Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 26, 2011


The Bushnell, Hartford CT
through September 11, 2011
by Bob Smith

In a relatively short time, "Wicked" has become a musical for the ages and it is not difficult to understand the phenomenon. This show succeeds extremely well on many different levels. It starts with solid storytelling; serious themes, populated with engaging characters but with a sense of humor. A strong contributor is the unique fact that both leads are strong, multi-dimensional females. All this helps to underpin an emotional reality in a fantastical setting, for this is the back-story of "the witches of Oz before Dorothy dropped in" and how friendship can shape our lives.

Dee Roscioli and Amanda Jane Cooper
as Elphaba and Glinda
Photo © Joan Marcus
"Wicked's" status as a timeless work is due in large part to the music and lyrics of Stephen Schwartz. Combined with the vocal artistry of the cast, the songs leave an indelible impression. The Act One closer, "Defying Gravity" melds every element of theatre into one chill-inducing moment. That song, along with others like "I'm Not That Girl" and "For Good" are already popular standards due to their tenderness and heartfelt lyrics. On the opposite end of the emotional scale is the giddy anthem of bubbly blond sorceresses everywhere, "Popular." This song is so frothy that it probably put a smile on people passing by the outside the theater.

Dee Roscioli, the 'wicked" witch Elphaba in this production has played the role more than any other performer and her experience is evident. One needs a stellar voice for this complex role and Roscioli delivers goose bumps with almost every solo. As her opposite, understudy Megan Campanile gives a beautiful texture to the flouncy, bouncy "good" witch Glinda. The entire cast matches their energy and verve. The lighting is spectacular and the sets are practically a life form of their own.

The crowds at this Bushnell return engagement are packed with prior fans that know the lines and music by heart. But there are plenty of newcomers as evidenced by the surprised laughter and gasps emitted upon seeing the show's many high points for the first time. Both types of audience members are well served by this outstanding, and yes, magical production.

August 24, 2011

Mark Morris

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 28, 2011
by Emily List

Through his choreography for the 30th anniversary celebration of his company at Jacob's Pillow, Mark Morris proves that he is still what many critics have described as "the bad boy of modern dance."  

Photo By Sharen Bradford
The visceral mischief begins before the dancing does, as the audience is shown projections of two characters--one, a native-American man; the other, a seemingly pre-Raphelite saintly woman with a halo. On closer inspection, the style is more art nouveau, with the woman wearing a jaunty 1930s cap. Indeed, the first piece, "Resurrection," is not a serious dance imbued with Christ-like images, but a hilarious portrayal of a Hollywood murder, set to music by Richard Rodgers. The dancers kick and roll around the couple like synchronized swimmers until the woman lifts herself up to bourree deadpan across the stage to the astonishment of her dance partner.  

"Ten Suggestions," is a solo admirably danced by Amber Star Merkens. Set to the menacing tinkling of Alexander Tcherepnin's "Bagatelles Opus V,” a chair, hoop, hat and ribbons are amply used to help Merkens cross from stage right to left, a feat in which she does not succeed. The piece is very circus-esque, as Merkens balances precariously on the chair, clowns around with her straw hat and plays with her hoop. She uses the hoop not as a hula dancer, but as a partner that is twirled, stepped through.  

For "Dancing Honeymoon," Morris' ensemble is back for another tribute to the 1920s and 30s -- this time through Broadway musical comedy box-stepping and Rockette-like kicklines. The music sounds as if it weren't live, but resonating from a 20s speakeasy.

This critic's favorite is "V". The choreography is more classically balletic and finds the dancers swinging themselves and their partners into suspensions, sometimes arabesquing into the air, and at times, lightly dropping to the ground. For the uninitiated, "V" is not about the number 5, but about playing with space and patterns. The dancers find ways of creating the V, then other formations.

The evening is dramatically charged, from the use of live music to the bold lighting and costumes and especially to the dancers, whose sense of humor and light-heartedness easily transfer to the audience.

August 23, 2011

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Jacob's Pillow, Becket, MA
through August 20, 2011
by Amy Meek

Credit: Lois Greenfeld
Jacob's Pillow, which is America's longest-running dance festival, has once again put together an eclectic, thought-provoking summer schedule of shows. The festival was a 2010 National Medal of Arts honoree, and it continues to provide Western Massachusetts with an array of top international dance companies and choreographers. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has appeared at the Pillow numerous times, because audiences love the unique energy and diverse repertory of the company.  This night was no different, and the dancers kept the audience engaged with a program of three commendable works.

