When Franco Zeffirelli’s film Romeo and Juliet hit the big screen in 1968, it became a popular sensation largely based on the fact that the star-crossed lovers were portrayed by actors close in age to Shakespeare’s characters. Leonard Whiting was 17 and Olivia Hussey 15 – at the time, the youngest ever to play those parts in a movie. Audiences of the day were used to much older, established thespians being cast as the young protagonists, on the assumption that teenagers simply lacked the experience to be convincing in the lead roles. Although neither Hussey nor Whiting went on to a stellar acting career afterwards, Zeffirelli’s gamble paid off: His Romeo and Juliet was a huge hit, especially with Shakespeare novices, and is still remembered by many as the “definitive” screen version.
Younger actors being chosen for those roles are no longer such an unusual phenomenon; if anything, dubious eyebrows are raised when 30-somethings still portray the scions of House Montague and House Capulet. Who would have the audacity nowadays to envision a couple of 60ish stage veterans as 13-year-old Juliet and 16-year-old Romeo? Why, the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival (HVSF), that’s who. Yesterday’s tired old custom has become today’s cutting edge.
As you may already know, HVSF has moved on this season from Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, its home since 1988, to a newly donated site about four miles away in Philipstown, on the grounds of the former Garrison Golf Course (https://hudsonvalleyone.com/2022/07/03/the-greenest-theater-in-america). Just as the appropriate choice for its last hurrah at Boscobel was The Tempest, William Shakespeare’s farewell to his own career as a playwright and impresario, so too does it make perfect sense to launch the new site with Romeo and Juliet. For many, it was our first introduction to Shakespeare, an assigned text in our ninth-grade curriculum. Though tragic, the tale is accessible and relatable – a splendid gateway drug to a lifelong addiction to the verbal music of the Bard of Avon.
The choice of Romeo and Juliet as an inaugural production requires no further explanation. But why cast two older actors? That one’s a no-brainer as well, for those who’ve been following HVSF for a long time. The versatile and talented Kurt Rhoads and Nance Williamson have been the core of the ever-morphing troupe from the beginning, playing roles big and small – often multiple parts in the same play, changing genders as needed. They’re up for anything, and the idea that there’s a role that either of them can’t play by now seems absurd. Why not assail the challenge of portraying someone half a century younger? Plus, they’ve been married to each other for 38 years; the love-at-first-sight won’t need to be faked.
Still skeptical about “age-blind” casting? Don’t be. Having seen the show, directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, Hudson Valley One can report that this production is an utter delight, unencumbered by modernist irony or cynicism or deconstruction. Both Rhoads and Williamson are convincing, right on down to Juliet’s girlish giggle as she references “any other part / Belonging to a man.” The rest of the ensemble – which includes some reliable HVSF regulars along with some promising newcomers – shines as well.
The casting of zany, mercurial Mercutio is always a key point of interest, since he gets most of the best lines in the play. Luis Quintero, whose portrayal of the amiable-but-not-too-bright Christian in HVSF’s 2019 production of Cyrano we admired, proves himself well up to the task, especially in his animated rendition of the Queen Mab speech. Another audience-favorite character is Juliet’s Nurse (a part that Nance Williamson herself has played in the past). In her first HVSF appearance, Lauren Karaman does not disappoint in her portrayal of a young girl’s sympathetic enabler and confidante who messes up in the clutch. Another newbie, Roman Alec Trevino, shows noticeable spark in the tiny roles of Potpan, Apothecary and Page. Kimberly Chatterjee, a five-time HVSF regular, supplies the needed compassion and gravitas as a gender-swapped Friar Laurence.
We can also report satisfaction with the new location, despite the fact that the temporary site for HVSF’s migrated theater tent offers a view of a near hillside instead of a panorama of the Hudson Highlands. That panorama will come, along with a newly designed tent, once all the Philipstown permitting issues have been ironed out. Meanwhile, it’s a very nice hillside, featuring a solitary old tree of magnificent height, girth of trunk and span of crown; the lighting crew was able to use the setting to create some magical effects.
You can still enjoy the view of Breakneck Ridge and Storm King from grassy picnic spots a short walk to the west, where the permanent tent will be erected in 2023 or 2024. The current tent site has the bonus of being right next door to the Valley Restaurant and World’s End Bar, where an outdoor café has been set up on a lovely stone patio for the convenience of the theater crowd.
Among the many other advantages of HVSF’s new home is the fact that the troupe no longer has to vacate it after Labor Day. And so, there’s still time to catch a performance before the season winds up on September 18. Remaining dates for Romeo and Juliet are September 7, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18 at 7:30, with matinées on September 11 and 14. (Matinée performances are a brand-new thing this year.) Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn, directed by Davis McCallum, will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on August 31, September 8, 10, 12, 15 and 17.
Ticket prices for both shows range from $10 to $95. To order, or to find out more, visit https://hvshakespeare.org. HVSF’s new site, a/k/a The Garrison, is located at 2015 Route 9 in Philipstown, at the intersection of Snake Hill Road.