Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 20, 2019

Review: Chester Theater Company, Curve of Departure

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Stacie Beland and Hilde Axelson

Curve of Departure, by Rachel Bonds, is an extraordinary play that is beautifully brought to life under Keira Naughton and through its performers, who portray a snapshot of a family. The set, lighting, and sound design allow us to truly feel as though we are inside a small New Mexico hotel room. Tiny details—such as flashes of blue as a family member watches TV and the many bottles of medications, visible but not prominently displayed, tucked near the bathroom sink—allow us to become fully engrossed in what unfolds before us.

Fascinatingly, there is no antagonist in the script, though it is not without conflict. It is a simple study, a slice of American life and daily struggle. We first meet Rudy and Linda as Linda is ironing Rudy’s funeral clothes in the room. Rudy’s son, Linda’s ex-husband, has passed. Linda, despite the divorce, has remained a dedicated caretaker and companion to her ex-father-in-law. They are eagerly anticipating the arrival of Felix, Linda’s son and Rudy’s grandson. Felix is expected to arrive with his boyfriend, Jackson. As we wait for the boys to arrive, it becomes clear that Rudy is struggling with some unnamed form of dementia; he is struggling with memory loss and is burdened by a body that is turning against him. Linda remains upbeat and unflappable. When the boys arrive, it is revealed that they are caring for and potentially adopting Jackson’s niece, something for which Felix feels unprepared.

Ami Brabson’s is a wonder as Linda. She is a woman on the edge, but is never hesitant to speak her mind and offer advice. Whether cheerfully escorting Rudy to the bathroom, cleaning him, or counseling both Felix and Jackson, all among the undercurrent of her ex-husband’s death and having to face his “new family,” she is the glue that holds this night (and morning) together. When she finally breaks down, it is decidedly well earned. Her portrayal is stunning.

Raye Birk, as the aging and curmudgeonly Rudy, portrays his character with perfect precision in loveable dotage. When Rudy reveals his plans for the future, we grieve with his family but also cheer for what may be his last assertion of his wishes. He is a man that has lost so much, but not so much that he’s ignorant to the loss itself. Birk is a fantastic in this role.

As Jackson and Felix, Jose Espinosa and Paul Pontrelli (respectively), are an engaging couple. Truly, Pontrelli’s Felix steals the show and somewhat overshadows Espinosa’s Jackson. Pontrelli’s intensity on the stage is unmatched; there is never a moment where he isn’t completely engaged in what is happening around him. His subtle facial expressions and barely perceptible nervous affectations combine to form a well-rounded, highly believable character.

Truly, upon seeing this performance, one cannot help but leave the theater and want to spend more time with this family, to somehow ingratiate oneself into their fictional lives—you develop such a care and concern for all of them that, upon waking the next day, you want to call them to make sure they’re okay. It is a fantastic, highly believable performance.

August 16, 2019

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Fall Springs

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 31, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The cast of "Falls Springs"
With music and lyrics by Niko Tsakalakos and book and lyrics by Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, “Fall Springs” is making its world premiere full production at Barrington Stage after seven years in development. The title setting is “a town somewhere in the USA” which sits atop “one of the largest Essential Oil reserves in the country.” The nine-member cast includes five middle-aged adults, four of whom are single parents; and four teenagers, one child of each parent.

Mayor Robert Bradley introduces the town (“Fall Springs”) and promotes its advantages “as the 4th fastest growing, the 11th safest, and 14th most aesthetically pleasing smallish town not including locations near water or mountains.” After his daughter, aspiring geologist Eloise, worries about environmental damage (“Gimme Science”), Beverly Cushman, head of the Fall Springs Essential Oil Drilling company, gets the Town Council to approve “Hydraulic Fracking,” which threatens the community’s very foundations.

The teenagers’ band, “Impending Doom,” is convinced that the town is “Sinking in to Oblivion,” and when more potholes and pavement cracks are reported, the adults wonder if “The Birds Have Come Home” to roost. Disaster strikes by the end of Act One, and its aftermath is explored, with humor, pathos, and hope, following intermission in Act Two.

The cast, all but one experienced Actors’ Equity members, bring the satirical spirit of the text and the plot to stirring life. Matt McGrath is a pompous and superficial Mayor, while Ellen Harvey’s Beverly is a hilariously over-the-top monster of corporate greed. Alyse Alan Louis is a forceful yet touching Eloise, while Sam Heldt is haplessly endearing as Beverly’s nerdy son Felix. Ken Marks is an affecting scold as Nolan Wolanske, “the town genius/vagrant” scientist colleague of Eloise’s late mother, who perished in a mysterious accident.

Mike Pettry’s five-piece band, featuring keyboards, guitars, percussion, and bass, nails the infectiously appealing rock-based score, which also sports witty and incisive lyrics, and supports director Stephen Brackett’s absurdist vision of this ecological parable. So does imaginative scenic design by Tim Mackabee, resourceful costumes by Emily Rebholz, and zany choreography by Patrick McCollum.

