Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 26, 2017

Taking Steps


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 5, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Alan Ayckbourn’s 1979 play, “Taking Steps,” presents a staging challenge for any theater. The play takes place in a large, run-down, three-level house, but the various levels are all played on a flat stage, with location indicated by actors miming the stair steps separating the different floors. Timing and blocking of actors makes up much of the comedy in this farce as actors on the different “levels” pass within a whisker’s distance from each other.

Photo by Daniel Rader
In Barrington Stage Company’s production of this clever, wacky story, director Sam Buntrock moves his actors as though they were chess pieces. Aided by a clever set by Jason Sherwood and punctuated by a complicated lighting system designed by David Weiner, the house becomes a “character” as much as any of actors do. Oh yes, and the house has a history too—it was reputed to have been a brothel, with at least one ghost still frequenting the premises.

The talented sextet of actors each portray strong characters, representing the usual “types” you expect in a farce. On the night I saw the show, Carson Elrod as Tristram, the bumbling representative from a Solicitor’s Office (remember, this is British) was a particular crowd pleaser. Tristram’s physicality and vacuous demeanor play beautifully against the others who all have their own reasons for trying to manipulate the outcome of the story. Another stand-out is Richard Hollis as Roland, the severe “man of the house” who likes to exercise what he sees as his superior intelligence and control, over others. When Roland’s tightly-wound character begins to unravel, we see some of the funniest scenes generating spontaneous belly-laughs from the audience.

The pacing and timing in this production are admirable and the characters strong and convincing. It may take a few more performances for the cast to find their “grove” and make this gem sparkle, but I have no doubt that as this cast’s comfort level on the stage grows, so too will the audience’s appreciation of Ayckbourn’s farce, which offers the best of eccentric characters, silly situations, and opportunities for laughter.

Williamstown & North Adams by Day


by Shera Cohen

Just when friends ask me if I’m too old to jam pack so many cultural activities into one day, I defy the odds. Thursday, July 20th was one of those average days; the trip being Williamstown and neighboring North Adams.

Orchestrating Elegance
Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA
No museum in the U.S. (in my opinion) does grace and style better than Clark. “Orchestrating Elegance: Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and the Marquand Music Room” is the personification of sophistication in wood, design, textiles, sculpture, and drawings. The intricately designed Steinway piano is its centerpiece. One can’t help but “ooh and aah.” To be fair to yourself, don’t rush through, take at least 3-4 hours to appreciate all that there is to offer. www.clarkart.edu

Williams College of Art, Williamstown, MA
On the campus of Williams College, this museum is open year-round to the public. The range of art genres on exhibition is varied. On this day, we saw numerous donations made by former students; some acquisitions bearing the names of a who’s who in the art world. Admission is free. BTW, the gift shop is one of the most all-inclusive in the Berkshires. https://wcma.williams.edu
 
Susan B. Anthony Birthplace, Adams, MA
Our docent is so enthusiastic in relating the story of Susan B. that you would think that they met and were on a first name basis. One of the first feminists, suffragette, abolitionist, and temperance member, Anthony’s home and rural community is, to some degree, translated to tell visitors of this woman’s background and what and why she pursued controversial subject of her day. www.susanbanthonybirthplace.com

MassMoCA, North Adams, MA
Nick Cave
Big is the word. The building. The art installations. The ambition by staff, curators, and artists. In fact, an additional wing was added this year to the existing building. I’m not particularly keen on “big” when art is the subject. However, Nick Cave’s “Until” (leaving in September) is a sparkling, whimsical forest of spinning colorful objects, and foil hanging from ceiling to floor. Visitors walk along a path through this amazing maze. It’s hard to leave. http://massmoca.org

Music from the Hills


by Shera Cohen

There is no escaping music in the Berkshire Hills, even when you are least expecting. In the last six days, I have had five music experiences all within a short drive from each other.

