Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 20, 2017

SSO Opening Night: Prokofiev Piano Concerto


Springfield Symphony, Springfield, MA
October 14, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

To open the SSO’s 74th season and his own 17th season as their music director, Kevin Rhodes told the Springfield Republican, he planned a program of three musical pieces that “should take us to lots of places.”

After an exuberant sing-along season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner,” the concert proper began with a rousing take on the Overture to Rossini’s comic opera “The Thieving Magpie,” in which a servant girl is saved from the gallows when a missing spoon is found in a magpie’s nest. Having just produced an exciting drum roll throughout the national anthem, a stalwart SSO percussionist played the overture’s opening snare drum solo with equal flair, and the full ensemble nicely captured the zany high spirits of Rossini’s score.

Claire Huangci
Making her third appearance with the SSO, 27-year-old Chinese-American pianist Claire Huangci gave what she had promised and dubbed a “no-holds-barred performance” of Prokofiev’s rarely heard second piano concerto. Overshadowed by his more popular first and third concertos, the second presents formidable technical challenges, which Huangci overcame with ease. Its exotic melodies and often percussive orchestration were expertly rendered by all the musicians.

The audience enjoyed it so much that Huangci played a contrasting encore, the title theme from “Beauty and the Beast,” which she joked was “appropriate” for the bouquet of red roses she had just received from maestro Rhodes.

In another change of mood, the program closed after intermission with the second and sunniest of Brahms’ four symphonies in a tenderly affectionate rendition. From the heartfelt opening “Allegro non troppo,” through the radiant “Adagio non troppo” and the gentle “Allegretto gracioso,” to the jubilant “Allegro con spirito” finale, conductor and orchestra achieved a perfect balance of skillful ensemble and emotional commitment.   

In pre-concert remarks, Rhodes announced that each concert this season would introduce a new feature to the concert experience. Tonight’s innovation was “real time notes” during the Brahms symphony, which audience members in the balcony could follow on their cell phones as the music unfolded. The large number of young people present suggested that this 21st-century strategy just might work.

WAM & The Last Wife


Bernstein Theatre, Lenox
through November 5, 2017
by Shera Cohen

The most important work of WAM is not the arts, or theatre in particular, but charity and goodwill. Since 2010, WAM Theatre (Where Arts & Activism Meet) has donated more than $32,500 to 12 nonprofit organizations that benefit women and girls, and provided paid work to more than 200 theatre artists.

Photo by Kristen van Ginhoven
WAM was founded in 2010, and “The Last Wife” marks the  end of its eighth season. In total, WAM has presented one Main Stage play each fall. Also filling out WAM’s calendar is its reading series which presents works in progress by local artists. A younger troupe, The Girls Ensemble, has performed original works in 2016 and 2017. WAM  also collaborates on community events, such as the Facing Our Truth project in 2016 and our Sister March event in solidarity with the Women's March on Washington this past January.

I had the opportunity to see a preview of “The Last Wife” by Kate Hennig. The wife, in this instance, is Katherine Parr, the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, who not only saved her head but also outlived her husband.

Enticing me to attend this play was the collaboration of WAM with Shakespeare & Company. The latter contributed three of its finest actors in lead roles; Nehassaiu deGannes (Kate), a spunky, articulate new-comer in the Berkshires who shined this summer in “Intimate Apparel;” John Hadden (Henry), a regular at Shakespeare & Co. whose attention to drama is especially unique; and David Joseph (Thom), a suave young man, who seems to have grown up before my eyes, with a cunning grin.

WAM has some challenges, as do other stages in the Berkshires. The most significant hurdle is timing. Since it’s no longer summer, attending performances at Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Theatre Group, and Barrington Stage in the fall months is not an immediate thought when seeking theatre. Many venues are trying to stretch their calendars. I honestly don’t know if it works – only the box office staff know for sure -- but I have to say that I attended three of this year’s best productions this month – yes, in October.

The Wolves


TheaterWorks, Hartford, CT
through November 10, 2017
by Jennifer Curran

Photo by Lanny Nagler
“The Wolves,” written by Sarah DeLappe, is as complex and honest as it is heart-breaking and hopeful. Having had a successful Broadway run in 2016, DeLappe’s first play has been produced in regional theaters across the country. “The Wolves” is a war story, told one soccer match at a time. The battlefield might be an indoor soccer field and the soldiers teenaged girls, but this is the very essence of fight to win. The ten-member cast of women, all un-named, marches and spars and sweats together. The ensemble work that stormed the stage at TheaterWorks was a rare and stunning dance of control and chaos.

