Showing posts with label Boscobel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Boscobel. Show all posts

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Whirlwind Theatre Week

From classic farce, to Shakespearean comedy, to a tragic love story, from the Westport Country Playhouse, to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on the grounds of Boscobel, to the Imperial Theatre in NYC, it has been a whirlwind week of theatre, the commonality being relationships of men and women and some of the most glorious acting and staging we’ve ever seen in such a concentrated time period.

Last week we saw A Flea in Her Ear, a new version of Georges Feydeau’s classic early 20th century farce at the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve been going for some 40 years now.  Although the old playhouse has been renovated, it still retains its old time charm as their collection of playbills of yesteryear attest, such as this one which featured Tyrone Power.

And, under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos who also directed this particular production, the old WCP is in good hands.  Its new doorways beckon its patrons.

A Flea in Her Ear is such an ambitious, interesting selection, made possible by a co-production with the Resident Ensemble Players from the University of Delaware, 14 actors in perfect harmony, choreographed with such precision, that the laughter was non-stop.  It’s been a long time since I laughed so hard at a show which, at its heart, is nothing more than intended to do just that.

The acting made it something special.  How often have you been at a three act play with two intermissions, which seemed to pass in a flash?  Michael Gotch played an unforgettable Don Carlos de Histangua and whenever he was on stage, laughter was uncontrollable.  That does not mean to distract from any of the other players, all pros at the top of their game, as was the technical staff of the Westport Country Playhouse.  We’re so grateful for our summer visits to Connecticut, and to our old home town of Westport which continues to keep this jewel of a theatre in mint condition.

Three days later we went up to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel in Garrison, NY.  This is outdoor theatre is in a large, well appointed tent, a sand floor for a stage and some of the most breathtaking views.  Before the show begins, the grounds make an ideal setting for a picnic.  As the production begins, the sun fades to twilight setting just to the right of West Point on the other side of the Hudson in the distance.  In fact the players emerge over the lawn and some of the action takes place there, although the play proceeds in the tent.

From farce to comedy. The Taming of the Shrew must be close to the way the bard intended except for all the modern references, including even some music of the Village People.  Once again theatre magic emerges from some clever choreography and a group of ensemble players who are deeply immersed in Shakespeare’s intent.

These are not easy tickets to get.  Plan in advance.  In fact, Ann and I could not get good seats together but fortunately the people sitting in back of me saw us chatting and as Ann went to her seat, they offered us the two front row seats as their friends had booked them and last minute had to cancel out.  But as the show began we learned why they preferred the second row, as the actors frequently interact with those in the front row, so it was not unusual for one to sit next to Ann, take her bottle of water, look through her program, even commenting on it, all in fun of course and it just added to the immeasurable pleasure of seeing Shakespeare performed in this setting.

Liz Wisan played Kate with a fiery demeanor, but Biko Eisen-Martin who played Petruchio, usually in torn jeans and an undershirt, had the cunning and patience to wear her down.  Comedy is different from farce, the latter designed for belly laughs while Taming’s  comedic elements brought out some of  Shakespeare ‘s  more serious observations  regarding male - female relations of his times (the “Me Too” movement might not wholeheartedly approve of Kate’s final relenting to her taskmaster’s Pavlovian training, but all is in fun).

Like the Westport Country Playhouse’s presentation, this show is performed by a talented ensemble that performs four other plays in rotating repertory.  Everyone in the cast is perfectly fitted into the director’s take on the show.  It was more than theatre; it is an experience when performed in the open air, in a tent, after an early evening picnic.

Last year we were part of the picnic festivities, but we’re getting a little too old to spread out a blanket or to cart chairs so we had an early evening dinner at the nearby the Bird and Bottle, an inn which has operated since 1751 and used to be a stage coach stop between New York and Albany.  The food and ambiance were special.

