Back Under the Tent

Boscobel Tent

The HVSF tent will make one last appearance this year at Boscobel. (Photo by Phil Bulla)

HVSF prepares for final season at Boscobel

The folks at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF) have been more than a little distracted over the past year. What with the cancellation of their 2020 season because of a pandemic shutdown and a town full of diverging opinions about the scope of the plans for a new home at the Garrison golf course, it’s easy to forget that ultimately the play’s the thing. 

Overshadowed somewhat by offstage drama, the festival’s two 2021 productions will be its last at Boscobel in Garrison, where HVSF has set up camp for 32 of the past 33 summers after its first season at Manitoga in 1987.

The first show, The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington, by James Ijames, will open June 24 and run for five weeks, through July 30. Shakespeare’s The Tempest follows on Aug. 5, running for five weeks through Sept 4. Unlike previous seasons, which saw three or four shows in repertory, this year’s uncertainty, plus ongoing health and safety considerations, determined that streamlining was the most efficient way to produce the season. 

Liberman and McCallum

Kate Liberman and Davis McCallum, in front of the HVSF office (Photo by A. Rooney)

Taking into account ever-changing New York State and Actors’ Equity Association regulations on the maximum number of people allowed entrance at specific times, and the myriad other public gathering compliance components, flexibility was key, say Kate Liberman, HVSF’s managing director, and Davis McCallum, its artistic director.

With all these preoccupations, it wouldn’t have been surprising if HVSF had thrown in the towel for 2021 to focus on the pending move. Yet, that was never in the cards, Liberman says. “We spent the better part of the year not being able to do any theater-making. As an organization, we have a mission to bring the community together, so how could we go on without trying? Davis and I are theater people at heart, and our board felt it was important to bring the community back together rather than taking a pass, particularly during our last season at Boscobel.” 

McCallum adds: “There are arts organizations all over the country frantically trying to figure out how to perform in a tent; well, we know how! There was this once-in-a-lifetime potential to be back performing, even with daunting finances, and we thought, ‘We have to put ourselves in position to be able to seize it.’ ”

He says the wisdom of the decision was confirmed for him when he attended Haldane’s performance of The Greek Trilogy and the debut of The Scream, a musical co-written by Cold Spring’s Ray Bokhour, at the Philipstown Depot Theatre. “It was the two first times I’ve been back in a theater in — I don’t know, 14 months — and I found the experience thrilling. To be in a place where humans bear witness and get up and tell stories — I felt a flood of relief just sitting there, and I can’t wait to follow that example under the tent.” 

The HVSF tent will be in place at Boscobel, but there will be a number of changes, Liberman says. “Audience capacity will be limited to 33 percent — a state mandate — and each group has to be socially distanced. Both plays will be performed without intermissions to reduce the complexities of keeping everyone safe. We’ve also simplified the bathroom situation to trailers with individual stalls.”

In addition, all theater-goers will be required to provide proof of vaccination or negative test results through the state’s digital Excelsior Pass or by presenting a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival. There’ll also be symptom screening and contact tracing, along with timed entry. There will still be picnicking, but with reservations and in designated circles on the lawn.

How to Get an Excelsior Pass

The Excelsior Pass provides digital evidence of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. The vaccination pass is valid for 180 days after the final dose (when it can be renewed); the PCR (nasal swab test) Pass is valid until midnight on the third day after a test; and the Antigen Pass is valid for six hours from the time of a test.

The passes can be stored on a smartphone with an app from the Apple or Google stores or printed. They also can be retrieved at epass.ny.gov. You also will need to present photo ID that shows your name and birth date. 

For those who remain uncomfortable in groups, or otherwise are unable to attend or can’t get tickets because of the reduced capacity, one performance of each show will be recorded and streamed online.

“There have been years when 8,000 tickets were sold in the first week of sales opening,” Liberman says. “This year we have just 8,000 tickets available, period. If [the state’s] rules change, we will try to put more seats on sale.”

In The Most Spectacularly…, Martha Washington’s slaves appear to be waiting on her but are instead waiting for her to die so they can be freed. They pass the time messing with her head, playing out a wild series of comic sketches. 

“I’d never read anything like it,” says McCallum, who initially considered adding it to the HVSF repertory in 2019. “It has a huge breadth of imagination, a powerful set of ideas. The audience’s presence and point of view is the place where the drama is focused, and that’s similar to Shakespearean dramaturgy. The tent ‘wants’ a play where the audience is present and a part of the play. 

Playwright James Ijames

Playwright James Ijames

“My favorite Shakespeare plays are those, like Measure for Measure and Cymbeline, where the tone is hard to pin down. The audience has to wake up and participate. Martha is hilarious, but also like a horror movie; the audience has to navigate.”

He adds: “Among many other things, the pandemic has laid bare structural inequity in our society. James’ play speaks to the legacy of slavery in America: How can we go forward without reckoning with what came before? Both plays turn on questions of justice.” 

It will be directed by Taylor Reynolds, who is new to HVSF. “She directed this awesome play called Plano at Clubbed Thumb [theater], which I saw three times,” McCallum says. “When I read James’ play I immediately thought of Taylor.”

On the other hand, The Tempest’s director, Ryan Quinn, knows his way around the tent, having spent nine seasons there as an actor, beginning soon after he received his M.F.A. in acting from Yale. Quinn is the artistic director and a co-founder of Esperance Theater Co.

Ryan Quinn

Ryan Quinn, who will direct “The Tempest” (Photo provided)

Because it is the last season at Boscobel, McCallum says it seems fitting to have many other veterans returning, including Jason O’Connell, Britney Simpson, Zach Fine, Kayla Coleman, Sean McNall (who is also associate artistic director) and Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson.

McCallum says he always chooses the plays in combination with each other. In this case, The Tempest “is in great conversation with James’s play: They’re both about accountability, forgiveness and justice. Also, I think The Tempest is on some level about theater-making. We don’t know if it’s Shakespeare’s final play, but the last line, ‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be / Let your indulgence set me free’ is a fitting way to pay tribute to the 35 years of history we have at Boscobel. It’s only the third time we’ve produced it, and it seemed like a potent metaphor.”

Tickets to both shows are available to HVSF members until May 27, when sales open to the general public. See hvshakespeare.org.

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