The first piece, "Uneven," was choreographed by Cayetano Soto and displayed the dancers moving throughout the space with each other in complex shapes. They showed great control, strength, and agility in both solo and partner work and moved from curved to angular movements with fluidity and sharp accented beats. The dancing was enhanced by the beautiful cello music played by Kimberly Patterson, and the dramatic lighting and costumes.

"Stamping Ground" was created in 1983 by Jiri Kylian, an internationally acclaimed choreographer, based on traditional Aboriginal dance. The work explored the interplay of movements between percussion rhythms and silence. The mix of power and timing by the dancers made this an exciting and humorous work to watch.

The last piece of the program, "Red Sweet," was choreographed by Jorma Elo. It is a work often performed by this company which showcased classical ballet technique, although blended with contemporary and some hip-hop dance.The choreography was playful and complex and a light ending to the show.

Judging from the enthusiastic response from the audience, this company remains a favorite to watch at the festival.


Chester Theater, Chester, MA
through August 28, 2011
by Robbin M. Joyce

The slings and arrows of the conflict between Faith and Reason may seem a sea of troubles, but it makes for entertaining theatre. David Davalos has created a very witty play, set as a "prequel" to Shakespeare's "Hamlet" that will delight even those who don't appreciate the Brooding Dane.

Byam Stevens, along with a highly creative production team, has created a university setting wherein Hamlet seeks guidance from two renowned professors: John Faustus and Martin Luther. The set, complete with stone buttresses and heavy wooden doors creates a feeling of weight , while the compass painted on the floor could be symbolic of Hamlet's need for direction. The lights expertly change with hardly a notice, but punctuate the gravity of the topic at hand.

Joel Ripka, as Hamlet, allows the Elizabethan language to trip off his tongue and plays a suitably ambivalent Hamlet. Aubrey Saverino skillfully portrays all of the female characters, from a bar-maid to a defrocked nun to the Virgin Mother. Kent Burnham, as Luther, fairly portrays the father of the Protestant Reformation with a graceful strength of character and conviction. But it is James Barry, as Faustus, who steals the show. His engaging demeanor, combined with a mastery of his own presence and his relationship to his fellow actors, is a joy to watch. He lithely draws a willing and appreciative audience into the arguments between Faustus and Luther, and plays a mean lute to boot.

This is a clever, creative play that allows Faith and Reason each their own valid argument, but justifies neither. It's full of smart wordplay and sharp retort, with a nod to the work of The Bard himself. To see, or not to see, that may be the question; but see with most wicked speed.

Film Night

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 20, 2011
by Shera Cohen

John Williams
Standing at the maestro's podium, John William turned from facing the Boston Pops Orchestra to see his audience of at least 100,000. He asked one simple question, "Isn't this a magical place?" The response? Cheers, clapping, foot stomping, and every form of verbal accolade imaginable. This throng of percussive action continued throughout Film Night at Tanglewood. The shed was packed, as was the lawn with only inches of grass between patrons. More than any other year, it seemed as if many t'weens and teens populated the concert. It was wonderful to see them.

John Williams needed no introduction on stage or now. As several overhead screens lowered, the conductor held his baton high and immediately led his orchestra through "Hooray for Hollywood." To a fast paced montage of movie clips from the past 90 years, it was a toss-up as to which the audience liked better - the music or the movies. But this was no contest. The night was all about movie music. Throughout the concert, other lengthy film compilations filled the screens. The Salute to Westerns began with a rousing "The Cowboys," followed by the whispery "Dances with Wolves," culminating with "How the West Was Won" with split second edits of actors from Tom Mix to Jeff Bridges. Of course, John Wayne got a lot of screen time.

A surprise montage, accompanied by the theme from "Sabrina," delighted the audience in a remembrance of Audrey Hepburn. During The Tribute to Film Composers, it was no surprise that approximately one-quarter of the movie scores were those of Williams. Yet, this man is so humble and self-effacing. He shared all clapping and cheering fully with his orchestra, as the musicians rose each time at his insistence, especially after the "Star Wars" finale (a medley of all six SW movies).

