Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 16, 2018

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, As You Like It

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 2, 2018
by Rebecca Phelps

Shakespeare and Company has worked its magic yet again with a new production of As You Like It, a show sometimes criticized for being overly “talky” and formulaic but that in the hands of S&Co.’s artistic director and director of this production Allyn Burrows, is anything but. Setting this frolicsome, light-hearted and fanciful comedy in the outdoor Roman Theatre venue provides just the right atmosphere – especially as the sun begins to set as Act II unfolds during the 5PM show.

Photo by Nile Scott Studio
S&Co. actors are brimming with their trademark physicality, flexibility and bawdy humor along with their wonderfully clear and audible vocal delivery. The action takes place mainly in the forest of Arden where the brilliant Rosiland and her cousin Celia have landed after being kicked out of their comfortable homes by Celia’s ambitious and conniving father, Duke Frederick senior, her uncle. Simultaneously, Orlando has been banished from his home due to his older brother Oliver’s murderous intent to keep him from his rightful inheritance.

Touchstone, Jaques, LaBelle, Silvius, Phoebe and Aubrey, are relatively minor characters, but nevertheless, carry much of the weight of the entertainment value of the show. MacConnia Chesser as Touchstone delivers a brilliant and hilarious re-interpretation of the role as a woman, playing opposite Thomas Brazzle, who doubles as both Oliver and a male version of Shakespeare’s character Audrey, here re-invented as “Aubrey,” who only has eyes for Touchstone. Ella Loudon is similarly tasked with the double casting as both the love-struck Phoebe, who falls for Rosiland in her male disguise, and the reinvented role of a very French LaBell. Gregory Boover serenades with  guitar playing and singing as poor Silvius, who cannot be deterred from his undying love for Phoebe. Deaon Griffin-Pressely delivers a charmingly sincere and enthusiastic Orlando, the perfect foil for the brilliant Rosiland. Nigel Gore as both Duke Frederick and Duke Senior, Zoe Laiz as Celia and Adam, and Mark Zeisler as Charles and Jaques round out this accomplished and skillful cast, but Aimee Doherty’s Rosiland alone is worth the price of the ticket. A demanding role, she plays with superb subtlety and razor-sharp wit.

Allyn Burrows is truly a gifted director and clearly in his element as he manages to create this romp in Shakespeare’s forest of Arden. He selected to set the play in the Roaring 20’s– what better time to pick than one in which women got the vote and were given more choice in whom they would marry? The use of music is noteworthy and adds to the production. Burrows and his cast have created a marvelously entertaining production.

August 14, 2018

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Michael Tilson Thomas/Rachmaninoff /Mahler

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2018
by Jarice Hanson and Frank Aronson

Photo by Hilary Scott
Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is no stranger to the BSO, the work of Mahler, or the style of Leonard Bernstein. In the August 12th concert of the Bernstein Centennial Summer season, MTT conducted a fitting tribute to the man he met when he was a Tanglewood Fellow. In 1969 MTT was assigned to conduct the off-stage portion Bernstein’s on-stage conducting of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Bernstein casually mentioned that he was thinking of conducting the piece by memory, rather than looking at the score. On Sunday, MTT performed the same way—conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D “off book” and with some of the same gestures he had learned from Maestro Bernstein.

The concert began with the whimsical “Agnegram” written by MTT for San Francisco Symphony board member, Agnes Albert, for her 90th birthday. MTT wrote the short piece using a musical annotation of the letters of her name and incorporated some of her favorite tunes—from “The 1812 Overture” to “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” As a prelude to Rachmaninoff and Mahler, the piece was well received and showcased the author/conductor’s ability to write accessible, yet clever music that warmed the audience on a cool rainy day.

Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Opus 43 for Piano and Orchestra featured the extraordinary Igor Levit, a pianist of technical wizardry and interpretive sass. A plane flew overhead just as Levit was immersed in one of the piece’s most famous passages. The sound of the plane trailed off as the piano’s notes lingered in the air, magically accompanying the plane’s passage above.