“The Music Man” – Berkshire Theatre Group, Colonial Theatre,
Pittsfield, MA
It is obvious that a play with this title will provide music. I must say that, perhaps except for “Annie” renditions of “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” I would safely say that “The Music Man” claims the distinction of having the most brain worms ever to be found in a musical. “The Wells Fargo Wagon,” “Ya Got Trouble,” and “Gary, Indiana” are still in my head.

Sevenars Music Festival – Worthington, MA
Once a week, the Schrade family hosts a small concert in their lovely, rustic theatre. While the Schrades are usually onstage, the musicians were the talented Emmanuel Feldman (cello) and Joy Cline Phinney (piano). The selected music was penned by Beethoven, Brahms, Gershwin, and George Walker. The latter’s composition, atypical from the others, was upbeat contemporary jazz. Intermission treats included the best mini-├ęclairs I’ve ever tasted. www.sevenars.org

Berkshire Choral Festival – Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Last week’s concert was the last performance by this group to take place in the Berkshires. While 30 or so of the 300 voices were heard on the veranda of the Norman Rockwell Museum, the sampling of BCF talents was heard loud and clear. To me, combining two or more art forms in one venue at the same time, is a class act. Rockwell and Warhol, “accompanied” by folk and show tune songwriters was a perfect mix.
www.berkshirechoral.org

Emerson String Quartet – Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
Shostakovich and The Black Monk, Chekov and Stalin, the Emerson String Quartet and Osawa Hall made for three unique duos. The impetus for my Tanglewood visit was the quartet, not realizing that I would also hear a narrated/acted theatre piece set, in part, to music. Tanglewood is certainly the place to experience ambitious work in music. Admittedly, the sections highlighting the quartet stood out splendidly. The following evening’s concert featured only the quartet. www.bso.org/tanglewood

Lots of bands, 3rd Thursday in Pittsfield, downtown Pittsfield, MA
A walk on Main Street, Pittsfield on each month’s third Thursday makes for a fun community experience for adults and kids. There’s all kinds of food (junk or healthy, entrees or just on a stick), farmers market, hula-hoop contests, basketball games, antique cars, and guys on stilts. And music! Mostly rock, mostly contemporary, and good ol’ oldies tossed into the assortment. www.discoverpittsfield.com

July 25, 2017

Music from the Court of Isabella d’Este”


Aston Magna Music Festival, St. James Place, Great Barrington MA
July 22, 2017
by Barbara Stroup

To conclude their 45th season, Aston Magna Festival offered a concert of 16th century court music, and related their program specifically to the “first woman of the Renaissance,” Isabella d’Este. The concert was thematically organized, beginning with “Infidelity” and ending with “Time to Fish”! Evidently, both of these activities were plentiful; because of her voluminous letter writing, we know they both affected Isabella’s life. Excerpts from her letters (over 12,000 survive), were read with clarity and drama by violist Laura Jeppesen, and were an apt introduction to each section of the program. They ranged from poignant words to the humorous, and were effective in drawing modern listeners into the daily life of a 16th century woman of privilege.

Deborah Rentz-Moore and Aaron Sheehan
Featured were singers Deborah Retz-Moore (mezzo) and Aaron Sheehan (tenor). Both had total command of the music and complimented each other and the instruments well. Although the first half labored to overcome the aural limitations of tessitura and dynamic range, it was highlighted by the “J’ay pris amours” set. This melody (hit song of the age) wears well.

Laura Jeppesen on tenor and bass viol, were joined by Jane Hershey and Emily Walhout on similar instruments. Their ensemble was solid and secure, their sound clear and smooth, and Walhout’s treble playing especially engaging. It might benefit other ensembles for these instrumentalists to share their secret of playing in perfect tune without frequent onstage re-tuning of their gut-strung viols. Isabella, patroness of musicians, poets, and artists would have enjoyed this musical offering.

July 24, 2017

Speech and Debate


Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 29, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Justin Allen
The setting is Salem, Oregon. The young lead characters are misfits who are situated at the core of a larger society of deceptive, immoral, and secretive adults. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to make many comparisons of “Speech and Debate” to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” The key elements are here, whether sited in Massachusetts or across the country in Oregon. Our teenage trio is small in number, up against the corruption of their town and their high school.