A Pulitzer Prize Finalist and multiple award winning play, “The Wolves,” introduces and then lays bare the inner lives of these nine ferocious girls with all the gory, gutsy, and heartbreaking truth a writer can fit into 90 minutes. Here, the audience is more voyeur than active participant. As the girls fight to win, for control, for a place, for answers, we are watching them struggle to survive the world that they have inherited with the tools they’ve been given. Nobody said it would be a fair fight.

These girls are middle America, and they are living in the upper middle class suburban dream created by Boomers and later perfected by Generation X. They are exactly who the two generations hoped their daughters would be. Perhaps the moms didn’t realize that hopes can be interpreted as unfulfill-able demands by their daughters.

This is a play with a drumbeat heart that requires a master at the helm. With dialogue so dense, a lesser director would allow for unwelcome air between the rapid-fire dialogue. What a travesty that would be. Under Eric Ort’s direction, there is barely room for an extra atom of oxygen. The show hurtles by with almost zero moments of silence or stillness. Those moments, when they do happen, grab and shake and hold long after the curtain call.

October 10, 2017

Beethoven’s Eroica


Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 6–8, 2017
by Michael J. Moran

Conductor Carolyn Kuan
The “Star-Spangled Banner,” which launched each concert in this opening weekend program of the HSO’s 74th season, took on a personal meaning for Carolyn Kuan, Saturday, when she and 10 other Connecticut residents became American citizens at a naturalization ceremony held earlier on the same stage. Beginning her own seventh season as HSO Music Director, Kuan led the national anthem with a festive enthusiasm that drew a standing ovation from a full house.

The concert proper began with a majestic account of Beethoven’s dramatic “Egmont” Overture. Part of  a score written for Goethe’s 1810 play about a nobleman who led a revolution in 16th-century Holland against Spanish tyranny, the overture depicts the suffering of the Dutch people, the execution of Count Egmont, and the jubilation of eventual victory. Conductor and orchestra brought it to vibrant life.

Yugo Kanno next gave two Japanese instruments, the koto (a zither-like stringed device) and the shakuhachi (a vertical bamboo flute), solo roles in his concerto “Revive.” Played with virtuosity by Masayo Ishigure and Kojiro Umezaki respectively, they blended delicately with the sumptuous orchestra, which reflected the composer’s primary experience in writing film music. The three movements of this 2014 piece progress from the tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami which hit Japan in 2011 to the reconstruction of many destroyed communities. The musicians honored the composer’s intentions with an affecting performance.

A dynamic reading of Beethoven’s third (“Eroica”) symphony brought the program to a triumphant close. From the energetic opening “Allegro con brio,” through the somber “Funeral March” and the uproarious “Scherzo,” to the exuberant theme and variations “Finale,” Kuan and her ensemble vividly conveyed the massive scale of this unprecedented work, which introduced the modern symphony.

Under the enlightened leadership of their new American conductor, this program was an inspiring start for the HSO’s upcoming season.

Much Ado About Nothing


Suffield Players, Suffield, CT
through October 21, 2017
by Shera Cohen

This is not your usual review, but a commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, “Much Ado About Nothing,” and community theatre.

Last weekend I enjoyed the fun of “Much Ado” at Suffield Players. Bravo to Suffield for taking on the task of mounting a play whose language is far from the norm. It’s difficult enough to learn lines, let alone Shakespeare’s. While Friday nights are traditionally sluggish for actors, crew, and audience members who are tired at the end of their work weeks, it was disappointing that so few attended what I consider, one of the Bard’s best.

Aside from “Romeo and Juliet,” a given for all high school students who intend to graduate, I suggest that today’s audience look at “Much Ado” as Shakespeare 101. Please, do not heed the many “warnings” about attending a Shakespeare play. I won’t understand it. I’ll have to pay attention to every word. It’s ancient history. It doesn’t relate to me. It’s long and boring. There are too many characters to remember. It’s expensive. The man is dead and who cares.