The second part of the program featured Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D, with music so effecting the audience cheered for close to 10 minutes, acknowledging the many soloists who contributed to the piece that has become known as one of the bridges from the Romantic to the Modern period of orchestral compositions. Kudos were given to the French horn section, which masterfully played the passages key to the first of Mahler’s four Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy with the Horn) symphonies. Mahler identified the piece as a “symphonic poem,” and MTT and the BSO left no doubt as to the story Mahler told in this symphony.

It’s understandable that MTT and Bernstein are both known for their interpretations of Mahler. This concert solidified their reputations. And at the end of the concert, the sun came out.

August 13, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, West Side Story

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through September 1, 2018
by Shera Cohen

“West Side Story” opens big! It was opening night, a full house, patrons dressed in their finest (rare for the casual Berkshires), and an instantaneous standing ovation.
To repeat the story’s plot would be wasting the reader’s time. Here’s a summary…the set, New York City slum neighborhood; the time, the late 1950’s; our protagonists, star-crossed young lovers a la Romeo & Juliet; the “bad guys,” no one and everyone.

Describing Barrington’s production in one word would be “honesty.” Director Julianne Boyd seems to have struck a match to set off a red-hot fury of energy and smoldering emotion within every actor; all are true to his/her character as a living, breathing person, and as a representative of a small part of a community, warts and all.

Boyd must share the accolades in creating this near-perfect presentation of “West Side Story” with Choreographer Robert La Fosse. The first notes of the musical are those of the Jets snapping their fingers in unison; this is a family. Then there’s the famous “Dance at the Gym,” a powerful contest of one-upmanship with brutal stakes.

Since no specifically named credit in the program book is given to “fight coordinator,” it seems safe to assume a collaboration of Boyd and La Fosse construct the intricacies of the “The Rumble” well-above an audience’s expectations. Even though everyone knows the results of the scene, the sound, lights, and dangerous moves at speeds almost too fast to see are extremely frightening.

Photo by Daniel Rader
Will Branner and Addie Morales (Tony and Maria) are as sweet, innocent, and in love as their characters can possibly be. Yet, there is honesty in their music and relationship that cautions them. Branner literally sets the tone of his naïve Tony with “Something’s Coming.” A few minutes later, he’s telling the world of his love in “Maria.” Rather slight in physique and very young looking, Branner’s vocal skills belie his years. Morales is a more genuine Marie than ever in other productions or movie. Besides her lovely soprano voice (with Branner in “Tonight”), Morales brings sincerity to Maria through her eyes and especially her smile.

Tyler Hanes’ Riff takes the accolades as the best dancer onstage. Add his clenched jaw and no-smile face, Hanes makes a formidable character. His counterpart, portrayed by Sean Ewing, dons his Bernardo with smooth bravado. Skyler Volpe, as Anita, is a musical director’s dream: she sings, she dances, and she acts with all skills equal.

Set Designer Kristen Robinson has built an inner-city tenement of 50+ years ago; tall and bleak with tinges of light and even stars. Maybe there is hope for these characters?

REVIEW: Williamstown Theater Festival, The Member of the Wedding

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
through Aug. 19, 2018
by Stuart W. Gamble

Carson McCullers’ timeless, poignant drama, “The Member of the Wedding” (based on the 1946 novel) is given a fresh revival at WTF this summer. This newly mounted production deserves much praise for its sensitive performances.

Photo by Daniel Rader
Set in the American South in August, 1945 in a small town, the play unfolds leisurely like a torrid afternoon, whose blazing heat is tempered by splashes of refreshing humor as cool as a glass of ice cold lemonade. Berenice Sadie Brown (Roslyn Ruff), the African- American housekeeper of the Adams family (no, not That Adams family), spends nearly the entire play cooking in the tiny kitchen trying to quell the pressing anxiety of her charge, 12-year old Frankie (Tavi Gevinson). The youngster is an outsider constantly questioning Berenice about the inequities and injustices that surround them, in their small town and in the world. The third member of this existentially-challenged club is Frankie’s younger cousin and neighbor John Henry (Logan Schuyler Smith), whose impressionable nature contrasts beautifully with Frankie’s intellectualism.