Actors Austin Davidson, Ben Getz, and Betsy Hogg each play “weird” exceedingly well, especially Hogg. It is probably safe to assume that the actors are adults in real life. In body and voice, they skillfully portray teens.

“Speech and Debate” is a strange piece of theatre, with music and dance. It is, however, not a musical. Preceding each scene are large video projections of cell phone texts, signs, and haphazard words. In other words, “Speech” is a decidedly contemporary play.

The setting is a single classroom, with a modicum of side sets to establish locations. While Director Jessica Holt succeeds in her casting decisions, she might have made some other choices regarding movement of characters; i.e. the two male teens have a lengthy text conversation from one end of the stage to the other as the audience watches what appears to be a tennis match. Another directing distraction appears at the play’s beginning, as a teacher aimlessly meanders across the classroom.

At ninety-minutes, the play seems long, especially for the many senior citizens at a matinee performance. It is also loud, full of computer jargon, teenage vocabulary, with many flashes of lights. However, the seemingly unending dance piece at the climax of the play is a marvelous semi-free for all set to music. Not to label stereotypes, but those audience members under age 30, seem to enjoy and “get” the characters and their story. “Speech and Debate” is part high school angst. More importantly, the play cloaks very serious subjects in humor.

Edward Albee’s At Home at the Zoo (Zoo Story)


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 26, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
In Act II of Berkshire Theatre Group’s “At Home at the Zoo,” Jerry, the iconic monologist of “Zoo Story: says; “A person has to find a way of dealing with something. If not with people...something." In those two simple sentences you get the message of both acts of the current production on the Unicorn Stage, and actually, the challenges confronting all of Edward Albee’s characters. “At Home at the Zoo (with the original “Zoo Story” as Act II) combines both one of Albee’s most famous one-act plays written in 1958, with a prequel, staged as Act I, called “Homelife,” written in 2009. 

“Homelife” tells the story of Peter (David Adkins) and Ann (Tara Franklin), a married couple who live in New York on the upper East Side who have a stable, but uninspiring marriage. Peter decides to go to Central Park where he often reads on his favorite bench. He meets Jerry (Joey Collins) who epitomizes social angst and mental instability. Albee’s word choices and the juxtaposition of class, privilege, culture and incipient violence are fore-grounded against Randall Parson’s spare but effective set designs, and director Eric Hill has his actors subtly moving as pacing animals, ready to devour each other.

Act I, written fifty years after “Zoo Story,” gives Peter the impetus to go to the park, but we know him better after seeing his domestic life. We learn more about Peter’s own history of power and control, and it’s very easy to empathize with him. This makes Jerry’s presence even more menacing, and whether you know the ending to “Zoo Story” or not, the conclusion of the play still packs a wallop.

The cast and director work in perfect harmony in this production. The repartee in Act I is fast-paced and tight, and Adkins and Franklin are a believable couple. Collins skillfully drives the character of Jerry in Act II, as counterpoint to Adkins’ Peter. None of these roles are easy, but the talented trio of actors makes it look easy—and in so doing, give Albee’s complicated stories a contemporary relevance.

July 21, 2017

Skeleton Crew


Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through July 27, 2017
By Mary Fernandez-Sierra

The Chester Theatre Company presents a heartfelt and powerful tale beautifully performed in Skeleton Crew by Dominque Morisseau.

The scene is deceptively simple: a break-room at an auto factory, where four longtime employees draw the audience into their professional and personal dramas. Their stories become our own, as we watch their struggle to remain true to themselves, each other and their work. Love and laughter are artfully woven into this fine play, as well as truth and tension.

As always at this theatre, the performances are outstanding. Ami Brabson is a feisty powerhouse as Faye, the caring union leader. Christian Henley blazes forth as the fiery and independent Dez, while Shanita, played with joy and a kind of sweet sassiness by Margaret Odette, balances his fury. Daniel Morgan Shelley creates a convincing and realistic portrait of a man truly torn in his loyalties as Reggie, the dedicated factory supervisor.