Now, let’s look at various bright sides of “Much Ado,” Suffield Players,” and theatre. This is a Comedy. Sections of some of the Dramas can be a bit difficult to understand at times, and (admittedly) good chunks of the History plays as well, but laughter and the reasons audiences laughed in the 1500’s England (or any other venue used by Shakespeare; i.e.  Italy, France, or fantasy islands) are pretty much the same now.

This production has been set in the Roaring 20’s (that’s 1920’s, not 1520’s), New York with nifty costumes, hairstyles, and music that accentuates the time. While this play is not nearly as long as some of Shakespeare’s, just the same, it has been adapted and edited enough to tell the entire story without skimping. In other words, the play is short.

The Cast
Yes, there are many characters, but again, the editor’s computer has deleted the unnecessary. The comprehensive plot is intact whether it be set five centuries ago or 100 years. “Much Ado” is a humorous love story. The male feigns disinterest in his female counterpart. In turn, she pretends to care less. There’s lots of humorous scheming by friends and family who want to make the two a match. It’s no spoiler alert that, indeed, Beatrice and Benedict wed at play’s end.

Most importantly, neither you nor the people with you, or for that matter most in the audience, will comprehend every word. Don’t even try. It doesn’t matter. Trust me, you will “get it” quickly, with no brain cells lost in this seemingly arduous task. The fact that a community theatre troupe, Suffield Players, is the producer, indicates that this “Much Ado” or any other Shakespearean play will be easily accessible. Also, by trying out Shakespeare at this level of theatre, you get top quality at a good price.

Any Shakespeare play featuring bumbling Keystone Kops has got to be fun for all. Give the Bard a shot. And remember that “Much Ado” is where you should start.

Gaslight


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through October 22, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Scott Barrow
Undeniably, the best tales of psychological suspense were those in black & white; i.e. movies. Films, primarily from the mid-1930’s-1950’s, provided the ideal canvas for sinister, manipulative, crafty stories. Probably, most readers of this review have seen the film version of Patrick Hamilton’s play, “Gaslight” – surely the benchmark tale of pure cerebral evil. Think Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman; yes, that’s the one.

Precise, impeccable, and intelligent husband Jack and irresponsible, dull, and confused wife Bella live in a large mid-19th century home. Every wall and most furnishings are brown. From the play’s start, the dark façade, coupled with macabre violin notes, are intriguing clues. At its crux, Jack’s goal, disguised under the cloak of care and concern, is to make Bella think that she is insane. [In fact, the verb “gaslight” was coined from the original 1938 play, then 1944 movie.] Jack is obviously doing a damn good job of it; we see this pathetic, duped woman, sinking into madness.

“Gaslight” features three primary characters: Jack, Bella, and Inspector Rough. In smaller, yet important roles are their two women servants. Having seen Mark H. Dold (Jack) in several Barrington shows, I knew that in demeanor, looks, voice, grin, playfulness, and concentration to minutia of each element, no other actor could fit the part. Jack must be precise and calculating always. Dold portrays cunning and controlling with capital “Cs” as his character proceeds in his unstoppable mission. Kim Stauffer (Bella) is not quite Dold’s match, although her character is never intended to equal that of Jack, either. Stauffer comes on strong in Act I as unassertive and pitiful. As the play proceeds, it is a bit unclear if Stauffer depicts Bella as silly or truly at the brink of despair. The latter is what the audience needs to see. Kevin O’Rourke (Inspector) represents a tough, determined man with a cold case on his hands. O’Rourke’s dialog offers him snippets of humor which come naturally from his role. It is also O’Rourke’s job to provide the exposition of the plot. This becomes talky, but the actor is an excellent storyteller with a resonant voice.

Director Louisa Proske, somewhat of a Barrington regular, is skilled at focusing on new plays, most fast paced and situated on unusual sets. It is clear she has a deft hand at a classic, as well, especially in her complex movements of Jack in Act II.

Listening to remarks of many audience members exiting the theatre, the common thought was, “I’ve got to see the movie, again.”

October 6, 2017

Interview with Kate Hennig, Playwright of “The Last Wife"

WAM Theatre, Lenox
by Gail Burns

Kate Hennig is a diverse, multi-award-winning theatre artist, with over 30 years of professional experience as a performer. “The Last Wife” was inspired by the life of Katherine Parr (1512-1548), the last of the six wives of King Henry VIII. Katherine was an educated woman who had had two husbands before Henry. Hennig’s play tells the story of Kate and Henry.

