Rejoice, pilgrim! Summer theater is returning to the Hudson Valley after two years of virus avoidance. Guided by the policies of Actors Equity, Shadowland Stages in Ellenville has announced that neither masks nor proof of vaccination will be required of attendees this summer and fall – except that one performance of each of the 2022 season’s six shows will be reserved for people who need extra precautions for being immunocompromised or having a child too young to be vaccinated at home. “This year we feel like we’re back,” says managing director Elena Holy.
Shadowland put on a limited season in the late summer and autumn of 2021, notably including the inaugural show at the Studio, a black-box performance space at 14 Market Street, around the block from the MainStage at 157 Canal Street. That production – a two-woman play by Eleanor Burgess titled The Niceties – should’ve been a bigger deal, publicity-wise, considering that renovations of the former Richie’s Hardware store to create this flexible new space had been under way since 2017. The Studio has already been used for several years for rehearsals, and to host acting classes for children and adults under the aegis of the Academy. But the lingering spectre of Covid-19 meant that the launch of the studio as a public stage would have to be low-key.
This year’s loosening of social-distancing protocols will allow for a more festive introduction of the new performance space. It’s easy to see the possibilities that the Studio presents. Though telescoping risers are built into one side of the 5300-square-foot space, the rest of the seating is entirely modular, allowing a variety of different configurations.
The Niceties, for example, was presented in the round. Up to 130 audience members can be seated in the black box, depending on how the seats are arranged. There’s a green room and a utility room with a shower. One wall of the black box sports a big barn door that can be opened to let the sunshine spill in, making it an appealing space for special events. “It’s transformative,” Holy says enthusiastically.
Some renovations were made in the main building during the pandemic shutdown as well, but they were largely invisible, according to artistic director Brendan Burke — stuff like a new sprinkler system and HVAC system updates to improve ventilation at a time when audiences worry more about what sort of air they’re breathing in enclosed public spaces. Otherwise, the MainStage and lobby still exude their familiar vaudeville-era charm.
The 186-seat Art-Deco theater is justly celebrated for its excellent sightlines and acoustics. Its wide but shallow, slightly curved dimensions allow even patrons seated in the back row within 35 feet of the stage.
So, what’s in store for Shadowland’s 37th season, besides a second unveiling of the black box? The biggest buzz will undoubtedly surround the world premiere of Safe Home, a play based on three short stories by actor Tom Hanks, co-written for the stage by Hanks and director James Glossman. It was Glossman who orchestrated the US premiere at Shadowland in 2018 of Bang Bang!, John Cleese’s translation/adaptation of a 19th-century French farce by Georges Feydeau, starring Sean Astin. This time around he set his sights on Hanks, after seeing the stage potential of his stories.
Glossman’s adaptation of one of Hanks’ stories first saw light in a virtual reading streamed by Shadowland in 2020, featuring David Strathairn. He then adapted two more, and last summer Shadowland hosted a live reading of all three, again, with Strathairn among the presenters.
“But they were not necessarily unified,” Burke relates. “Then Tom Hanks said he wanted to join on as co-playwright. One story is about time travel, and that became the connective tissue.” The storytelling style is “unique,” Burke says, with the characters speaking in both the third and first persons.
Safe Home by Hanks and Glossman will run from July 15 to August 7 on the MainStage. Says Hanks about this premiere production, “Shadowland Stages is the ideal venue for Safe Home: a safe home for a new play. The possibility to come back to the theater, to the fine hands of the ensemble, is fresh, thrilling and due!”
The Shadowland crew are keeping their fingers crossed for a live appearance from the superstar himself; says Burke, “He’ll be in town.”
Shadowland’s 2022 season kicks off with the regional premiere of Airness by Chelsea Marcantel, also on the MainStage, running from June 3 to 19. Burke, who’s directing this show, explains that “airness” is one of the qualities on which contestants are scored in air guitar competitions – the subject of this play. Yes, there’s such a thing as competitive air guitar, and “They take it really seriously,” Burke says, describing the subculture as “WWF meets rock ’n’ roll.” To promote the show, Shadowland ran a fake social-media post on April Fool’s Day advertising air guitar strings and picks among its merch sales, according to Holy.
Another world premiere, The Crossword Play (or Ezmeranda’s Gift) by Donna Hoke, will relaunch the Studio, running from June 24 to July 10. The audience is invited to join an expert at a crossword puzzle-making workshop, where she guides us through the creation of a brand-new puzzle, this one aimed at rekindling an old flame. Will her words woo him back? Or leave her puzzled about the past?
From August 12 to September 11, Shadowland will carry on its long tradition of one music-themed show per season with Almost Heaven: Songs of John Denver. Conceived by Harold Thau and featuring songs by John Denver and others, with orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Jeff Waxman, Almost Heaven is a musical tribute and intimate celebration of the late singer/songwriter’s life and career, told through numerous hits such as “Rocky Mountain High,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Annie’s Song” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” It will be performed on the MainStage.
This year’s second show in the Studio is also the work of a celebrity more widely known as an actor than as a playwright. Danai Gurira played two famously feisty females in fantasy franchises: Michonne in eight seasons of The Walking Dead and Black Panther’s elite bodyguard Okoye in the Marvel cinematic universe. But Gurira is also the award-winning author of several plays, including an Obie, an Outer Critics’ Circle Award, a Helen Hayes Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination for In the Continuum and a Tony nomination for Eclipsed.
In the Continuum by Gurira and Nikkole Salter, directed by Jammie Patton (who directed The Niceties in the Studio last year), will run from September 16 to October 2. In this play dramatizing the devastating impact of AIDS on African and African-American women, two young women living worlds apart in South Central Los Angeles and Harare, Zimbabwe experience a kaleidoscopic weekend of darkly comic, life-altering revelations.
The summer/fall season at Shadowland ends with The Lifespan of a Fact by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell, based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Running from October 7 to 23 on the MainStage, this pointed comedy follows Fingal, a fresh-out-of-Harvard fact-checker for a sinking, once-heralded literary magazine. His editor assigns him to check an article by a prominent literary powerhouse, secretly hoping to change the magazine’s fate. Hard facts battle emotional truths in this high-stakes showdown based on actual events.
Shadowland Stages also plans to mount a holiday show, title and theme yet to be announced, on the MainStage from December 2 to 18. Stay tuned for updates. Prices for single tickets to shows at Shadowland range from $34 to $42, and full-season subscription packages are also available. They can be purchased online at https://shadowlandstages.org or by calling 647-5511.
Isn’t it high time to come on out and see a live show? As Elena Holy puts it, “It’s going to feel like a cork coming out of a champagne bottle!”