Director Awoye Timpo brings this story of human strength under duress to life in a straightforward and compelling manner. The pace of the production is lively without being breakneck, giving the fine actors room and time to work their magic.

This company is blessed by an incredible team of artists who support the productions. The scenery designed by David Towlun is artfully unelaborate, revealing a well-worn common room one could see in any workplace, along with some lovely colors and plenty of realistic detail.

The fluorescent lighting effects designed by Lara Dubin were incredibly true to life, and the music added by Tom Shread added so much to the contemporary flavor and down-to-earth mood. Costumes by Elizabeth Pangburn reflected the characters and situation to perfection.

With its wonderful production assets, gripping story and fine performances, Skeleton Crew is well worth the journey to Chester, MA. Don’t miss it… only a few performances left!

July 17, 2017

Where Storms Are Born

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 23, 2017
By Barbara Stroup

Photo by Daniel Rader
The presentation of a brand new play takes some institutional courage, especially in a setting like the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where the season is short and the sixty-three season reputation is stellar. There is nothing shaky about “Where Storms Are Born” by Harrison David Rivers - a tight, true work from a voice that seems secure and authentic. The audience meets a mother and son just past a crisis, adjusting to a recent loss while discovering both individual strengths and the strength that comes from family bonds.

The creation of complex characters seems to flow from Mr. Rivers’ pen, drawing the viewer into both the family and the situation. In Bethea, his writing reveals layer after layer of a mother’s grief, humor, and inner resources.  Myra Lucretia Taylor is amazing in this key role – humorous, poignant, maternal and just plain believable. Her sons, Myles and Gideon, were ably acted by Christopher Livingston and LeRoy McClain.

Although the themes of wrongful incarceration, prison death, single parenting, and gay relationships have currency and newsworthiness, this is not a “campaign” play. The almost all-white audience seemed to have no difficulty identifying with the ups and downs of the on-stage family. There was just the right mix of humor to leaven the serious side, especially in Joniece Abbott-Pratt’s portrayal of a best friend aptly named Worthy. The dance sequence was a happy highlight.

Staging was minimal and effective use of a table at center stage allowed the frequent scene shifts to be seamless. The fire escape that dominated the set was where the brothers bonded, allowing the audience to see unusual and welcome expressions of tenderness between two men of color.

A play like this is why theater matters; we go sit in the dark to meet characters like this, and we leave thinking more fully about them, and even thirsting to know more of their journeys.

July 14, 2017

Sondheim & Ella @ Pops/TMC

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July-8-9, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Amid the normal classical fare offered at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer home in the  Berkshire hills of western Massachusetts, two unusual concerts were presented during the iconic festival’s opening 2017 weekend: the meta-musical “Sondheim on Sondheim” Saturday; and an American Songbook tribute to Ella Fitzgerald honoring her centennial on Sunday. Both programs featured Boston Pops musicians, largely drawn from the BSO, student musicians from the Tanglewood Music Center, and professional singers.

BSO.org Photo: Keith Lockhart
The musical, semi-staged in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, features projected video clips of Stephen Sondheim, the dean of Broadway composer/lyricists, describing his life and career, interspersed with live performances of 24 selections from his body of work. Keith Lockhart, now in his 22nd year as Pops Conductor, led the ensemble, including musical director David Loud on piano, in full-blooded accounts of sumptuous new orchestrations by Michael Starobin.

Among the four brilliant Broadway singers, bass-baritone Philip Boykin stood out for his passionate intensity in “Epiphany” from “Sweeney Todd” and unexpected humor in “Opening Doors” from “Merrily We Roll Along.” Among the four outstanding TMC singers, tenor Daniel McGrew made the strongest impression for his vocal beauty and acting chops in “Being Alive” from “Company” and “Finishing the Hat” from “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The Fitzgerald tribute opened with an “Ella at Tanglewood Overture,” by aptly named music director, arranger, and TMC faculty member Lee Musiker. Soprano Dawn Upshaw, Head of the TMC Vocal Arts program, introduced the show as a chance for TMC vocal fellows “to get their feet a little wet” in the American Songbook repertoire, often for the first time. She and TMC faculty colleague mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe joined six student singers and three student pianists in performing on stage.

