The summer of 2020 was supposed to be the silver anniversary of the Bird-on-a-Cliff Theatre Company’s annual Woodstock Shakespeare Festival. David Aston-Reese and Elli Michaels founded the company in 1990 and began putting on Shakespeare shows under the stars at the Comeau Property in 1996. It should’ve been a gala year — but we got a plague year instead.
Undeterred, Aston-Reese and Michaels decided to go forward with one live production in 2020, taking full advantage of the outdoor venue with its authentic Tudor-style stage created by Broadway set-designer Salvatore Tagliarino. While all the indoor theater venues in our region had to shut their doors and confine themselves to streaming videos of past performances, there were only two places to go see a live show locally last summer: the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck, which hastily constructed a temporary outdoor stage and put on several plays for an audience capped at 50 people, and the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival.
“The play last summer was so much fun. People loved it,” Aston-Reese recalls. “We played pre-show music, and people were actually dancing.”
Attendees in 2020 were required to wear masks, with their picnic blankets and beach chairs carefully spaced out by markers on the Comeau lawn as they enjoyed performances of Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor’s three-actor farce, William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play (Abridged). “As they arrived, I would tell them, ‘Go make friends with an orange flag,’” says Michaels.
The premise of Martin and Tichenor’s play was that a hitherto-unknown Shakespeare work had been discovered, like the mortal remains of King Richard III, buried underneath an English car park. It recycled bits and pieces from many of the Bard’s plays, requiring the three local actors — Bill Solley, Lawrence Beeck and Jared Reinmuth — to jump in and out of character and costume at a breakneck pace. It was silly, lighthearted fun, full of deft wordplay that evoked the originals while making Shakespeare easily digestible for modern audiences.
A farce was just the thing for playgoers starving for live entertainment but depressed and shellshocked by COVID. This year, Michaels and Aston-Reese might’ve attempted something slightly more serious, they say, had the pandemic restrictions already been loosening up in the spring. But the phasing-out of social distancing measures still hadn’t reached a predictable level. “In March, we had to make up our minds what we were doing, and we weren’t comfortable with a cast of 12 to 14 people,” Michaels explains.
Since William Shakespeare’s Long-Lost First Play (Abridged) had gone over so well, the pair asked the Reduced Shakespeare Company playwrights what else they had up their puffed sleeves. They discovered that Martin and Tichenor had a freshly completed work in the same vein that hadn’t been officially published yet, titled Hamlet’s Big Adventure! They worked up an agreement to put on the play and engaged the “same three crazies” they used in 2020 to perform it. “The guys like each other. There’s a camaraderie after last year,” says Michaels. “There are no prima donnas; they’re all hard workers.”
The new play doesn’t require quite so many character changes, says Aston-Reese. Its premise — as farcical as last year’s — is Hamlet’s backstory, before the classic we all know so well gets underway. Most of the characters are familiar, but Ophelia’s mother gets added to the dramatis personae, and several who are already dead when Hamlet, Prince of Denmark begins are still alive.
“The king doesn’t want his son burdened with kingship, so he gets Yorick to teach him how to act,” Aston-Reese explains. “The nunnery needs money, so Hamlet and Ophelia put on a fundraiser.” Not much more than that can be divulged without spoilers, but he speculates whether, if Hamlet is the greatest play ever written, this prequel might then qualify as “the second-greatest play ever written.”
Bird-on-a-Cliff’s advertising tagline for Hamlet’s Big Adventure! is, “If you like Shakespeare, you’ll like this show. If you hate Shakespeare, you’ll love this show!” And if you prefer stage musicals, you’ll be pleased to hear that it features some songs as well.
David Aston-Reese directs. The play will be presented at 5:30 p.m. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday from July 30 to September 5. Cancellations for rain are rare, so come prepared with a poncho, along with your lawn chair or blanket. And do bring a picnic! Some light refreshments will be available for sale on-site, along with a few chairs for rent. There is no formal charge for admission, although a donation of $10 is suggested to help make sure the actors get paid.
The Woodstock Shakespeare Festival Stage is located at 45 Comeau Drive in Woodstock, right next door to the town offices, with ample parking nearby. For more information on the Woodstock Shakespeare Festival, visit www.birdonacliff.org.