SPOTLIGHT: How did you come to write this play?
KATE HENNIG: This strange journey started for me in 2011, during the Arab spring. I was looking at all these dictators, these men in the Middle East who were overthrown, and I started looking for the women. Where were the women in this story? My thoughts went straight to Henry VIII, as he is an identifiable dictator of my own cultural past.

SPOTLIGHT: And what drew you to specifically to Katherine Parr?
KATE: I learned how unique her relationship with, and influence on, Henry was among his wives. She could speak to him the way none of the others could, and he would take the sharpness of her tongue. Her influence over his daughters Mary and Elizabeth was tremendous. The letters between Katherine and Henry’s son, Edward VI, are intimate and moving.

Did you know Katherine Parr was the first woman to have her writing published in the English language under her own name? Why don’t we know more about this woman who had so many accomplishments in her own right?

SPOTLIGHT: What inspired you to move the story to the present day?
KATE: I set it in the present day because that’s the root of my interest. There are women now who are silent, like the women behind those Arab Spring leaders. I look at ISIL/ISIS – where are the women? That led me to use the contemporary voice, to try to echo what women are dealing with now in what Katherine was dealing with. It is still happening. We struggle to find a place in leadership as women and we still struggle to find a voice. We have come a long way in recent decades, but the Tudors had come a long way too. Tudor women were given fantastic educations, they were writers, they were humanists, and then BOOM the Puritans came in and it was all undone. The male animal is larger and can always physically dominate, and is prone to dominate. We see that now. This story fits neatly in to present day American politics, audiences will see the correlation.

SPOTLIGHT: Is playwriting a new venture for you?
KATE: I’ve been writing plays for 14 years, which is not long in the scope of my 35-year career in theatre. Being an actor, I have an understanding from the inside of how the play structure works and how characters work. I would be happy to act any of the roles in my work. I wouldn’t want to put any character up on stage who is boring to play or who has little to do.

SPOTLIGHT: The Last Wife had its premiere last summer at the Stratford Festival. That’s an auspicious beginning!
KATE: This is the first major production I’ve had of my work. I have a long history at Stratford. It is thrilling to have an organization of this caliber take your play and do it with some of the best actors and a top-notch creative team. It was an extraordinary experience for me. Before anyone had even seen the play, six months before the opening, we were selling out, so obviously the subject matter and the actors and the Stratford setting appealed to audiences. Then once the play was running they sold out and extended the run three times. I was gob-smacked and really humbled to have a beginning like that to my playwriting career.

The Northeast Regional Premiere of “The Last Wife” takes place at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, October 13 – November 5, 2017. For ticket information check WAM’s website at www.WAMtheatre.com.

October 5, 2017

Les Misérables


The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through October 8, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Deen Van Meer
Just when I thought that it might be over-kill for me to see "Les Miz" for the 10th time, I was wrong. While this big and bold, dramatic and dark, one of a kind musical has been produced on Broadway and regionally for decades, last night’s “Les Miz” was new. It was a treat for me that my Plus 1 guest was a newbie to the show.

Not that the 10th time was a charm, and my previous outings were second-rate prelude versions, but “new” is the simplest and best word to describe the Bushnell’s production. The first percussion beats of the orchestra keeping time to the slaves at their ores marks an immediate fresh start for what will be three hours of intensity. Victor Hugo’s story of justice, redemption, and forgiveness gnaws at the core of each main character. It was easy to see that even behind the beard, long hair, and rags was the youngest Jean Valjean that I had seen. Nick Cartell, who lacks the experience of a mature actor took on this herculean role only two months ago. Yet, he has embodied every cell of his character’s voice, demeanor, and gestures.

His match is nemesis Javert, portrayed by Josh Davis. The character is complex. Davis’ power makes his audience slowly learn what makes Javert tick. Certainly, it is no spoiler to mention Javert’s demise. This, too, is new. In a heartbeat one set weaves into another, music intensifies, and lighting techniques become indescribable. The craftspersons on electronics, working in tandem with the musicians, shine a new light throughout the entire production.

