Presented at Vanderbilt Mansion August 3 &4, 2019 at 5:30 in the evening
By Wendy Urban-Mead
A Festival of the plays of William Shakespeare adapted and directed by Joe Eriole
There will be some wicked talent on the portico at the Vanderbilt Mansion on August 3 & 4. The actors in this New Deal Creative Arts Center production immediately draw you in and take you by the throat, and often the heart, and keep you on the edge of your seat throughout this unique adaptation. They invite the audience to muse with them as they contemplate acts of murder, adultery, and every kind of betrayal.
The actors’ deep awareness of what they are saying, and why, render the stories accessible regardless of your familiarity with the material. As is always true in performing Shakespeare, when the actors understand the language and really deliver the emotional content, one forgets one is listening to 16thC English. It’s true here, and then some, and the clarity of diction is a pure delight to the listener. From Lady Macbeth to Lavinia, from Brutus to Edgar, the emotional and verbal delivery is vivid, potent, and gorgeous.
Enormous credit is due to the sensitive and supportive directing of Joe Eriole, as well as the commitment and talent of a superior troupe of actors. Hell is Empty: All the Devils Are Here is a seamlessly stitched-together script foregrounding rank villainy from the works of Shakespeare. All words uttered are the Bard’s. Eriole also crafted the script, featuring monologues and interactive scenes from a selection of Shakespeare’s timeless villains to examine the question: what leads someone to commit an evil act? Secondarily, how does the doing of evil affect the person afterward? Though drawing from ten different plays (Henry V, Henry VIII, Hamlet, Othello, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Measure for Measure, Julius Caesar, andMacbeth), Eriole offers a compellingly unified arc from opening to conclusion, resulting in a two-act play exploring the instinct for evil in the human condition, and the impacts of evil on the human spirit.
The meticulously woven script begins with a cleverly constructed introduction of all of the characters we will see over the coming two acts. The result is that we are immediately teased by the knowledge of the characters we will see, but are then left delightfully anticipating their reappearance. Lady Macbeth and Macbeth appear, for example, in the opening rollout, and then not again until they feature prominently in Act Two – in scenes that render transparent Lady Macbeth and her consort’s individual and mutual ambition, opening the door to their tragic descent. Josie Grant (Lady Macbeth) and Harrison Forman (Macbeth) powerfully illustrate the decisive moment when they each cross that line, and its effect on each of them as well as on their relationship. Another innovative device is the use of the Chorus (played to great effect by Michael Juzwack), and the iconic Iago and Hamlet (Tamara Cacchione & Erin Hebert, respectively), here seen “extracted” from the context of their own dramas, and instead as the theme-setting “voices in our heads” which invite us to share in the descent or ascent of the characters.
Audiences familiar with the Bard’s work will also be intrigued by the villains featured as well as those left out. Eriole aims by his choices that our time spent with Shakespeare’s villains give us a sense of the varied slippery and subtle, ways the boundaries of our behavior become blurred. Let us consider one of several story threads rendered in Hell Is Empty: All the Devils Are Here.
We encounter Angelo, the interim ruler of Vienna, from Measure for Measure. Richly brought to life by Melissa Matthews, Angelo shows us an upright if rigid enforcer of justice, self-assured and grounded in the law. He renders himself unrecognizable – to himself – by attempting to extort sexual favors from Isabella, an even more upright and irresistibly appealing young woman. Erin Hebert offers a commanding Isabella who is at once virginal, full of moral clarity, and eloquent. As her brother Claudio notes: “she hath prosperous art/ When she will play with reason and discourse, /And well she can persuade.” An unforgettable scene ensues between Isabella and Claudio, played by Harrison Zraly with quicksilver alertness to his character’s moral danger. The denouement of this episode shows us a broken Angelo, consumed with remorse; a deeply effective contrast to the tragic rash of deaths which follow as the consequences of the other fateful decisions of the characters.
Director Joe Eriole has assembled a company of eighteen actors playing thirty-eight roles, irrespective of gender. They take on the challenge with energy and impressive, nimble effectiveness. For example, Molly Feibel is both a remote, magisterial, and cruel Titus Andronicus, and then moments later re-emerges – with entirely new body language and tone – as the sexually driven and conniving Goneril. Another notable transformation is seen in Joshuah Patriarco who appears in one breath-taking scene as a frightening, manipulative, and truly diabolical Gloucester (Richard III), and then later as a noble and commanding Caesar. Every actor in this production plays more than one role, and it is a credit to the craft of everyone involved that each character is distinct and recognizable without contrived efforts to distinguish them artificially.
One of the threads stitching the piece together is the interwoven presence of Iago (from Othello), as a kind of devil’s muse. Iago is played with disarmingly waifish, yet evil charm by Cacchione, goading the various characters to find and act on their baser motivations. Relative newcomers to the Hudson Valley theatre scene, Michael Wagner, Erin Hebert, Harrison Zraly and Valentino Coniglio, are exciting artists happily featured in this production.
This compelling look into the heart of villainy will be performed at the Vanderbilt Estate house’s west-facing portico. Its location is far from incidental, offering a stunning visual backdrop, enhanced by simple and compelling costuming and set choices. The performance space, delineated by classic columns and arches, lends gravity and beauty to a play that fully inhabits this majestic setting. It is a production of the Hyde-Park-rooted New Deal Creative Arts Center. Its name intentionally calls upon its location in the home town of President F.D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal during the Great Depression included extensive sponsorship of the arts. New Deal Creative Arts was founded by Hyde Park native, Teresa Gasparini, who serves as its Executive Director. Since 2017, she and her creative team have worked to make real an inclusive space for artists and audiences. Their vision has come to life firmly grounded in Hyde Park, forging fruitful partnerships with the Hyde Park Central School district, the Town of Hyde Park, and with the local National Parks Service historic sites.
Hell is Empty; All the Devils Are Here, from the works of William Shakespeare. Adapted and Directed by Joe Eriole. Production photos by Louisa Vilardi. The actors wear stunning jewelry generously loaned by Red Hook artist Dennis Higgins.
Performances are August 3 and 4, at 5:30 PM, at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site, in Hyde Park, NY. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the event or online: newdeal-shakespearefest.eventbrite.com
Wendy Urban-Mead is active in local theater as an actor as well as behind-the-scenes, with credits this year including Assistant Director for the Rhinebeck Theatre Society production of The Secret Garden, playing Verges in the CenterStage production of Much Ado About Nothing, assistant stage manager, dramaturg, and props mistress for The Dresser. Notable previous credits include roles in Ragtime and Les Miserables and in the part of “Stage Manager” in Our Town. She is past president of the Hyde Park Theatre Parents’ Association, and is currently a member of the Staatsburg Library Board. She has also been involved as actor and organizer with the annual St. James Episcopal Church of Hyde Park’s historic graveyard tours. Her day job is as a history professor in the Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program and in the Bard Prison Initiative. She has published numerous articles on the history of Christianity in colonial southern Africa, and is the author of The Gender Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio University Press, 2015.)