Who knew that Upshaw could swing so naturally in Cole Porter’s “Just One of Those Things” or that Ella-style scat could sound so second-nature to Blythe in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies?” Other highlights were a heartrending take on Carmichael and Mercer’s “Skylark” by TMC baritone Ryne Cherry, and TMC soprano Elaine Daiber’s hilarious “To Keep My Love Alive,” by Rodgers and Hart. Musiker’s witty touches ranged from a bit of Messaien’s “Woodlark” in “Skylark” to Saint-Saens’ “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice” from “Samson and Delilah” in the Gershwins’ “But Not for Me.”

Audience members at both productions can say they saw this versatile new generation of musicians here first.

July 13, 2017

Schrade and James Family Concert


Sevenars Music Festival, The Academy, Worthington, MA
July 9-August 13, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Among local summer music festivals, Tanglewood may have the bigger name, but the music making at Sevenars is just as distinguished, the venue is a lot more intimate, and the repertoire on any one program is likely to be a good deal more eclectic. Such was certainly the case at the opening concert of the 49th season of this beloved family-based festival, founded by Robert and Rolande Schrade and named after the first letter of their names and those of their five children.

The featured performers were pianists Rorianne Schrade, her brother Randolph Schrade, their brother-in-law David James, his daughter Lynelle James, and his son, cellist Christopher James. As Rorianne quipped before the last piece, the concert could have been titled “From Summerland to Summertime,” as it opened with a tender performance by herself and David on two pianos of William Grant Still’s brief and lovely meditation “Summerland,” and closed with a rip-roaring account by herself and Lynelle of Percy Grainger’s 20-minute knuckle-buster, “Fantasy on George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.” 

The tempo picked up after “Summerland” with a virtuosic rendition by David and Christopher of Paganini’s typically challenging “Variations on a Theme from Moses in Egypt,” a rarely heard opera by Rossini. Their Tchaikovsky “Pezzo Capriccioso” was an engaging mix of liveliness and poignancy. Randolph brought clarity and emotional depth to two Brahms pieces, a “Capriccio” and an “Intermezzo.” He and Christopher played the familiar “Meditation” from Massenet’s opera “Thais” radiantly. After a sunny account by Christopher and Rorianne of Cassado’s charming “Requiebros” (“Compliments”), the first half of the concert closed with Lynelle’s powerhouse rendition of Liszt’s “Mephisto Waltz No. 1.” 

In total contrast, Christopher opened the second half with a stately performance of the “Prelude” from Bach’s sixth cello suite. And David invested the theme and variations in Schubert’s B-flat Major Impromptu with drama and flair.

Sevenars intermissions offer free home-baked treats, and the musicians line up after the concert to greet, thank, and chat with audience members. Area classical fans are well-advised to include Sevenars, along with Tanglewood, on their summer “to do” list.

The First Annual Berkshires Art & Culture Festival (in Lenox)


Happy walls make happy people
By Shera Cohen

This successful Festival has taken place for many years in the Berkshires at the July 4th weekend, which is why it should sound familiar. However, this year marks the launch of BAF in Lenox, offering residents and tourist more opportunities to experience fine art on August 17-20, 2017, Eastover Retreat, Lenox, MA.

Why add a festival? According to Richard Rothbard, Executive Director of BAF, who paraphrases the well-known saying about success, responds, “Success breeds more of the same.”

ITS:   How did the Festival begin?

BAF: I was age 5 when I went to summer camp in Becket and then for many years. It was a special place. Years later, it hit me that the Berkshires is the right place for an arts festival. We opened at Ski Butternut. Almost 5,000 visitors attended. It was a monumental success. The artists did very well. It has pretty much gone that way ever since.

