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NY Mansion Hosts Shakespeare Under the Stars - 2003-07-03

Summertime in the New York area heralds many opportunities to enjoy outdoor theater, music, and dance. New Yorkers flock to these lush open-air venues for the chance to soak up some culture and a bit of fresh air.

Eighty kilometers north of New York City, high above the banks of the Hudson River, sits Boscobel, a stately 1800's mansion.

It is late afternoon and people toting baskets of food and drink spread out blankets along the sweeping green lawn. The stretch of land overlooks where the Hudson River cuts through the Appalachian mountain range.

These picnickers have arrived first to take in the beautiful grounds of the restored estate, and then to see a twilight production of William Shakespeare's romantic comedy, All's Well That Ends Well.

For the past 17 summers, the grounds of Boscobel have served as home and backdrop for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival.

Veteran actor Stephen Paul Johnson, who has played roles from Shylock in The Merchant of Venice to Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, says the white tent-theater is a perfect fit for Shakespeare's plays.

"The idea of a festival like this is to reconnect with Shakespeare the way it was originally done, in the open air," he said. "And it is pared down to the essentials; the actors, the text and the audience."

After the sun begins to set, picnickers pack up their baskets and head inside the huge tent where the performance takes place. They sit in a wide semicircle of seats that borders the grass stage floor.

Katie Hartke is a newcomer to the acting troupe of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. She says she has already gained a healthy respect for nature's dominance over theater.

"About a week ago, Saturday night, there was this horrific rainstorm," she said. "It was just pelting down on the tent, and it was so loud and intense, people were just shouting just to get their lines out and heard."

Despite the tempestuous forces of nature, Shakespeare and outdoor theater seem to work well together. Ms. Hartke says that like nature, Shakespeare endures.

"There is something about his writing that is so timeless," she said. "The subjects that he writes about we can understand in a contemporary setting. And you know, people just feel the same things throughout the centuries, love and death and loss and friendship and loyalty. Those ideas are just so timeless."

In fact, says festival founder and artistic director Terry O'Brien, many of Shakespeare's plays deal with the balance of nature against the intellect and that is why a natural setting is so important in today's theatrical experience.

"Like the actors then, our actors perform on the same ground that people sitting in the front row put their feet on, the same ground people use to enter and exit the house," he said. "People come and spend an evening and have a nice meal with friends, in a place in the open air and look out over the water. When they then come into the theater they are available, they are accessible, they are ready to experience anything and they have very few defenses."

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival performs at Boscobel every year during the warm summer months of June, July, and August, and attracts about 25,000 people who travel North from New York City to enjoy Shakespeare under the stars.