But the highlight of “our theatre week” was going into New York City yesterday to the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.  As soon as we heard of the serendipity that it was going to be performed while we would be in the area we booked tickets, front row, as we did not want to miss a word or even a mannerism of the performers.  It is the kind of show that one only wants to see on a Broadway stage, although there have been good scaled down or concert versions. 

It’s hard to say that one has a “favorite” R&H show, sort of like saying of your children, one is the favorite.  But when I play their music on the piano, I seem to gravitate to Carousel or The King and I, although South Pacific and Oklahoma are in the mix too.  Maybe my preference for Carousel is partially because it takes place in New England, or the “Carousel Waltz”, a rousing piece of musical composition, or the incredible comic/moving piece, “Mr. Snow.”  All the songs fit perfectly in the book but the one weak song, and I think it is simply our times, verses when the musical was written, is the (now) somewhat schmaltzy “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which unfortunately, is the emotional finale. Still, it works.

“Soliloquy” which concludes the first act is perhaps the longest solo in all Broadway repertoires, one I’m constantly seeking out for piano time.  Joshua Henry, who plays the wayward Billy Bigelow in this production and sings his parts with powerful gusto, performs this song a little too quickly.  I simply feel it needs to be finessed in all its normally allocated time.  Perhaps this is his take or Jack O’Brien’s direction, I don’t know, but I missed the pauses, or even the phrasing which some have brought to the song, including Frank Sinatra, who’s voice cannot hold a candle to Henry’s, but he knew how to sell the emotional content.

There.  The end of picky criticism as one has to judge a performance of Carousel by its gestalt.  The orchestration is per Richard Rogers’ intent by Jonathan Tunick and a 30 piece orchestra under the solid Musical Supervision of David Chase brings out the highs and the lows.  The singing is splendid, the voices soaring, and how could they not with Renee Fleming among the leads?

I’ve heard some criticism that the dance portions of the play were not the Agnes de Mille’s original.  Given what Justin Peck accomplished with his award-winning choreography, transparent and perfect, it is hard to accept that criticism.  After all, every artist has his/her take.  Look at the liberties the Hudson Valley players took with Shakespeare, only to arrive at the same destination.  Maybe I’m  not being impartial as Peck once worked with the Miami City Ballet and one of the performers in the Carousel ensemble is Leigh-Ann Esty who Ann actually watched “grow up” in the Miami City Ballet over the last decade.  Ann adored watching her every move and avidly enjoyed her perform in one of the greatest musicals of all time on the Broadway stage.

An outstanding cast, a classic musical, a full orchestra, and many of the best technical people in the business, make this production so memorable, even if I have to leave the theatre humming “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” after wiping away the requisite tears.

So after meeting our son, Jonathan, and his fiancĂ©e, Tracie (the BIG event in only two plus weeks), for a dinner adjacent to Bryant Park, we scurried back to Grand Central and from there to our boat, our home away from home.  This morning my daily walk took me to Shorefront Park and the placid water of the Norwalk Harbor to reflect on the wonderful theatre of the past week and to think of writing this entry.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Time Machine to the 19th Century

We boarded our Ford rental and dialed the year mechanism back in time.  We fortuitously landed in the early 19th century when Jane Austen was publishing her iconic books to find ourselves in picturesque Garrison, New York overlooking the Hudson Heights where Kate Hamill’s adaptation of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was being performed as part of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.  The journey back in time took us through the verdant hills of Connecticut and then New York, arriving at our hotel for an overnight stay only to realize we forgot something important: we were supposed to pack our folding chairs for the atmospheric picnic on the sprawling lawn which everyone enjoys before the evening performance as well as for a talk by the author herself, Kate Hamill, who also stars as the irresistible Lizzy in the play.  What to do?  Wal-Mart to the rescue!  So we dialed back to 2017 and a nearby Wal-Mart super store where we found two inexpensive folding chairs.  What a way to start a time journey. 

