Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 23, 2016

Tribes


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA 
barringtonstageco.org 
through September 3, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by Scott Barrow
In search of a voice, in a family with nothing but the loud and argumentative kind, Billy – deaf from birth – stumbles into his first relationship. Sylvia, from a family of two deaf parents, has at least two fluent voices--- her signing voice, and her English language. Billy’s protective family’s usual chaotic interactions draw Sylvia into the kind of discussion that has permeated the worlds of deafness, education, and ‘rehabilitation’ since hearing aids were invented -- can aids and lip reading provide total integration into a hearing world? And if so, why join the Deaf one? Is sign language inferior semantically? Is it better to be hearing than deaf? 

Nina Raine manages to include these themes and more in her passionate comedy about belonging, self-definition, dependence, family and language and its limitations. The family’s dining table is a stage for chaotic arguments, quickly resolved, which reveal both their self-absorption and their love for each other. Noisy, loud, and rarely tender, their voices spin unheard around Billy, and have done so all his life –they are too busy with ego to take the time to face him attentively and include him in their ranting. Through Sylvia and sign language, he finally expresses need, and is able to find not only love but a new tribe. 

Miles G. Jackson is outstanding as Billy’s older brother Daniel, who fears Billy’s independence even while he fights his own demons. The audience gradually becomes aware of how ill he is, feeling his despair, his powerlessness, his loss and fear. But this play is also a comedy, and the bickering of Billy’s family, played by C. David Johnson, Justine Salata and Deirdre Madigan, gives the audience much enjoyment. When Billy’s growing Deaf awareness finally finds expression, Joshua Castille brings the character’s pleas and frustration to passionate, moving fruition. As she journeys into silence, and as music, laughter, and weeping all become just a roaring rush of sound, Eli Pauley as Sylvia, brings tears of empathy for her encroaching loss. 

The playwright blends many comedic moments with this play’s serious themes, and her frequently angry characters reveal the numerous complexities of just being human. It is a brilliant and moving theatre experience. Barrington Stage’s production is beautifully produced, with an intricately detailed set. Music, and its visual representations, enhance scene changes while responding to the theme. Hearing audiences cannot help but be affected by this glimpse at a silent world.

Broadway Bounty Hunter


Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Barrington Stage’s new musical, “Broadway Bounty Hunter” features an extraordinarily talented cast of 12 actor/singer/dancers, and a live band of six versatile musicians on the very intimate St. Germain Stage. Authors Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin, and Jason SweetTooth Williams write in the playbill; “Thanks to every artist who has ever been made to feel less than, not as good as, too black, too white, too weird, too old, too young, too whatever. This one’s for you.”

Photo by Scott Barrow
The incomparable Annie Golden, known to many from her stage and television performances (most recently as the silent Norma in “Orange is the New Black”), plays herself—Annie Golden. As a “woman of a certain age,” Annie is experiencing the prejudice that comes with being past her prime in theatre, and when she can’t pay her bills, she is visited by a frightening group of martial arts-experts headed by Shiro Jin (Scott Watanabe), who convinces her to join them as a bounty hunter. She’s partnered with Lazarus (Alan H. Green), a big, powerful Black Man complete with swagger and a pimp’s outfit, and together they set off to capture Mac Roundtree (Jeff McCarthy), a drug lord.  

The situations are preposterous, and the music and lyrics, also by Joe Iconis, draw from every popular culture genre of the 1970’s. Most obvious are the images from black sexploitation films—themselves notorious for the sketchiest of plots, but we get many more familiar themes, from theatre (especially “Hair,” Ms. Golden’s first Broadway show), and “jukebox” musicals that featured popular music of the day. Throughout the show, Golden’s own experiences and her masterful delivery poke fun at theatre and the acting profession. We can laugh at her predicament, because we sense an optimistic denouement for our heroine. The entire cast is so strong and the characterizations so engaging, we can’t help but go along for the ride.

The show’s concept originated in Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, and like all new musicals, has been in development for a while. It’s hard to think of anyone playing the lead but Annie Golden, but in a way that doesn’t matter. The show is fun, makes you laugh with the characters and situations, rather than at them, and reminds you that no matter who you are, every day brings a new start.

August 17, 2016

Two Gentlemen of Verona


Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” one of The Bard’s early comedies, performed infrequently at Shakespeare & Company (S&Co), hits the stage running, dancing, promenading, singing, and clowning. The cast of 15 are a colorful lot – literally and figuratively. The motley group boasts royalty, outlaws, servants, lovers, scoundrels, and a dog that steals the show.