This triad of characters provide the heart and soul of McCullers’ play in balanced and assured performances. Ruff’s portrays a strong-willed and loving maternal figure; neither too soft or too hard. Her honesty and warmth are lovingly conveyed to both Frankie and John Henry. Gevinson’s Frankie at first comes across as abrasive and almost obnoxious, but later she evolves into a gentle and thoughtful young woman, displaying both her skill as an actor and McCullers’ perceptive characterization. Finally, Smith’s John Henry is a joy to behold. A truly natural performer; this young actor demonstrates great daring and risk, especially in the scenes where he dons Frankie’s pink fairy costume. Indeed, the story touches on the contemporary issue of sexual identity, both in Frankie’s boyish behavior (and her navy crewcut hair) and John Henry’s aforementioned playfulness.

The cast is rounded out by three other central characters: Berenice’s beau T.T. Williams (Leon Addison Brown), her foster brother Honey Camden Brown (Will Cobbs), and Frankie’s alcoholic father (James Waterston). The actors depicting the men offer three faces of Pre-Civil Rights American South -- the obliging, but no less strong black man (Brown); the fed-up with racial inequality black man (Cobbs); and the inherently racist white man (Waterston). All express integrity and honesty in their portrayals of rather one-dimensional characters. Much praise must be given to Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s skill in eliciting fine performances from all the, which in lesser hands, could come across as pretentious and overly poetic.

Laura Jellinek’s set design is simple and historically accurate. The small downstage left kitchen is literally dwarfed by the towering clapboard backdrop. Metaphorically, this seems to be saying that the outside world constantly and threateningly looms over the three principal characters’ claustrophobic existence.

August 9, 2018

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Limón Dance Company

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 12, 2018
by Josephine Sarnelli

“Art for art’s sake” speaks to the intrinsic value of art. Many modern dance choreographers have applied the same philosophy to movement, hence choosing to omit story lines, relationships, and emotions from their creations. Fortunately, José Limón, although a pioneer of modern dance, did not classify dance in these absolute terms.

Photo by Noor Eemann
The program opened with archival footage of Limón’s 1948 solo performance of “Chaconne” on the Ted Shawn Theatre stage. As the projection faded and Bach’s music continued, Mark Willis performed the next portion of the dance. Seamlessly, Savannah Spratt entered for the next segment only to have Jesse Obremski replace her for the final part. The use of three separate soloists added to the depth of this emotional work. The simplicity of the dancers wearing street clothes … trousers with pockets, belts, rolled up shirtsleeves … added not only to the nostalgia but also to the relevance of the feelings to the “common man.”

Colin Connor, the company’s current Artistic Director, choreographed “Covidae” to the “Violin Concerto #1” by Phillip Glass. Corvids, among the most intelligent of all birds, includes ravens and crows. Seen as both spiritual messengers and harbingers of ill fate, these birds offer both beauty and mystery. Six dancers took on the quality of a flock, or “conspiracy” as ravens are sometimes collectively called, to create a dramatic personification. In this momentous work, Connor’s “Corvidae” rivals the genius of Limón’s iconic “The Moor’s Pavane.”

“The Moor’s Pavane” is Limón’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He skillfully used the pavane, a stately dance of the Renaissance period, as a foundation upon which to build his storyline through modern dance movements. Even those not familiar with the tragedy could follow the transfer of a handkerchief from Othello to his wife to his treacherous friend and his wife to understand its implication in the false charge of adultery. The period costuming was exquisite, and the four performers were outstanding in their theatrical telling through dance of the timeless sins of racism, domestic violence, and jealousy.

Kate Weare’s “Night Light” focused on relationships through the partnering of 12 dancers. The true athleticism of these talented performers could be seen in some role-reversals of traditional partnering. Of note was Jesse Obremski’s aerial lifts of both female and male partners.

The finale was Limón’s “A Choreographic Offering,” a tribute to his mentor Doris Humphrey. As joyful as this historical work was, the awkward hand motions of early modern dance were a distraction and reminder that not all things old are worthy of homage.

PREVIEW: The Mount Lectures, Lenox, MA

How apropos for the Mount (the home of Edith Wharton) to be the center of author lectures in the Berkshires. On any given week, two or three talks take place in the large Stables. The main series presents writers of fiction or non-fiction giving the always full-house a perspective on his/her book. Talks have taken place each Monday at 4pm.