Morgan Freeman
Was all of this enough for one of the finest concerts ever performed? No. Actor Morgan Freeman poetically narrated the story of "The Reivers" to Williams' score; violinist Gil Shaham lovely played a trio of pieces from "Shindler's List" and then exuberantly dove into the entire overture of "Fiddler on the Roof." Yes, Tanglewood is magical, as is the Boston Pops and music genius John Williams.

August 19, 2011

10 Cents a Dance

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 28, 2011
by Walter A. Haggerty

If the musical gems of Rodgers and Hart, performed by a superbly talented cast of Broadway pros, in a virtually unending stream of nearly three dozen show-stoppers is your idea of a great evening at the theatre, then "10 Cents A Dance" is recommended.

Williamstown Theatre presents "10 Cents A Dance" in, what is reported to be, a pre-Broadway tryout. The concept for this production is credited to Tony Award-winning director John Doyle, who, according to an article in the program, "is uninterested in any attempt at illusionary naturalism." Consequently, he has engaged a stellar cast of six - one man and five women - each of whom is required to perform their own musical accompaniment on one or, preferably, several instruments.

This cast delivers, most especially leading man Malcolm Gets, who carries the heaviest burden of providing piano accompaniment throughout the entire evening, while occasionally having to provide expressive responses to lyrics serving as narrative. The five women cast members, portray Miss Jones, 1 through 5, the same woman at various stages of her life. So much for the plot - forget it! The important thing is the music. It's still Rodgers and Hart and it is uniformly great. The interpretations vary from happy to sad to frantic, but don't worry, there is much to enjoy.

In addition to Gets, the cast includes "A Chorus Line" legend, Donna McKechnie. Also featured are Diana DiMarzio, Lauren Molina, Jane Pfitsch, and Jessica Tyler Wright -- all previous cast members of earlier Doyle productions and each performing her "actor-musicianship" assignments admirably. Mary-Mitchell Campbell, Music Director, deserves special praise for capturing the 20s - 30s flavor of Broadway. Scott Pask, set designer, provides a complex multi-level set with a variety of playing levels that serve the performers effectively.

As to Doyle's signature treatment of having performers playing instruments while supposedly acting the role of a distinct character in a story, it is a novel approach, yet in  "10 Cents A Dance," it is somewhat a gimmick.

To theatergoers, go for the music!

The Game

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 28, 2011
by Walter A. Haggerty

“The Game” is the not-to-be-missed event of the year. “The Game” is not just one more light summer musical. It is pure theatre magic in every way. It is in a word –  sensational!

Based on an 18th Century novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” the story follows the scandalous misadventures of a fascinating assemblage of French aristocrats. It relates the sometimes amusing, but ultimately tragic outcome of their “game” when one woman’s manipulative actions unleash a tidal wave of events that result in devastating consequences.

The score is magnificent. The music by Megan Cavallari is varied and richly melodic. The book and lyrics by Amy Powers and David Topchick, traverse a game of subtle intrigue, moving from light and frothy early moments to deeply moving, even tragic results.

Director Julianne Boyd has guided her fantastic company through their dangerous games making every move precisely the right one for each occasion, heightening the audience involvement and sympathies.

Credit: Kevin Sprauge
Rachel York is giving the performance of a lifetime with flashing smiles and eyes that could strike lightening into the heart of any adversary. From seductive teasing to vengeful manipulation, she is outstanding. As Vicomte de Valmont, Graham Rowat ranges from an amusing cad to consummate villain without missing a beat. Amy Decker’s shattering performance of her “My Sin” aria is a moment that will surely remain engraved in the memories of every member of the audience. Joy Franz as Madame De Rosemonde is a delight in the amusing repartee of Act I, but reveals a distinctly chillier side in Act II. Chris Peluso and Sarah Stevens as the young lovers are perfection, as is Christianne Tisdale as Madame de Volanges.

The opulent costumes of Jennifer Moeller, together with the sumptuous scenic design of Michael Anania, give “The Game” a level of elegance rarely, if ever, matched in a summer theatre production. In short “The Game” is marvelous on all counts and should not be missed by anyone who appreciates great theatre.

