Monday, September 29, 2008

Shakespeare on the Hudson battles the elements

By John Mason
Hudson Valley Newspapers

It's an unlikely place to see Shakespeare - on a hill overlooking the Hudson River. But it's the place to see some of the most faithful and original productions of the Avon bard going in this part of the world.

And despite climate change and the wrath of Thy, Shakespeare on the Hudson is here for the long haul, according to its founder Owen Lipstein. He converted the theater to not-for-profit status, so he can seek financial assistance, and wants to add a school. And he recently bought the venerable restaurant, bar and B&B Stewart House, on the waterfront, which he plans to open Sept. 1.

He hopes people will go back and forth between the restaurant and the theater.

But until that time, the company's production of "Macbeth" is getting raves from its audiences. After watching a performance, Arthur Matera, the prominent costumer from Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera, came at Lipstein, pointing his finger and saying, "Do you know what you did?" Lipstein backed off, sure he was in for some heavy criticism. But Matera called the production "truly great."

"I've seen countless productions of 'Macbeth' in my life, all over the world - it's my favorite play," Matera said later, "but the one I saw at Shakespeare on the Hudson this season was far and away the best of them. Emotionally I found myself reacting anew to lines I'd heard a hundred times before. It is not only that the cast. and Brian Turnbaugh in particular as Macbeth, are superb, it is that Lipstein conveyed and communicated the play's most profound meanings in a tour de force of imagination, style and daring. Thank you. Director Lipstein. Your 'Macbeth' has brought me to "the top of my life."

Now through the end of August, "Macbeth" is playing Thursdays through Sundays at 8p.m. The setting is Depression-era, post-flapper Montgomery, Ala.

According to Director Lipstein, "It was a time when ill omen lurked throughout the world. It was a time of the purges of Stalin and the rise of Hitler. Many people in those days believed that evil was destined to overcome good - soon, and everywhere. That gloomy period matches perfectly the atmosphere Shakespeare created in his arresting and shocking play.

"From my point of view," he said, "the people that carry the day are not Malcolm and his friends, but the witches. Macbeth was their work. He did what they wanted him to do." So far, this has been a hard summer for the thespians, with about 70 percent of the performances rained out, Lipstein said. Next year he plans to add a tent covering.

"I'm a grown man," he said. "I don't think I should cry anymore."

A former magazine entrepreneur who has been editor-in-chief of "Psychology Today," "Mother Earth News," and "Spy" and founded "American Health," Lipstein moved to Athens in 1997 and shortly after decided to start a Shakespearean theater.

"I was sitting here a few years ago," he said, "and I thought about Shakespeare pre- the building of the Globe Theater. Shakespeare built his own theater by a river - why couldn't I? I went and told several friends who told me I was crazy, so I proceeded in haste. Seeking approval or counsel in beginnings is not something I encourage people to do."

He decided to build the theater on an incline on his Catskill property slipping down to the Hudson and forming a natural amphitheater.

That year, an Albany acting troupe performed "Twelfth Night" for six nights on a rustic stage by the river. Veteran director Greenleaf joined forces with Lipslein the following year, the stage, seating and grounds were improved, and the Albany troupe performed "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The following year, 1999, Lipstein and Greenleaf not only, improved the sound and lighting systems, but they also decided to find their own independent actors and stage the plays themselves.

Lipstein directed "The Tempest" and Greenleaf "A Comedy of Errors." That was also the first year they put the plays in more modern settings.

"Much Ado About Nothing." which played this summer through July, offered an entertaining variant on the setting by taking it out of Italy and placing it in Messina, Texas, in 1885. But it stuck to the original text surprisingly well. Most of the cast made the drawls or Spanish accents seem natural to the play's effects and meanings.

In particular, John Arthur Lewis made Benedick's character seem to be made for a bragging, tall-tale-telling, woman-avoiding, grass-chewing Texas Ranger. Brian Turnbaugh did an excellent job making Don Pedro both sympathetic and gullible, and James Engel's Dogberry was very funny in his spoof of authority without knowledge.

Sarah Dandridge's Beatrice was sly, spunky and spirited, but her lack of any accent was puzzling. Some of the Spanish accents worked better than others, and the disparity was a little distracting. The great comic scenes of the play, such as the verbal sparring between Beatrice and Benedick and the scene in which Benedick eavesdrops on his three friends as they plant the seed of Beatrice's love for him in his brain, were hilarious.

Directed by John Greenleaf, the play revealed a troupe willing to take some chances with setting and delivery in order to reveal the story in a new light, but who remained faithful to Shakespeare's words and worked remarkably well as an ensemble to bring them to life. Next year. Lipstein and company are considering doing "Henry V," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and, for a change of pace, "Camelot."

"This is what I do now." Lipstein said. "This is about the Hudson River and how beautiful it is, how extraordinarily lucky we are to live here."