In the honorable tradition of 2001’s “Urinetown,” this delightful production delivers a sobering message in an entertaining package and deserves a longer life in this era of the ongoing discussion of climate change.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Bach, Yo-Yo Ma

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 11, 2019
by Karoun Charkoudian

Yo-Yo Ma photo by Jason Bell
Imagine playing a musical instrument alone for two and a half hours straight without an intermission, in front of thousands of people. A feat of stamina -- physically, mentally, and emotionally. Who was up for this? Yo-Yo Ma, of course. This night was a part of Ma’s “Bach Project,” performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in one sitting in 36 locations around the world.

After sitting through grueling traffic (because two Tanglewood concerts were scheduled back to back, both with big names), the crowds gathered, looking forward to a 7:30pm concert, only to find out that the concert was rescheduled to 8pm. The evening was off to a late start and the audience wasn’t happy.

Yo-Yo Ma, with incredible energy and vivaciousness, had clearly been working with audiences for decades and understood, not only was this concert an Olympic feat for him, but it was a feat for the audience as well. He included a “7th inning stretch” after Suite No. 3, and between Suite No. 5 and Suite No. 6 he did not stop for applause, only paused for a few seconds, so no audience members could slip away in hopes to beat traffic. For those who did stay until the end, they earned a special surprise when James Taylor appeared on stage to play the encore (this concert was in fact sponsored by Caroline and James Taylor in honor of Andrew Previn).

The Bach Suites are all structured similarly, all with seven movements with almost identical names. Highlights were the deep extended regal chords of the Sarabande, the dance-like feel of the Menuett (sometimes replaced by a Gavotte or Bourree), and the fast and fiery Gigue which concluded every Suite. The third and sixth suite are purportedly the most difficult, (claims the average cellist), and the suites were numbered based on chronological time, when they were written by Bach.

Ma’s vision is to celebrate humanity and to bring people conjointly through The Bach Project. Ma announced that this was a celebration of coming together. As we struggle to make meaning in our lives we can look to Bach. Bach’s writing is about human nature and the infinite variety of life; this music can unite us while helping to understand each other. 

August 13, 2019

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 1, 2019
by Jarice Hanson

“The Merry Wives of Windsor may not be one of the best known of Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is fun to watch some of Shakespeare’s women act as the primary architects of the story that unfolds. In Shakespeare & Company’s new production, the merriment is made greater by staging the show in The Roman Garden Theatre where the intimacy and energy is enhanced by the entrances, exits, and self-reflexive nature of the performers coming through the audience to take their place on “stage.” Director Kevin G. Coleman’s fast-paced production is loaded with laughs and actors’ asides to the audience, and a first-rate multigenerational, color-blind, gender-blind cast keeps the audience fully engaged.

There are too many actors/characters to individually acknowledge, but it is a pleasure to watch both Mistress Ford (Jennie M. Jadow) and Mistress Page (MaConnia Chesser) work together. The two have an excellent connection with each other and the text, and leave no doubt as to why their husbands (Martin Jason Asprey and Steven Barkhimer, respectively) will always be outwitted by their wives. Mistress Quickly (Cloteal L. Horne) is an engaging gossip and messenger for Falstaff (Nigel Gore). 

Kiki Smith’s imaginative costumes place the production in Elizabethan times, but sound cues and music pepper the transition points and give the production a contemporary flavor. At moments, the production’s stage manager finds herself in the middle of a scene and creatively blends in—bringing a wink and nod to experiencing Shakespeare in today’s world and adding to the comedic spectacle.

If there is a weakness to the production it may be that Shakespeare’s script is hard to cut for a modern-day audience. Act I establishes the characters and sets up the complicated story, but everything gets wrapped up in Act II rather abruptly. The production runs 2½ hours with intermission, and while the actors work valiantly to keep the energy high and the characters fresh, the story seems weaker and less satisfying than most of the Bard’s more well-known work. Still, if one appreciates the fine work of this company and are lucky enough to attend on a magical Berkshire day with good weather, you will not be disappointed. 

August 12, 2019

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Ghosts

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 18, 2019
by Stuart W. Gamble

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
For those expecting a spooky, window-rattling, bump in the night type thriller, you best re-assess your expectations. Henrik Ibsen’s “Ghosts” was penned in 1881, at a time when, as translator Paul Walsh states: “ the 1880s in Norway, they were on the brink of modernity.” In Walsh’s new translation, collaboratively developed with WTF Artistic Director Aileen Lambert states in the program, “I aim to translate the language for the actors first a way that is contemporary without being modernized.”

Ibsen’s drama (which verges close, but not too close, on melodrama), is set on the estate of Mrs. Helene Alving, near a fjord in Western Norway. The inciting action is the arrival of Oswald, Mrs. Alving’s son, an artist, who has come from his Bohemian life in Paris when the unveiling of an orphanage dedicated to his late father. Pastor Manders is also in attendance, to (mostly) lecture to Mrs. Alving on the morality of 19th century Norway. Rounding out the story are Jakob Engstrand, a rather shady character, and his daughter Regina, the Alving’s housemaid. Many plot twists and revelations ensue including the titular ghosts, which Mrs. Alving says are “opinions, beliefs, and lies are specters we see again as ghosts.”