August 14, 2011

As You Like It

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2011
by Shera Cohen

The audience at Shakespeare & Company certainly likes it very much – “As You Like It,” that is. This is of Shakepeare’s best known comedies with characters, script, and length which make it accessible to those who might feel terrified by anything written in the 16th century.

As is typical of the Bard, the central story unfolds (along with secondary plots) to eventually weave the stories together into one happy ending. That is not a “spoiler alert,” since everyone knows that these comedies end with kisses and promises of a joyous future. They also include major elements: disguise, mistaken identity, banishment, love at first sight, a fool, country bumpkins, dukes, a palace, usually a forest, and our hero and heroine. In the case of this troupe, double and triple roles are the norm. Yet, audiences are never mistaken as to which character is acted at the time.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
Director Tony Simotes takes on double duty, not only at the helm of “As,” but other plays at this venue which perform in repertory. Simotes is a master at executing comedic timing. While slapstick abounds, it is the characters and their relationships that are paramount, and from these come laughter. Simotes has a dream cast, with Merritt Janson in the lead role. This actress has successfully portrayed dramatic characters in the past (Desdemona in “Othello”), but her forte is comedy. She creates a charming, intelligent, coy, witty, sad, and purposeful Roselind. Janson is surrounded by dream cast veterans Jonathan Epstein, Jonathan Croy, Johnny Lee Davenport, Malcolm Ingram; and newbies Jennie Jadow, Tony Roach, and Kevin O’Donnell.

Credit must be given to the unseen players – the backstage folk who make it all look easy and flowing onstage. Founders Theatre stage is a long rectangle, so shaping a play has pluses and minuses. The set are numerous toy-size buildings, bridges, castles, etc. placed on the floor and moved about as the action moves. Certainly clever, the decision undoubtedly puts the focus on the people vs their surroundings. The costumes are a fun mix of 16th century, present day, and anytime. Music and full ensemble dance begin and end the play. “As You Like It" is very likable.

August 13, 2011

Tommy Tune: In Steps With Time

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
August 11, 2011
by Vickie Phillips

An extremely talented and most engaging Tommy Tune commanded the stage at The Colonial Theatre with his celebration of 50 years in show business. Tune's performance was his broadway biography in song and dance, with the backing of the top-notch, never miss a beat Manhattan Rhythm Kings Band.

From the first "Steps in Time" to the finale, Tune stayed "in tune" with his voice and feet in top form. His scripted song and dance routines encompassed a wide range of well chosen musical material that had the audience stamping and cheering for more. His act is so classy and entertaining, the 90-minutes (no intermission) flew by in a flash. Tune's nine Tony Awards celebrate his diverse talents as an actor, choreographer and director.  Broadway accomplishments include "My One and Only," "Grand Hotel," "Will Rogers Follies," and "Nine" to name a few. He has been honored with his own star on the legendary Hollywood Walk of Fame.

In this show, Tune recreated a few of his numerous broadway stage moments with such style and ease. An especially rousing rendition of "I've Got Them Feeling Too Good Today Blues" (Leiber & Stoller) along with a new take on "Madeleine" (Brel), and the poignant "September Song" (Weill/Anderson) took the audience on a thrilling musical journey. Tune is especially associated with the musical number he created, "It's Not Where You Start, It's Where You Finish."

Seeing Tune in action was an experience to remember. He started on top and finished on top. Colonial presented a really razzle-dazzle evening by a masterful performer.

August 12, 2011

Ozawa Hall Concerts

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July & August, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

The largest audiences at Tanglewood attend the weekend programs by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Koussevitzsky Music Shed. But comparable pleasures await listeners who attend the many smaller-scale concerts presented, usually on weeknights, in the more intimate setting of Seiji Ozawa Hall.

The same world-class soloists who perform on weekends often come early or stay on to present standard repertoire pieces from novel perspectives. July, for example, featured a stellar evening of the Emerson String Quartet playing the last quartets written by Haydn, Bartok, and Schubert. Their technically flawless performances were given added emotional weight by the knowledge that these final statements in this medium were made late in each composer's life.   

The following week, Jean-Yves Thibaudet (the soloist in both Ravel concertos that Sunday) played Ravel's complete music for solo piano over two evenings. Even listeners who caught only one program were treated to insightful performances of such comparative rarities as the complete "Miroirs" suite and the exquisite miniature "A La Maniere de Borodin,"which sounded more like a product of the Russian master himself than Ravel.