When my Plus 1 friend looked through the program book she noted the long list of songs. I agreed, describing the ever-present refrains of “One Day More,” “Master of the House,” and “The People’s Song” which carry the plot points through at an exciting pace.

The balance of ensemble numbers with solos is perfection. Just when you “pick” your favorite singer, comes the next who is equally exquisite. Each lead is given his/her moment to shine: Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” combines beauty with anger, Eponine’s “On My Own” presents a sweet torch song, “Marius’ “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” laments friendship. Javert’s “Stars” and “Soliloquy” give his character a wrenching sadness. Of course, Jean Valjean is given the bulk of the solo work. Without a doubt, Cartell is up to the task from his strong introductory “Soliloquy” to self-questioning “Why Am I” and signature piece, the emotional “Bring Him Home.”

“Les Miz” is superb – its music, story, message, and characters, especially in this production.

October 3, 2017

Lost Lake


Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
www.berkshiretheatregroup.org
through October 22, 2017
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Renting a lakeside cabin for a week should be a simple transaction, but for the two characters in “Lost Lake,” it becomes a learning experience. Their lives start intersecting when city-based Veronica, making summer plans for her kids, inspects Hogan’s lakeside cabin. She sees that he is an overeager advice-giver in a near-subsistence existence. Unimpressed, she rents it anyway. Over the course of her week’s stay and a visit six months later, these two reveal their back stories to each other.

David Auburn’s two-character play is never wordy; it is serious when it needs to be with interjections of humor just when they are needed. Quentin Maré brings the perfect voice and physicality to the part of Hogan – it seems to have been written for him. His gradual self-revelations allow the audience to grow into a relationship with the character, to appreciate his torments and see his vulnerabilities. Maré’s timing is exquisite.

Lynnette R. Freeman’s Veronica is less volatile but still finds herself suppressing frustration with Hogan – the audience learns that she has her own set of problems. Hogan’s presence both unsettles and saves her. Honesty between them is the result of these struggles, and admiration from the audience as well.

The clever set design has three entrance doors and ample space; the characters’ movements seem appropriate and not excessive. The backdrop shows a dreamy lake view where the audience can imagine the dock Hogan promises to repair and Veronica’s children splashing in the water. Time and seasonal changes are signaled clearly but unobtrusively by the writer and the director.

This play is a quiet triumph of character writing and narrative and a fitting finale to the season. Next year, Berkshire Theatre Festival celebrates 90 years of bringing live theatre to Stockbridge residents and visitors; one looks forward eagerly to plays of this quality in 2018.

Interview with First-Timer at Paradise City


By Jenn Curran
 
Meet Katherine “Kat” McClelland, mixed media artist from Western Massachusetts. Paradise City Arts in Northampton is featuring McClelland’s work this October for the first time. The artist works with acrylics, sculpture and fiber. Her focus recently has been on her work in fiber arts. Her incredibly detailed portraits, needle felted on wet felted backgrounds, deliver imagery rich with texture and depth adding to the overall impact of the individual piece.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Maine and grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania. I attended Maryland Institute College of Art where I met my husband, Ryan. I am a mom to two lovely girls. I spent 14 years teaching Special Education and Literacy. I earned my Masters of Education at UMASS, and presently I teach art for the Department of Youth Services (DYS).

Why do you do what you do?
I can’t imagine not creating. Even when I had small kids, worked a full-time job, and was earning my master’s degree, I was creating art. The simplest answer is because I have to.

How do you work?
My work often begins with a visual that catches my eye. One piece will lead to another. I’ll wonder what if I changed or added this or that. Recently all my focus has been on felting. I work from photographs. For my more complicated pieces, I’ll do sketches and paintings before beginning the felt piece.

What’s integral to the work of an artist?
Inspiration, support, and time. I am in short supply of the latter! My husband is my support; I respect his honest feedback and opinion. My daughters are my inspiration. My older daughter often helps photograph my subjects; her images inspire my work, and my younger is often the subject of my pieces.

If you could snap your fingers and make any piece of art legally and freely appear inside your house, what piece would it be?
That’s a tough one. If I had to choose it would probably be Klimt, maybe “The Kiss.” Perhaps a John Singer Sargent or Frida Kahlo piece. Can I have a whole gallery? It would be eclectic but awesome with some art quilts, ceramic pieces, and paintings!