Great plays done right in the Adirondacks

Tara Bradway and Patrick Siler act out a romantic scene while giving a synopsis of true love in William Shakespeare’s plays during First Night Saranac Lake on Dec. 31, 2014 at the Saranac Lake Free Library. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

Traveling theater troupes are still alive and well. The Adirondack Shakespeare Company drives the backroads of northern New York to perform in small hamlets such as Upper Jay and North Creek, as well as somewhat larger venues in Saranac Lake and Saratoga Springs. They carry no sets and few costumes. They seem just as easy performing in a park, an open room or a formal theater. Like a band of musicians, they learn their parts on their own, rehearse together ever so briefly, show up for the gig, spill their hearts on the bare boards and move on.

This “in the raw” style strips the play down to its core: characters, plot, emotion and words — spoken with the skill of making sure everyone understands them, even if they’re 400 years old, and an urgency to bring the story to life.

I’ve been watching and admiring the Adirondack Shakespeare Company for several years now, starting with a series of short sets husband-wife founders Patrick Siler and Tara Bradway did at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. Each session explained a different aspect of William Shakespeare’s works: one on romance, one on villains and one on histories. In each, the couple bantered in modern English while acting out various scenes. It was an excellent introduction for my older daughter, who was then in middle school.

Now in high school, that same daughter went by herself Friday night (no one else in our family was free) to see Adirondack Shakespeare Co. perform “Macbeth” at Pendragon Theatre in Saranac Lake. The next night, she and I drove down to the Recovery Lounge in Upper Jay to see those same actors do “Cymbeline,” a lesser-known play rarely performed these days, set in ancient Britain.

My daughters are big readers — they come by that honestly — but even so, it takes good acting for a teenager to follow, understand and appreciate rich Renaissance dialogue delivered at full speed — especially in a play as talky as “Cymbeline.” Yet this was great acting, bringing out the passion and humor in each character’s distinctive lines.

Knowing nothing about “Cymbeline” going in, I learned it’s full of sex and violence — as well as true love, an imprisoned princess, kidnapped princes, a bullying suitor, a murderous conspiracy, a dangerous bet, a servant torn between three masters, gender-bending disguises, noble but savage woodsmen, poison, a beheading, war, ghosts and even a cameo by the Roman god Jupiter, riding on an eagle. It’s as if Shakespeare tried to pack his whole bag of tricks into one play. He really could’ve used an editor, but nevertheless, it’s very lively. Performed by actors who love it for what it is and give it their all, it was loads of fun.

I’m no expert on Shakespeare, but I know him fairly well. My Catholic high school in Montgomery, Alabama, left a lot to be desired, culturally — there was no music and almost no art — but it did have drama and was pretty strong in literature. My favorite teacher was a Shakespeare super-fan, and we read nine of his plays in her classes. Plus, in her side job, she was house manager of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, a beautiful professional theater given to the city by a wealthy local businessman. Any time I wanted to see a performance, I could do it for free if I worked as an usher, handing out programs at the door.

In college I took another Shakespeare class and got to see and be in some great productions of his plays. My brother took it further; he’s now a college English professor like our dad and even teaches Shakespeare classes.

All told, I’ve seen enough to recognize that Adirondack Shakespeare Company does it right. For tiny rural towns like ours to be able to host this caliber of performance is a fantastic opportunity. Check them out the next time they come through town.

Bradway and Siler, based in Schroon Lake, are the company’s core; the rest of the actors are paid professionals, auditioned every year in New York City. While the “Cymbeline” run is over, you can still catch “Macbeth” this weekend if you’re willing to jump in a car and drive to North Creek or Saratoga Springs. (See for details.)

They also perform in the Tri-Lakes area every year, including free shows in parks. This summer they’ll do “All’s Well That Ends Well,” “The Winter’s Tale” and an original production for children, “Thor.” In the fall, they’ll do their annual “Hamlet” as well as “Love’s Labour’s Lost” and, for elementary schoolers, “Songs of the Iroquois: The Great Bear.” Bradway and Siler have also performed their intro-to-Shakespeare sets at First Night Saranac Lake and may well do so on some future New Year’s Eve.

This area has a long, illustrious theater tradition that’s as vibrant now as it ever was. After praising other local groups and troupes on these pages, it seemed Adirondack Shakespeare Company was due for a shout-out.