Photo Credit:  Steve Rosenthal
A special treat two weeks later was the opening concert of the 2011 Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music in which Festival Director Charles Wuorinen led an ensemble of Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) vocal and instrumental students in two of his own works, including the world premiere of "It Happens Like This," a "cantata" setting seven whimsical poems by James Tate. The music was delightful and surprisingly accessible, and the performances expert.
In an August 10 concert by "Stephanie Blythe and Friends," the mezzo-soprano, who started her career as a TMC student, shared the stage with her "friends" John Oliver and his Tanglewood Festival Chorus and several instrumental soloists in two works written for her by Alan Louis Smith, including another world premiere. But perhaps the high point of the evening was her soaring a capella rendition of Lowry's "How Can I Keep from Singing?"

The most heartening aspect of Ozawa Hall concerts may be the large contingent in every audience of TMC students, the future of classical music.

Open Marriage

Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA
through September 3, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Ventford Hall
For the past several summers, Ventfort Hall has hosted a one-woman biographical play. Except for history buffs, the subject is a person unheard of, yet important as one of colorful people who populated the Berkshires. This is the case with "Open Marriage," the life of Elsie Clews Parsons - a woman ahead of her time, highly educated, and a free-thinker. Being a wife and mother did not curtail her pursuit of unconventional adventure in her travels and in her bedroom.

"Open Marriage" is the labor of two women to design one success. Writer Juliane Hiam has penned the last three Ventfort plays. In the matter of 75 minutes, Hiam and Undeland create Elsie. The character not only ages, while never changing makeup, but also manages to keep one foot in the 21st century and the other in the early 20th. Undeland is obviously wedded to her role. She is this woman, particularly as she involves audience members in the script.

Last year's play was mounted in a semi-circle alcove in Ventfort's large entry. The setting was intimate and ideal for a small audience. Elsie, however, walks and trots around the library where the audience sits cabaret style. As much as this new venue perhaps evokes the character's free life - through the actress' movement and direct interaction with everyone in the room - the problem of where to watch the character is unanswered. Elsie is certainly a woman to keep one's eyes on, but it literally means constantly turning in your seat, craning your neck and/or moving the chair. Return to the alcove.

Ventfort is a hidden gem with much history, some of which is linked to JP Morgan. A suggestion is to plan time before the play to tour the Hall. The Berkshire Designer Showcase (runs through the fall) permits 14 local decorators free reign of one room each on the entire second floor. "Lovely" describes this summer mansion. Also, lovely is young teen tour guide Victoria Mason, who has drenched herself in knowledge of Ventfort since she was age 7. She is articulate and eager to tell the stories of the home and its former residents. And, if there's time, check the amazing doll exhibit.

August 8, 2011

Smetana, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 7, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

Rising 25-year-old French conductor Lionel Bringuier, music director of the Castille orchestra in Spain who just completed a four year term as associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, made a stunning debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He lead a mixed program that showed off his versatility in three staples of the classical and romantic repertoire.

Smetana’s “The Moldau” opened the program in a colorful performance that highlighted the beauty of the BSO strings and woodwinds. Bringuier conducted not only with his baton but with his whole body, using clear, animated hand gestures to mold the music into loving shape. A modest and generous leader, he invited the full orchestra to stand and faced them for a moment before turning to acknowledge the audience’s enthusiastic applause.

Tanglewood favorite Emanuel Ax was the soloist in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat, K. 482. Backed by about 40 BSO players, Ax found an ideal balance between the piece’s lyrical and dramatic elements. His tone was especially limpid in the heart-rending central Andante, one of Mozart’s most poignant and inspired slow movements. As modest as the conductor, Ax shared his bows to the audience ovation with Bringuier and the orchestra, taking only one solo bow himself.     

The program closed with longtime audience favorite and BSO specialty since the Koussevitzky era, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. Here Bringuier really came into his own, taking to heart the composer’s wish for flexibility of tempo, particularly in the tender Andantino second movement. From the symphony’s dark, slow opening through the playful third movement waltz to the triumphant closing notes of the finale, taken at a thrillingly fast pace, he maintained a strong forward momentum that never rushed the quieter passages and gave the piece an uncommonly satisfying cohesion.

