Community theater is alive and well in the Hudson Valley. Over the past two months I was able to attend productions by three local companies in Wappingers Falls, Ghent, and Rhinebeck. The local companies take obvious pride in their craft and rightfully so. All three shows were ably produced and acted in attractive and comfortable settings.
The County Players, based in Wappingers Falls, began in 1958 and are still going strong. In 1977 the group acquired the Academy Theatre in Wappingers Falls, which it renovated and renamed The County Players Falls Theatre. The theatre seats 400, with 18 spaces reserved for wheelchair patrons. The County Players’ season runs September thru May, this year with four productions. Productions run for three consecutive weekends in September, November, February, and May. This year’s February show was Amadeus. Never before having seen Amadeus on the stage but having seen the 1984 film I was curious about how it would be staged. I learned that the stage play relies on the talent of the actor portraying Salieri, and in this case the actor Rick Meyer met the challenge. Really, everyone was good, the sets spartan but satisfying, and lighting and sound excellent – actors had mics, music excerpts were clear. Tickets were $17 online, with a 10% surcharge. The theatre has no parking lot, so patrons have to find parking on village streets and a nearby municipal lot.
One county to the north, the Columbia Civic Players formed in 1974. For its first thirteen years the group had no fixed performance venue, and staged productions wherever space could be found, in restaurants, churches, and school auditoriums. All that changed in 1987 when the group leased the former Ghent town hall, renamed it the Ghent Playhouse, and began converting the space into a community theater. The first show in the new space was Carnival, which opened in January 1989. In 2001 the group was able to buy the building outright and began an extensive refurbishment. The theatre now seats 105, with two spaces reserved for wheelchair patrons, and offers modern bathrooms, dressing rooms, areas for set construction and costume storage, and upgraded lighting and sound systems. That same year, 2001, the group changed its name to Ghent Playhouse, Inc.
Similar to The County Players, Ghent Playhouse’s season runs fall through spring, beginning in October and ending in early June. Each year’s program includes five shows, with each show running over three consecutive weekends, in October, November-December, January-February, March-April, and May-June. The show that I saw recently is titled Mothers and Sons, written by Terrence McNally and having opened on Broadway in 2014. All of the action takes place in a single set, with just four actors, over the course of about 90 minutes with no intermission. Viewers were rewarded with a deft handling of a play containing challenging themes and leaving the actors nowhere to hide. Tickets were $20, with an 8% surcharge. Parking is available in a lot across the road from the theatre.
The CENTER for Performing Arts in Rhinebeck boasts a large, barn-like building, the construction of which was begun in October 1997 and finished in time for its opening in July 1998. For four years leading up to that a tent on the same site had served as a venue for summer theatre. Year-round operations began in April 1999, and have continued since, with the building being open 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with just a few holiday exceptions. The CENTER hosts mainstage productions by its own theatrical company, CENTERstage Productions, as well as by the community-based Rhinebeck Theatre Society, and produces shows aimed at school age audiences as part of its theater workshop program involving young actors. Traveling theater companies are also welcome.
The current production at the time of this writing is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a Tom Stoppard play first performed in 1966. The play centers on the thoughts and actions of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, showing their bewilderment at and attempts to find reason in the events that are going on around them and that they do not understand. The play is described as “absurdist”, “existential”, and “comical”. I won’t attempt to describe it further, other than to say that it seems a pretty ambitious project for community theatre. At almost three hours (with two intermissions) the play is long by community theatre standards, characters periodically embark on extended, abstraction-laced monologues, and the audience needs to at least be on speaking terms with Shakespeare’s original work. Fortunately the Rhinebeck Theatre Society, founded in 1986, can rely on its more than 30 years of experience to field actors up to the challenge, the set design is inventive and effective, and the bowl-like theatre construction makes every seat in the house feel close to the action and provides perfect sight lines. Microphones for the actors aren’t needed, though devices to assist the hearing-impaired are available.
The next two scheduled shows, The Taming of the Shrew and Kiss Me Kate, will be put on by the CENTER’s own company, CENTERstage Productions. The Taming of the Shrew will run April 21-30, and Kiss Me Kate will run May 5-21.
The CENTER theatre seats 152, with numerous spaces available for wheelchair patrons, and offers onsite parking. Tickets cost $20 at the door, or $23 online with a $3 service fee.