ITS:  What was the impetus for expansion to other locations, dates, and to Lenox? 

BAF: I have opened many art events. It’s a challenge that I love, and it’s my career. Creating opportunities for artists to sell their work is a remarkable and complex process. You become a go-to person for the wants and needs of a lot of strangers who are counting on you to bring them crowds of shoppers and hopefully buyers. Lenox is the cultural anchor of the Berkshires. When I discovered the Eastover Resort & Retreat it became clear that I needed to launch another show in Lenox. All the elements were in full boom in mid-August.

ITS:  Was it your goal to expand or did this happen because of the success of your prior festivals.

BAF: It takes a lot of advertising and marketing to get the attention of your customer. You need thousands of people to attend if your artists are going to be happy. If people don’t buy, then the show won’t have a future. I think the Lenox show has a lot of potential.

ITS: Who runs the show? Is it judged? What is the criteria?

BAF: We are the owners of An American Craftsman Galleries in NYC and Stockbridge. We curate or jury our shows to create an experience that has a broad appeal. Visitors will meet artists who exhibit in the Philadelphia and Smithsonian Craft Shows as well as artists who design and make work that is affordable and more utilitarian. Quality of workmanship and original design are primary when selecting artists.

ITS: What is your background? Are you an artist? 

BAF: I have always had a passion for theater. But, I did get my degree in finance and then spent 7 years in NYC pursuing an acting career. Played the Boy in“The Fantastiks” off-Broadway, had a lot of summer stock, and some TV commercials. I discovered the wood working of George Nakashima, and followed a path from furniture making to developing my version of the puzzled box and miniature boxes that tell stories. Boxology.com. I have had a 40 -year career exhibiting at fairs throughout the country, opening galleries, and producing art events.
 
ITS: Why would you say it is important to purchase original art?

BAF: Both fine art and fine craft are part of the mixed work you will find in our shows. Purchasing a handmade object directly from the artist will bring tons of pleasure year after year because you know the actual maker. Buying directly from the makers has become a way of life for many people. Here is some food for thought.

Owning original artwork has a positive effect on the environments of people who own it, which inevitably makes life more enriching. Art is more than just decoration; it inspires us to look at the world in a different way. Buying art supports artists directly, allowing them to continue with their creative process, which in turn continues to improve the quality of life for all of us. Handmade anything beats mass-produced any day.

Owning something that's all yours is an exciting thing. Explore the world of art if you haven't started already. Don't worry about the d├ęcor. Just buy what you like. Happy walls make happy people.

For information on the Berkshire Arts Festival in Lenox, check the following websites: http://www.berkshiresartsfestival.com or Americanartmarketing.com


Photos: from Berkshires Art & Culture Festival
 

July 5, 2017

The Model American

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 9
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Daniel Rader
The World Premiere of Korean-born playwright Jason Kim’s play explores the American Dream; what it means to different people, how it is viewed throughout the world, and how pursuing it affects the human soul.   Director Danny Sharron has created a tight-knit production that unfolds seamlessly, even though each scene has a unique pace and tension.  While the outcome of the play is somewhat expected, the joy in this production is watching the six actors develop their characters and create real people and relationships that challenge our expectations of stereotypical portrayals of the “other.” Rarely are we treated to such honesty in performance.

Every actor is unique and believable, and therefore deserves recognition.  Hiram Delgado as Gabriel is the central protagonist who goes through a metamorphosis in this 95 minute production.  This young actor is someone to watch for—his sincerity and character development is nothing less than outstanding. He’s joined by Laila Robins, a seasoned actress who can raise the bar on innuendo with the raise of an eyebrow.   Maurice Jones as the idealistic boss who followed his own American Dream and Sheria Irving as his sister, whose stint in rehab indicates that siblings often take different direction, create a very believable family unit.  Micah Stock’s physicality as a Westchester slacker provides a perfect counterpoint to the ambitious Gabriel, and Han Jonghoon, who performs both in Korean and English adds to the character-driven drama and makes you wonder if he is channeling the playwright’s own voice.