The strong rapport that Bringuier established with the orchestra was evidenced by the smiles on many of their faces as they played. His musical maturity, professional generosity, and audience appeal clearly mark him as a man to watch, hopefully in many more performances at Tanglewood.

A Quartet of Plays-1 Hound, 2 Gents, Twins & Molly

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
most through September 4, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Photo By Kevin Sprauge
Read Spotlight’s review of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” from 9/30/2009. (Link HERE) Ditto. The production of this fast, furious, and funny play replicates its success of two years ago. The only significant change is the move from the Bernstein Theatre to Founders Theatre. The latter offers room for additional set surprises. The trio of humorous actors – Ryan Winkles, Josh Aaron McCabe, and Jonathan Croy – coupled with direction by Tony Simotes, make for a play worth seeing at least twice.

“Two Gentlemen of Verona” is a romp with the Actor Training Performance Intern Company. All of the usual Shakespeare stuff fills this comedy: mistaken identity, banishment, love at first sight, a forest, women disguised as men, a duke or two, and a happy ending.

The outdoor Rose Footprint Theatre is home to “The Venetian Twins.” While this Moliere-ish farce could have been penned by The Bard, credit goes to Carlo Goldoni. And, since names are being dropped, keep watching David Joseph – a young actor with charm, versatility, and a singing voice to match any tenor. In the starring dual role (after all, these are identical twins), Joseph is a powerhouse as he runs through the tented stage and spouts hilarious lines. Deftly adapted by the troupe’s talented team of Jonathan Croy and Jenna Ware, the play is easily appreciated on two levels, with puns and asides for adult viewers and straight laughs for younger audience members. BTW, take a look up at the left corner of the tent top to see mother bird feeding her offspring in their nest. How she and the babes contend with ruff ‘n tumble antics of “Twins” is remarkable.

The one woman show, “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” started this week on the Bernstein stage. Who else but Shakespeare & Company’s founder/actress Tina Packer could play such a profound, funny, and big role? Packer gives life to the real Molly, a political journalist of note for several decades.

On any given day except Mondays (even actors need a day of rest), this company mounts at least five plays per day. Whew!


Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through: August 14, 2011
by Barbara Stroup

“Touch(ed)” is a fine two act play that explores the difficulty of psychiatric decision making when there is conflict between professionally-prescribed care and a common sense intuitive, approach.

But that clinical description fails to describe the well-crafted drama presented here: playwright Bess Wohl places two sisters, Kay and Emma, and Kay’s caring boyfriend in an isolated cabin. Kay, the caretaker for 10 years, transports “Penelope” (or Emma, or Madeline) out of institutional care for a week’s trial in the real world. Boyfriend Billy comes along to help.

Wohl balances drama and comedy perfectly, and has an uncommon ear for dialogue that is believable. These three characters are so accessible that they could be a friend or relative of any audience member. Yet their development has multidimensional complexity with each changing as they each see a more nuanced view the world.

The actors – Michael Chernus, Lisa Joyce, and Merritt Wever – in inhabit their roles fully and live in Wohl’s dialogue with compelling comfort. Sensitive to each other, both laugh lines and serious lines work to move the piece forward at an appropriate pace. Without making a caricature of mentally ill people, Wever shows enough expression, gesture and posture to recognize the illness and effects of medications. In Act I, Emma dislikes any touch, and stares at the spot on her sleeve that Kay’s fingers forgetfully inhabited for a micro-second. By the climax, she is reaching out herself. Joyce goes from chirpy, nervous and controlling to angry, burnt-out exasperation and finally to subdued acceptance. Chernus possesses an intrinsically interesting vocal quality that he uses with skill for both comedy and pathos; he was an instantly likable Billy. His character sees the artist in Emma but also supports the controlling caretaker in Kay; Chernus’ interpretation makes all of this work.

The set shows both the inside and outside of the cabin, and a dramatic change in its position contributes to the play’s climactic ending. These are three characters that try to do their best as they deal with problems anyone could face. The viewer feels enriched by having met them.

Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 3, 2011
by Shera Cohen

Just when you thought it was safe to go to the theatre, there it is again – “Romeo and Juliet” (R&J). Lovely, tear-jerking, and meaningful the first time around; mandatory reading in high school and then in college; movie versions produced every decade (whatever happened to Olivia Hussey?); and numerous 20th century adaptations make R&J synonymous with the name of Shakespeare.

BUT, R&J’s return in the Berkshires this summer is definitely worth another look. Boasting a huge cast with young R&J actors (they looked 14, which is the age the doomed lovers should be), director Daniela Varon focuses on the characters. This is no whitewash of Capulet vs. Montague families and a variety of others who populate the stage. Every role is uniquely human. Their names are remembered. Each comes with baggage to create fully fleshed people.

Of course, there’s R&J – David Gelles and Susannah Millonzi. Both are Equity actors who come with experience. However, they portray naivety, joy, wonder, giddiness, and passion. There is not an audience member alive who does not know the play’s finale, and yet we watch and wait as if unknowing. One young teen boy was overhead afterward saying, “I was really hoping they were gonna’ make it this time.” He echoed the thoughts of many.

The stage is stark with a woman’s eyes viewing the audience, the actors dress in white (save for the party scene), the time is the 1500’s or 21st century…it doesn’t matter.
Of particular note is the superior acting of Kevin O’Donnell (Mercutio), Starla Benford (Nurse), and Walton Wilson (Friar). These are important characters, so it’s no surprise that skilled actors were cast. Here, again, the actors develop true, living, hurting people. O’Donnell’s Mercutio oozes the tortured man whose bravado often makes him uneasy to observe. Benford’s Nurse sasses in a spirited and keenly intelligent demeanor beyond her station. Wilson’s Friar ebbs between his devotion to man or to what is holy.

Yes, this R&J is very safe, warm, shocking, and new at Shakespeare & Company.

August 7, 2011

Turn of the Screw

Chester Theater, Chester, MA
through August 14, 2011
by Robbin M. Joyce

There is nothing as fearsome as what the imagination can conjure. Jeffrey Hatcher has taken a story, plucked from the imagination of Henry James, and created an 80 minute psychological thriller that, under the direction of Daniel Elihu Kramer, will seduce even the most skeptical of audience members.

The stage is bare, except for a single Victorian chair lit from below with eerie, gas-style footlights. It is framed by floor-to-ceiling shutters in such a state of disrepair as to simultaneously create a haunted feel and provide a frustrating partial glimpse of the world outside. A low bass note punctuates the tale with an other-worldly resonance.

The story begins with the Narrator, Justin Campbell, relating a story told to him by his sister's Governess. As the story unfolds Campbell deftly becomes multiple characters: the Master, the Housekeeper, the Nephew and even provides vocal sound effects. Campbell moves through his characters with ease, creating a seductive employer that's as believable as his precocious little boy is.

Alison McLemore, as the Governess, takes the audience on her descent into madness. From her appearance as the naïve prospective employee to the self-proclaimed heroine who will save Miles' soul at any expense, McLemore carries her role with an intensity that expertly drives the tension of the story. That tension makes this play worth seeing.

Does the Governess really see the ghosts of her predecessor and the Valet? Are the ghosts trying to possess the children? Is she? The audience is left as frustrated by these unanswered questions as a sexually-repressed, Victorian-age woman would be. But that is the beauty of this play; it's left to the viewer's imagination to decide just how horrific and thrilling it really is.

The Memory Of Water

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2011
by Shera Cohen

One of Shakespeare & Company's best directors, Kevin Coleman, has staged "The Memory of Water," a tragicomedy about death and the reaction of family members who are left to mourn and to laugh. Four of the troupe's excellent actresses (Annette Miller, Corinna May, Kristin Wold, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder) spar in what is definitely a "chick play." Filling the male roles are the company's stronghold actors Nigel Gore and Jason Asprey in smaller roles to augment their leading ladies. Given all of these huge pluses, the production fails to receive the "A" grade normally deemed on this troupe.

The fault lies mostly in the script, and except for some nips and tucks, this critic believes in presenting what is on the page. Shelagh Stephenson's tale, set in 1990's, is jam packed with Black Irish Comedy. Does an audience member have to be Irish to fully "get it"? For a play to be universal in appeal, it is hoped that others "get it" as well. Is death funny? Can warring siblings also be passionate? Are haunting memories sometimes pleasant? Well, yes and no. The actors, along with the handling of their director, try with everything in them to balance their characters' episodes of life and death, love and apathy, and joy and despair. Generally, the seesaw doesn't work, particularly when volume is often over the top. The character who is literally and figuratively most heard happens to be the loudest at the time.