In addition to the series, the Mount hosts educators, writers, scientists, architects, and others, each lecturing about his/her subject matter. Martin Puchner, a Harvard professor with a wonderful sense of humor, spoke about his book, “The Written World: The Power or Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization”.

The Mount talks are, by no means, geared to the learned scholar. Each is educational but not didactic, personal, and fun.

August 8, 2018

Talking in the Berkshires 2018

by Shera Cohen

Certainly, the number of performing art venues are plentiful in the Berkshires. Having spent two weeks there in July, I was fortunate to see theatre, music, and dance presentations nearly round-the-clock. However, filling many afternoons (and a few evenings) was time well spent participating in numerous talks on subjects known and unknown to me.

Ventfort Hall Lectures, Lenox, MA
Ventfort Hall Tea & Talks brings authors, educators, and lectures to speak on a wide range of subjects. The parlor room is always packed with patrons. The subjects are fascinating or fun or both. Hour-long talks are followed by Q&A. Last week’s guest was Paul Freedman discussing “10 Restaurants that Changed America”. The “tea” portion of the series’ name is an elegant English-style tea settling located in the Ventfort dining room. Tiers of scones, cucumber sandwiches, cookies, and (of course) special teas are the array. The event offers a lovely elegance in the Berkshires.

Tanglewood Rehearsals, Lenox, MA
Every Saturday morning, professional staff of Tanglewood inform the audience about aspects of the pieces to be rehearsed that day. Usually, talks focus on the composer, background of the music to be heard, and intricacies of composition; i.e. specific sections of the orchestra. These talks are a free bonus for concert goers seated in the tent or on the lawn.

Jacob’s Pillow Pre-performance Lectures, Becket, MA
A large barn is situated equidistant between the two main Pillow theatres. Each summer marks the premiere of a new art exhibit focusing on dance – past or present. Videos often accompany the display. Before each performance, a large group of audience members gather in the barn to hear the half-hour “course” on the dance troupe and its history, choreographers, and nuances of the upcoming performance.

Theatre Talk-backs, numerous locations
Oftentimes following a play or musical, the director and most members of the cast will take chairs onstage. The director leads the discussion, taking questions from those audience members who choose to stay in the theatre. The talk-backs last approximately 15-minutes, or if the audience is responsive. This was the case at the end of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” at Barrington Stage Company. The Q & A are quite profound. Suggest checking the websites for all of the theatres in the Berkshires or starting HERE

The Mount Lectures, Lenox, MA
How apropos for the Mount (the home of Edith Wharton) to be the center of author lectures in the Berkshires. On any given week, two or three talks take place in the large Stables. The main series presents writers of fiction or non-fiction giving the always full-house a perspective on his/her book. Talks have taken place each Monday at 4pm. Due to the series’ popularity, the talk is repeated on Tuesday at 11am. One writer was Jacqueline Jones discussing the riveting story of “Goddess of Anarchy, Lucy Parsons”.

In addition to the series, the Mount hosts educators, writers, scientists, architects, and others, each lecturing about his/her subject matter. Martin Puchner, a Harvard professor with a wonderful sense of humor, spoke about his book, “The Written World: The Power or Stories to Shape People, History, Civilization”.

The Mount talks are, by no means, geared to the learned scholar. Each is educational but not didactic, personal, and fun.

Museum Tours, numerous locations
Even though you may have visited the Norman Rockwell Museum (Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth, Rockwell and the Narrative Tradition), Chesterwood (Contemporary Sculpture Exhibit), Clark Art Institute (Women artists in Paris 1850-1900) or other docent tours, if there is time to go again, do so. No two visits are ever alike. First, exhibits change (usually biannually) or others are added. Needless to say, there are new subjects to learn about. Second and even if the exhibit is the same, the docent speaking can make the world of difference. All docents are extensively trained, yet each may choose to focus on one aspect over another. Note, that most of these wonderful people are volunteers. Suggest visiting information on the many museums located in the Berkshires by going to their individual websites or