Back to the early 19th century we strolled from the parking lot of the Boscobel House and Gardens, through a rose garden no less, where a Shakespearean tent and stage has been erected for the summer.  We found a perfect little table for our dinner, Ann with her requisite Cabernet, with dainty chairs already provided.  Who knew?   So, we ate and enjoyed watching others set up blankets and chairs on the lawn for their own feasts.

Meanwhile a table (and more chairs!) was set up for a rare and sparkling interview with Kate Hamill who we learned is now in the process of creating adaptations of all of Jane Austen’s works, Ann having already loved her first inventive endeavor, Sense and Sensibility at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre in Washington last year.  Hamill comes to authorship via way of the stage and she is a damn good actress, saving the centerpiece role of Lizzy for herself of course (why not, she’s the boss, and she fits and acts the part perfectly!). Hamill is to the left in the photo below.

After her talk and some time for the picnickers to finish while the sun was setting to the west of West Point which can be seen in the distance, we went to the tent to find our seats and enjoy the show.  I’m not writing a full blown review.  Hamill has chosen farce as the ideal vehicle to present the work, has appropriately “killed off” Kitty who is really superfluous to a dramatized version, and has several male members playing two or more roles, including some of the female roles.  The characters are now almost caricatures.  We’re talking belly laughs at times, a riotous, imaginative adaptation, but one which left us feeling it was somewhat irreverent.  But that is merely a personal opinion, preferring a more straight forward dramatization.  Of course we have enjoyed it many times on film and only once on stage in London, so Hamill’s production was certainly different.  The acting and directing was what you would expect from experienced Shakespearean actors.  So, all in all, it was a wonderful evening.

Afterwards, we set our time clock back to the 21st century and drove to our hotel on the winding dark roads.  In the morning, we were really looking forward to visiting the real star of the weekend, a tour of Boscobel itself.   

After checking out, back to the early 19th century and the magnificent, unique, beautiful Boscobel House.  This home was built in Montrose, NY in 1808 and after being scheduled for complete demolition in the mid 1950s was rescued, piece by piece, by a historical-minded group of locals, including an endowment from The Readers Digest cofounder and was painstakingly moved to its present site in Garrison, some 15 miles away, with a similar view of the Hudson.  No expense was spared over the years to reproduce with precision the way the house looked when its original owner, Morris Dyckman, built it and furnished it between 1804 and 1808, only a few years before Pride and Prejudice was first published.  From the floorings, the furniture to the wallpaper, all recreated either by hand or reproduced down to the most exacting detail.  All perfection.

The home itself, with its views, is breathtakingly elegant, and beautifully maintained with historical exactitude.  One gets a very real sense during the small group tour of what it must have been like to live in those times, albeit as a very wealthy person, Boscobel not being your run-of-the-mill abode.  There was much ingenuity as to how natural light and ventilation are used and simple contrivances to make their lives a little easier.  Alas, no Internet or plumbing or central heating, but much reading, music, card playing, camaraderie, pleasures we of the 21st century survivors club have somewhat left behind. 

There was a astute appreciation of history, architecture and the Federal style furniture which made this home stand out in its unusual neoclassical design.  It is as memorable as our tours of Emily Dickinson’s home, Thomas Jefferson’s, The Biltmore in Asheville and many others we’ve visited over the years, maybe more so because of the meticulousness of how it’s been preserved.  Where original artifacts were not longer extant, they’ve been carefully reproduced.  Absolutely nothing has been ignored in this process.  A mere look at the 200+ year old wind up Grandfather clock, with its original mechanism and still operating, speaks volumes about the care to preserve history.

After the tour we again took in the breathtaking views of the Hudson Heights and West Point, explored the gardens and then went into nearby Cold Spring to have a late lunch at the Hudson House which has been in operation since 1832, only one year before the Collected Works of Jane Austen was first published, some 15 years after her death.  Her works have never gone out of print since.  Naturally, Hudson House is on the Hudson River so we were still well ensconced in the 19th century before dialing 2017 on our Ford time machine, climbing and gliding down the winding, hilly back roads, returning to our interim home at our boat club in Connecticut.