There are, however, wonderfully executed funny sections; i.e. Catherine's (Aspenlieder) health worries, Teresa's (Wold) drunken bout, and Frank's (Asprey) exasperation. Especially humorous is the sibling trio's purge of their deceased mother's clothing, with 1950's garments strewn about the set culminating with a "Mama Mia" standing on the bed finally.

There are many redeeming qualities in "The Memory of Water," and it is an audience member's decision to know if this form of comedy is his choice.

Closing Soon at Berkshire Venues Near You

by Shera Cohen

Trish Brown Dance/Jacob's Pillow
Before it's too late, there are still many excellent performances to see in the Berkshires before Labor Day Weekend.

Berkshire Fringe
Closing soon are: "She Stoops to Conquer" at Williamstown Theatre Festival (Williamstown) where I came, I saw, I conquered this funny costume piece; "The Best of Enemies" at Barrington Stage (Pittsfield), a taut, dramatic, true episode in United States history; Berkshire Choral Festival's (Great Barrington) vocal and orchestral extravaganza of 200 musicians; and Berkshire Fringe's (Great Barrington) motley mix of modern dance, comedy, drama, and music.

There are a couple of more weeks to enjoy: Tanglewood's (Lenox) rehearsals, concerts, contemporary music, student performances, and jazz festival; "Ludwig Live" (Lenox) as Beethoven rocks; Jacob's Pillow's (Becket) best dance troupes all in one location; Capitol Steps' (Lenox) biting and timely comedy; the Wharton Salon at the Mount's (Lenox) new play "Autres Temps"; and the nine comedic, dramatic, Shakespearean and otherwise plays in repertoire at Shakespeare & Company (Lenox). BTW, the theatres mentioned in the above paragraph have another play or two to mount their stages.

Autres Temps/Wharton Salon
Talks/lectures (most are free) abound at: The Mount, Norman Rockwell Museum, Shakespeare & Company, Barrington Stage, Ventfort Hall, and the Berkshire Museum.

Am I forgetting: the Colonial, Mahaiwe, Berkshire Theatre Festival? Anything else? Probably.

August 1, 2011

Haydn and Mahler

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 31, 2011
by Michael J. Moran

Fresh off an all-Brahms program the night before, Christoph Eschenbach, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra and also a distinguished pianist, returned to the Music Shed podium on a gorgeous Tanglewood afternoon to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in another concert drawn from his own Germanic heritage.

Rising star Alisa Weilerstein was the soloist in Haydn's Cello Concerto No. 1 in C, such a staple of the cello repertoire that it's hard to imagine it was unknown since Haydn's lifetime until 1961.  Weilerstein played with a full, rich tone that recalled another champion of this concerto, Mstislav Rostropovich, with whom she once briefly studied. But she and the reduced BSO forces which accompanied her gave Haydn an appropriately light feeling, especially in the fleet and playful finale. Not yet 30, this charismatic young cellist should have a bright musical future.

Following intermission Maestro Eschenbach led the full orchestra in an incandescent performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 1 in D. That he conducted this complex piece without a score suggested that he felt a deep connection to the music, which was evident from the hushed opening notes of the first movement to the triumphant close of the finale almost an hour later.     

Highlights included the slightly but infectiously heavy-footed tempo of the second movement, an Austrian peasant dance in landler rhythm, which Mahler marked to be played "not too fast," and the solo turns by drum, bass, and bassoon players in the haunting third movement, a funeral march based on the children's tune "Frere Jacques."

With his baton Eschenbach achieved a consistently transparent balance throughout the symphony, so that even quiet instruments like the triangle and the harp could always be heard no matter how loud the music around them. It was remarkable how often Mahler's orchestration had the clear texture of chamber music in this performance, enhanced by the Shed's warm and resonant acoustic.

BSO percussionist Frank Epstein, who is retiring after 43 years with the orchestra (and who did yeoman's work with his cymbals in the Mahler) was honored with a standing ovation at the concert's end.