The play is all about the characters and it takes place on Wilson Chin’s spare, but effective set.  Along with Eric Southern’s lighting design, this production makes you marvel at how such a spare set can lend itself to so many uniquely developed scenes. While I found the predictability of the play somewhat disappointing, I was left with deep appreciation for the way these artists developed this work and gave the audience something to think and talk about. 

This play was developed through the Bill Foeller Fellowship Program at Williamstown Theatre Festival starting in 2016, and it is an excellent example of what can become of great concept, in the hands of talented, hard-working professionals.  I think this play could well have a long, successful life in theatre.

July 3, 2017

The Roomate

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 16, 2017
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Daniel Rader
Hartford-born playwright Jen Silverman has a knack for matching dialog to regional culture and in exploring the challenges of middle-age. “The Roommate,” which is one of her newest plays, features a female odd-couple who seem to have nothing in common until they try to live together and find out they can help each other escape the lives they’ve accepted as “normal.” 

This production features two extraordinary actresses known to many from their iconic television portrayals, but each is cast against “type.” S. Epatha Merkerson, known to many as Lt. Van Buren from “Law & Order,” plays Sharon, an Iowa housewife who leads a staid life until Robyn, a rebellious woman from the Bronx, comes to share her home. Jane Kaczmarek, known to many as the mom from the television series “Malcolm in the Middle” plays Robyn, the “bad girl” laying low in Sharon’s Iowa home.  Though both actresses have extensive theatre, television, and film credentials, watching them together on stage is a treat. The electricity they generate is palpable, and their professional (and personal) generosity toward each other enhances the growing relationship their characters project.

Director Mike Donohue has helmed several of Silverman’s earlier plays, including the world premiere of “The Roommate” in 2015, but his talent lies in balancing the elements of the play that people can relate to, like motherhood and social isolation, with the exaggerated comedy of the situations that ensue as two very different women meet and explore friendship and survival. The juxtaposition of the real and comic situations prompt the audience to laugh loud and laugh often, but the message of the play is also more than that of a staged sit-com. It is a respectful nod to the need to continually challenge one’s self and cope with change. And even better, it is a respectful look at women in their ‘50’s who can be desperate, fun, sexy, and adventurous—all at the same time.  

“The Roommate” is the first of Williamstown’s Main Stage productions, and it sets a high bar for the rest of the season. One can only hope that Jen Silverman continues to write with such feeling and compassion, and that these two delightful actresses will be back again.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, abridged (revised)

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford CT
through July 30, 2017
by Barbara Stroup

‘Tis noble indeed, to undertake this title but in an age of speed reading, speed listening, and speed watching, the Bard is very much “on speed” in Playhouse on Park’s current production.

The play opens with an address to the audience because the actors are late and the props missing. So the shenanigan tone is set from the start by three superb comic actors who can also lapse into iambic pentameter when needed (but rarely so). This production is full of laughs – literary and visual -with only a few references to the familiar serious speeches.

Dispensing with authenticity, all 42 titles (and sonnets) listed in the program get at least a cursory representation in the course of the two-hour show. The three actors (two male and one female) trade roles, wigs, and titles while performing physical feats faster than a gymnastic tumbling troop. There were so many laughs that those lines which only reached a part of the theatre were not even missed. Most memorable moment of many was the use of a red scarf after a throat “slitting.” The audience even gets involved at times, and the play builds to a finish with “Hamlet”. Even more laughs and surprises occur after the (phony) curtain.

Hanna Cheek, Rich Hollman and Sean Harris need not use their gym memberships during the one month run – one hopes they are treated to a massage after each performance. They are well-matched in timing, vocal presence and their ensemble abilities are superb. Because of the pace, the actors must be receiving some finely-tuned backstage support as well. This evening of lighthearted, irreverent humor provides a great theatrical experience.