabra Zackman).

She’s being followed – Wesley Mann and Jason O’Connell in trench-coats, Jack Mackie with the lamppost. They and it keep appearing each time Hannay checks the imaginary drapes, sometimes they run in thinking he will and exasperated have to leave when he turns back to Schmidt.

The ingenious direction by Russell Treyz has to make do without most of theatrical tricks of the original production: one minute Hannay is on the train with the actors rocking to and for, next minute they’re on top of the train in a police chase with the actors flapping their own coats.

Running off the train, Hannay and the cop, run through one aisle of the audience, Ercole / Hannay grabbing a water bottle from a surprised audience member and taking a swig.

It gets meta: Jason O’Connell playing two characters in dialogue (turning from one side to another with a different costume) goes haywire and the other characters have to stop him. As the German spy, O’Connell is shot multiple times and still gets up. “Don’t shoot!” he says, “I’m a different character!”

O’Connell as another character (underwear salesman) sticks his head out of the train and verbalizes the station-names going past:

“Wuthering Heights, Gosford Park, Brideshead, Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey …

Various references to Hitchcock movies are woven into the dialogue (“I’ve got Vertigo!” “He was The Man Who Knew Too Much”) and as Hannay and Florence (Zackman) run behind a waterfall, we quickly realize it’s a shower curtain. Cue the stabbing sounds.

Just then a paunchy character turns up from the darkness outside with a cardboard box on their head. There’s a paper cut-out of Hitchock’s face on the box – the director notorious for cameo walk-ons in each of his movies.

As the tent got hotter and hotter (the promised thunderstorm never materializing), my admiration for all the actors grew. They all brought incredible energy, good humor and excellent physical comic nous to a tricky thing to get right however light and fluffy it might seem.

About the Author