‘This wide and universal theater’

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare observes in “As You Like It,” “and all the men and women merely players.” 

But Davis McCallum — artistic director of the Drama League-nominated Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, which will be presenting “As You Like It” this season, June 7-Sept. 5 — would also refer you to the lines that precede this oft-quoted passage: “This wide and universal theater presents more woeful pageants than the scene wherein we play in.”

The world as theater:   It’s a protean metaphor. We speak of the “theater of operations” in wartime, or of “staging” a fundraiser. The novelist and boxing enthusiast Joyce Carol Oates called the sport “America’s tragic theater.”

But the universality of the theater lies not only in the richness of its metaphoric quality — greatly enhanced by Shakespeare, who died 400 years ago. Its global aspect is quite literal. To be in the theater — which began in ancient Greece as a form of ritual that did not require spectator participation — is to take your act on the road. (Indeed, the production for which HVSF received a 2016 Drama League nomination, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” was actually a co-production with The Pearl Theater Co. that ran in Garrison and Manhattan.)

In his PBS series “In Search of Shakespeare” and its companion book (Perseus Books Group), filmmaker Michael Wood suggests that the Bard’s “lost years” between his early life in Stratford-upon-Avon and his arrival in London (the 1580s) may have been spent in an itinerant troupe called the Queen’s Men that traveled as far as Scotland and Ireland at the dawn of professional theater.

In London, Shakespeare became part of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company for which he would write for most of his career and which performed at The Theatre in the rough trade district of Shoreditch. Landlord troubles ensued, ultimately spurring the group to found its own theater in an area close to the bear pit, the bull baiting and other “entertainments” of the day. It was 1599 — the turn of a new century, midway in Shakespeare’s career — and he was in a state of heightened creativity, preparing a comedy (“As You Like It”), two history plays (“Henry V” and “Julius Caesar”) and the work that many consider his greatest, “Hamlet,” a tragedy that is a particularly profound exploration of the relationship between the world and the theater, containing as it does a traveling troupe; a play within a play; and a set of characters who seem to be acting their lives, none more so than the complex hero, who is caught between the theatricality of events and their crushing reality.

“Hamlet,” however, is hardly the only Shakespearean work with theatrical allusions. Some of the plays have well-known prologues and epilogues that frame their theatricality (“Henry V,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Tempest”). Others consider the theatrical nature of life. In “Macbeth” — which HVSF will present this season in a provocative, all-female production — the Scots general despairs over the passing of his once steely wife, who has cracked under the weight of their murderous ambition:  “Out, out, brief candle. Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more….”

These and other works would be presented at the new home of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men — the Globe Theatre.

“It’s not for nothing that it was called the Globe,” HVSF’s McCallum says, “a through passage to the known world and the world as yet unknown.”

The 3,000-seat Globe was a 12-sided, timbered space, he says, possibly decorated with the signs of the zodiac. There was a trap door, a musician’s balcony, and different levels of seating, rising from the hoi polloi to the hoity-toity.  This was theater in the round — a not insignificant fact, he adds, for it not only created a greater intimacy between the players and an audience munching hazelnuts (the peanuts and Cracker Jacks of the day) but it afforded everyone an opportunity to see and be seen, a modern concept.

“The Globe was the people’s theater,” says Shirley Kaplan, co-founder of the Obie Award-winning The Paper Bag Players, who taught for more than 40 years at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers.

McCallum sees the circular tent at Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, where HVSF performs, as the spiritual heir to the Globe, destroyed in 1613 by a fire resulting from a cannon accident during “Henry VIII.” The theater was rebuilt in 1614, closed due to Puritan pressure in 1642 and demolished two years later. In 1997, it was recreated as the 1,400-seat Shakespeare’s Globe, founded by actor-director Sam Wanamaker some 750 feet from the original site.

“There is something magical about walking past this reimagining of the open-air theater built in 1599 and seeing an actor costumed as Julius Caesar waiting outside the auditorium to make his entrance,” says James Sherwood, author of the new “James Sherwood’s Discriminating Guide to London.” (See story on Page 40.) “Having the opportunity to experience Elizabethan and Jacobean drama as it was performed is a thrill, though I do prefer a seat with a cushion in the gallery rather than standing room in the pit.”

These days, of course, you don’t have to go to the Globe to be at the Globe. The digital age has brought artists and audiences together in ways that would’ve delighted the Bard. Kaplan mentions “Shank’s Mare,” a puppetry piece about traveling through life that was a collaboration between Tom Lee, a New Yorker by way of South Korea and Hawaii, and Japan’s Koryu Nishikawa V. It was workshopped at Sarah Lawrence before drawing raves last year at La MaMa in Manhattan.

Theater today, she says, “is about giving voice to the historical moment and different cultural groups.”

For more, visit hvshakespeare.org.

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