Indeed the solemn, dread-filled world of “Ghosts” is effectively underscored by David Coulter’s onstage eerie zither music. The wisps of steam rising from the fjord are subtly created by scenic designer Dane Laffrey. The slanted roof covered with scrub pine and the restrictive, Victorian era suits and dresses are also the creation of Laffrey.

The expert performances by the small cast are what give “Ghosts” its nuances and humanity. The biggest draw to this play is, undoubtedly, the appearance of Oscar-nominated actress Uma Thurman. Thurman’s performance as Mrs. Alving is at once witty and intense. Hers is a difficult role that requires a balance of her internal rage and compassion. The actress’ stills present the subtlest stage performances that this writer has seen. On par with Thurman is Tom Pecinka as Oswald. His transformation from Devil-may-care artist to suffering son is truly a grand piece of acting. While Catherine Combs seems a little bit young in the role of Regina, she holds her own. Bernard White as the hypocritical Pastor Manders manages to convey sincerity without making him a caricature. Thom Sesma’s opportunistic Jakob Engstrand is both comical and reproachable.

Think of “Ghosts” as a stage-bound version of an Ingmar Bergman film, deeply psychological and verbose, with a bit of the storyline of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” along with the sardonic social commentary of contemporary news programs. The result is the brilliance of the father of dramatic modernism, Henrik Ibsen.

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, If I Forget

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through September 7, 2019 (extended)
by Shera Cohen

“If I Forget” what? Or who? There are many answers. Forget family values and relationships, forget that people change, forget that with pain and work there still may be no answers. Each of these thoughts loom forward in Steven Levenson’s play, “If I Forget.” The more important question is; what if I forget the Holocaust? Character Michael (J. Anthony Crane), a non-practicing Jewish professor, continues to over-answer the question throughout the play. To the confusion and/or disapproval of his family members, Michael pontificates that the entire Jewish race cannot be defined by this one horrific episode. Jewish history existed prior to the Holocaust, after, and probably for centuries to come.

While this might seem a complex, sometimes difficult topic for Barrington Stage (BSC) audience to stick with for two and a half hours, it is the playwright’s language, oftentimes couched in humor, and director Jennifer Chambers’ juxtaposition of characters and their spaces which make every minute fly by.

The actors portray seven members of the Fischer family in 2000. Another, unseen, character is equally important as those onstage. Nearly every possible duo of family dynamic is tackled: brother and sister, daughter and father, nephew and uncle, husband and wife, sister and sister, brothers-in-law, mother and her daughter. Each is powerful and poignant.

Primarily an ensemble cast, J. Anthony Crane as the brother/son/husband Michael is in the forefront. His role as erstwhile philosopher who drives his sisters and wife crazy is presented with a not-so-hidden fear of failure of himself and for his family. In Act I, Crane creates Michael as off-putting, feigning confidence. His character’s change at the start of Act II is a metamorphosis. 

Actors Laura Jordan (Michael’s older sister Holly) and Lena Kaminsky (younger sister Sharon) portray real and human with a capital “R” and “H,” respectively. These grown up siblings shout, back off, shout again, hug, and yell “F_ _ _ you!” They step on each other’s lines. Walk into any home; no one speaks to each other in complete, accurate sentence. Neither do the Fischers.

The audience sees Kathleen Wise (Michael’s wife) as a mother, depicting hopeful and scared simultaneously. Mitch Greenberg (Holly’s husband Howard) is given the job to just sit and throw out one-liners until the moment in Act II that calls for Greenberg to present Howard as na├»ve and rather pathetic. Robert Zukerman (Michael’s father) literally and figuratively has few lines. As Michael’s nephew Joey, is Isaac Josephthal makes his BSC debut.

Scenic Designer John McDermott has conceived the most detailed, elaborate (not gauche), exquisite set on the St. Germain Stage in BSC’s history. On one level appear five rooms in a house with door frames and furniture establishing definition. 

Some advice; when ads state “Sold Out,” heed the warning. Every seat was taken at this performance. In fact, “If I Forget” has been extended even before opening night.

PREVIEW: Bazaar Productions, Particularly in the Heartland

Bazaar Productions, The Foundry, West Stockbridge, MA
August 8 – August 18, 2019

“Particularly in the Heartland” spotlights a trio of siblings living on a Kansas farm. The children are orphaned after their parents’ disappearance by a tornado—or was it an alien invasion? Or possibly the Rapture? The Springer youth are left to raise themselves. They are soon joined by three outsiders: Dorothy, a New Yorker fallen from an airplane; Tracey Jo, a pregnant teen claiming to be an alien; and the ghost of 1968 presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy. Out of the chaos emerges a new kind of American family.

Bazaar’s work is exactly as the title means; it is odd, strange, unusual, funny or sad. Young actors and crew who are twentysomethings do all of the work backstage, onstage, and in administration. The play is directed by one of Bazaar’s founders Sara Kazoff.

While Bazaar Productions is approximately 10 years old, this is there first summer season at their new home in West Stockbridge, MA