This is a Shakespeare play which is quite easy “to get” by any fledgling audience member. At the crux of the tale are two handsome young men; 16th century BFFs. Our hero, Valentine, journeys to Verona. There he meets and falls in love with Sylvia. Back home, Proteus, engaged to Julia, decides to join his buddy, sets his eyes on Sylvia, and also falls in love. Poor Julia? Out of sight, out of mind. The story is light, until the ending, although issues of true friendship, betrayal, and fickle love are demonstrated throughout. There’s the woman disguised as a man theme, love triangle, and razor sharp servants (called clowns) which often populate these comedies.

It is wonderful to see many S&Co “regulars” and “former regulars” on stage; i.e. Jason Asprey, John Hadden, and Ryan Winkles. In my early S&Co days, I primarily saw Asprey featured in dramas and history plays. Now, a bit older, he seems to have diversified his talents, making for a perfectly enjoyable servant. I could say the same about Hadden’s onstage personas of years ago. I hadn’t realized that Hadden could also portray comedy with a capital “C.” Together with his dog, Hadden has the best lines in the story. Winkles uses every cell in his body (well, it seems that way) to become whoever S&Co needs him to be, in this case the not too bright, somewhat bumbling, well-meaning Valentine. Winkles captures every verbal and physical nuance – anything that legitimately makes his character funnier. Winkles doubles as fight choreographer, earning extra kudos for some laugh-out-loud rumbles.

Of course, none of these talents, not to mention the others in the cast, could do pretty much anything without the Jonathan Croy’s director’s hand. Croy, like the others mentioned, is part of the tried & true S&Co team. My guess is that because Croy is one of the funniest actors on the S&Co stages, it is natural that he was chosen to direct this comedy.

For those who insist on Shakespeare “pure,” perhaps S&Co is not the venue for you. However, I think, and many agree that additions of shtick, 21st century puns, RAP music, and audience participation makes for fun theatre.

And No More Shall We Part


Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 21, 2016
by Shera Cohen

It has been my experience, for the most part, that television and movie actors, while having name recognition and audience draw, do not necessarily shine on the theatre stage. This, thankfully, is not the case with “And No More Shall We Part.” The two-character play, packed into 70 minutes, in the smaller theatre at Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) could very easily and very quickly have slipped into cliché without the production’s consummate actors.

Photograph by Daniel Rader
A contemporary work by Tom Holloway, the subject is universal, and at the same time intimately focused. Pam is dying and sees no alternative than a medically-induced suicide. Her husband, Don, cannot cope with his wife’s decision. The story of a much-married, average couple unfolds, alternating the present with the recent past.

Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina were, perhaps, married to each other in a former life. I can’t imagine finer casting choices even in physical appearance. The characters interrupt and finish each other’s sentences, are in synch in their movement in the setting of their home, remember and forget shared family experiences. Kaczmarek's Pam has had cancer for some time. There is no cure. The actress plays a strong woman, practical in her decisions, and supportive of her husband. Molina’s Don has lived with his wife’s cancer, yet lacks her strength and foresight. But this is not a stoic wife and pathetic husband duo, or as audience members might expect, the exact opposite. While there is a touch of “woe is me” sentimentality, the mood comes in spurts, and never at an increasing crescendo.

Kaczmarek and Molina define Pam and Don with trust and selfishness. Bravado keeps this woman alive for a short time, and the lack of acceptance keeps the man on track. Yet, the two actors are permitted, under the direction of Anne Kauffman to at times, crumble.

While the audience is positioned for the ending, all is not what seems to be, leaving those of us who care about Pam and Don, feeling somewhat disappointed.

No additional actors are necessary, although the couple’s two children are often mentioned. We don’t know where Pam and Don work or where they live, only that their very modest house – nicely separated by changing walls – instantly creates a bedroom, kitchen, dining room, and hallway, unadorned with “stuff.” The dialog and silences tell and show the picture.

“Sorry.” That’s the work used repeatedly by the characters to each other. Such a small word, always spoken softly, provides the umbrella of the story and its inhabitants.

August 12, 2016

Constellations


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 27, 2016
by Shera Cohen

“Constellations” is a challenging play to mount and to understand – all the more reason to experience this intriguing little story about life and love, time and space.

Like so many new plays presented at numerous venues in the Berkshires this summer, “Constellations” is one-act, approximately 70 minutes. Yet, the size of this drama (with several bits of humor), in a sense, covers the entire universe. Stars shine on the ceiling of the intimate Unicorn Theatre at the play’s start and at the end. Just as the stars are infinite, humans are finite. Two people confront their own place on this planet, separately and together.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The dialogue in Nick Payne’s play is exquisite, repetitive, fast, and non-linear. At one point, time is an eternity; next a quick moment. Simultaneously, space is the closeness of a woman and man first meeting at a barbecue; next distance of that same couple, now married. The plot? That’s a tough one. A short synopsis states that the woman is a scientist and the man works as a beekeeper. Each is smart, funny, vulnerable, and a master at communication. For example, essentially the lines are spoken three or four times. With emphasis on a single word, toss of a head, or stance, the discussion differs completely.

Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat (married in real-life) give and take their dialog at a swift pace, leaving no lulls. They discuss the mundane (including bees) and the universal (fate vs. freewill). It is somewhat hard to remember having seen this duo just last summer as the stars of BTG’s “Bells Are Ringing.” The musical was light, fun, and called for some nice vocal chords, but not the heavy duty acting in “Constellations.” Hopefully, Baldwin and Rowat keep bringing their talent to Berkshire Theatre.

Director Greg Edelman and lighting/scenic designer Alan Edwards meld what appears simple – after all, it’s just a round stage with some altering lights against a flat rectangle – to set countless small scenes. A single spot light creatively and effectively alters the present from the future, or the present for one character with the past of the other.

“Constellations” is not your typical play. Starts and stops, forwards and backwards, up and down and sideways; the script is void of chronology. Yet, it all makes sense.

August 9, 2016

The Merchant of Venice


Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
through August 21, 2016
by Joan Mento

On a bare stage in the round, Shakespeare & Company’s “The Merchant of Venice” starts with a bang not a whimper. Masked players enact stylized movements that rapidly transform to gyrating hip-hop. The limited set pieces are creatively unitized, and costumes as well as actors interacting with the audience suggest Elizabethan stage practices.

Photo by John Dolan
In past productions, Shakespeare & Co. played comic episodes skillfully and hilariously funny. Yet, in this  “Merchant” the clowning seems forced and overextended. Few laughs accompany the Old Gobbo and son antics. Instead, it is the women’s subtle comic expressions in the casket scenes that delight and amuse the audience. A moment of sustained laughter erupts when the Prince of Aragon chooses his casket to reveal the message of “blinking idiot” and, instead of a mirror, holds up a picture of Donald Trump.

Venice, at Shakespeare’s time was a cultural and financial capitol, populated by various ethnic and religious groups. Yet, prejudice of the ruling class dominated. I believe that “Merchant’s” issues make it more of a “problem play.” The poignancy of Shylock’s plight proves too powerful. Sympathy lies with Jonathan Epstein’s lead character. The cruelty and violence toward him outweigh the infrequent redeeming quality of laughter. Despite the romantic comedy of the rings in the last scene, the audience is left with a stage image that reinforces the tragic dimensions. Juxtaposed to the merrymaking couples (except for Shylock’s daughter, now disillusioned in her mixed marriage) is the isolated Shylock, bereft of his kin, his money, and his religion as he is forced to endure a conversion to Christianity. In the end, he sings a mournful dirge echoing his impending death, not only literally as is written in his will, but also spiritually in his death as a Jew.

Congratulations to Tamara Hickey for her excellent portrayal of Portia and to Epstein’s outstanding Shylock.

An American Daughter


Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA 
www.wtfestival.org
through August 21
by Jarice Hanson

Wendy Wasserstein’s plays sometimes try to do too much; they blend politics and social values, examine gender relations and family dynamics, and treat serious issues with humor that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. In Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “An American Daughter,” director Evan Cabnet leaves no ambiguity in crafting a revival that shows how prescient Wasserstein was when this play was written twenty years ago.


Photo by Daniel Rader.
The story begins when Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) is nominated for the post of Surgeon General. She is a working mother who has it all and can do it all—and her American pedigree as the daughter of a Senator and a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant seem to confer status upon her that the public, and the media like. When Timber Tucker (Jason Danieley), an ambush-style television interviewer uncovers a secret about a misplaced jury summons she never answered, Lyssa’s credibility as a public servant is called into question.

The parallels to today’s Presidential campaign are uncanny. The script, inspired by the “Nannygate” incident when Zoë Baird was nominated for Attorney General, shows how powerful media are in influencing public opinion. When Lyssa dons a headband to look “softer,” the audience’s recognition of the irony of past juxtaposed with today’s criticism of a woman in politics leaves no doubt that Lyssa is in part, channeling Hillary Clinton.

The characters in the play are all strongly defined and walk the line between familiar “types” and the people Wasserstein knew, loved, and reviled. The cast is made up of fine actors who clearly “get” the play’s meanings, though some were still struggling with their lines so early in the run, but there is no doubt this production will grow and become stronger.

Derek McLane’s detailed set design is a perfect backdrop for a play so solidly crafted. It is a metaphor for tradition and political ideology, and the changing roles of women in the home and in the public eye. The complexity of Wasserstein’s approach to “An American Daughter” tells us how much women have changed, while politics have not. I think Wasserstein herself, would be pleased, but perhaps dismayed, to see how relevant this work remains today.