Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 15, 2018

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, The Drowsy Chaperone

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT.
through November 25, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
In “The Drowsy Chaperone,” our narrator, known as “Man in Chair” says, “this musical is all about fun,” and how right he is! The plot is improbable, but that doesn’t matter. In this throwback to a day in which musicals were vehicles for singing, dancing, and tapping your toe, “The Drowsy Chaperone” draws on stereotypes and characterizations of old-style, 1920’s vaudeville and slapstick.  And the result is absolutely marvelous.

Director Hunter Foster has created an homage to the musicals of yesteryear with a heavy dose of warmth and heart. The stellar cast is headed by John Scherer, who as “Man in Chair” has a remarkable ability to create a rapport that draws the audience in to the small, basement apartment where he sits, feeling “blue.” To lift his spirits, he plays a record of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” an old musical that has a link to his past. The characters come alive and act out the music while “Man” and audience become charmed by the cast of 18 talented actors.

Choreographed by Chris Baile who must use a shoehorn to fit everyone on the small Goodspeed stage, the show contains tap dancing, roller skating, and production numbers that include a biplane.  There is not a weak performer in the cast but some standouts include Jennifer Allen (Chaperone), Stephanie Rothenberg (Janet), Jay Aubrey Jones (Underling), and the brothers, Blakely Slaybaugh and Parker Slaybaugh, as the well-coordinated slapstick duo (the Gangsters). Clyde Alves and Tim Falter are master tap dancers with strong voices, and John Rapson plays Aldolpho with loads of chutzpah. But without a doubt, this is “Man’s” show, and John Scherer tells the story of his favorite musical with passion and masterfully. There is a contemporary message, and the audience does not miss it. As “Man” reminds his audience, if musicals can lift your spirits and provide escape—they serve an important purpose. 

“The Drowsy Chaperone” won five Tony Awards, and the Goodspeed production sparkles just as well as the 2006 Broadway production. Music Director Michael O’Flaherty’s eight musicians sound like many more, and the book, written by Bob Martin and Don McKellar, is often called a “valentine” to the tunes and people who created the Jazz Age musical. Music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison leave nearly everyone humming the tunes and keep the good feeling going.  

Kudos to Goodspeed Musicals for this outstanding production and for giving their audiences a couple of hours to escape from reality and allowing them to feel pure joy.

REVIEW: Theaterworks, The River

Theaterworks, Hartford, CT
through November 11, 2018
by Barbara Stroup

After its first three productions this season, Theaterworks will move temporarily to the Wadsworth Athenaeum while renovations are completed at the Pearl Street venue in the spring and summer of 2019. For its "renovation season" production, Theaterworks presents “The River” by Jez Butterworth. Inhabited by only three unnamed characters, the play focuses on The Man (and his method of serial seduction?), who brings The Woman to his inherited cabin to “fish.” He reveres the nearby river and the silver trout that, when conditions are perfect, are available to “catch.”

Critical restraint forbids revealing more than would rob future patrons of the enjoyment they deserve, so plot points cannot be contained here. There is an air of mystery to the reality of the two female characters, but no mystery envelopes the very real fish-gutting that The Man performs on stage, posturing and contemplating the silvery flesh on the table in front of him.

Patrons will not need hands-on experience with fly fishing to appreciate The Man’s speech about how his love of it began – it’s a beautiful fish story and the highlight of the play, raptly absorbed by The Other Woman. Their vows of love – forever - seem sincere. The Other Woman in turn reveals much about her past and describes the scene of her father’s death that is reminiscent of the fish just dressed before our eyes. Unfortunate staging places her back to the audience during the delivery of this speech.

Entrances and exits are pivotal in this play, and the set design aptly places them at center stage where they belong. Gentle night sounds permeate the intimate space and lighting works its magic, too. But too many mysteries abound during it all (and afterward as well) to lead to satisfactory drama. The Man might be trying hard to step in the same river twice but being witness to his success or failure does not allow the viewer much sympathy. The audience is held in the cabin as tightly as the two women, and breathed sighs of relief at the surprise ending. But all was not revealed, and much discussion must have ensued on the drive home.

The 2018-2019 season includes a return of “Christmas on the Rocks,” their popular holiday show.

October 12, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, The Glass Menagerie

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through October 21, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Before the lights go down in the theatre, a Narrator steps forward from behind a back wall onstage to address the audience. He speaks the poetry of Tennessee William’s story, “The Glass Menagerie,” foreshadowing a world about to be revealed.

Photo by Daniel Rader
The set presents a huge, floor to ceiling, backdrop; lighting permits giant-sized human shadows; sounds emit thunder contrasted with notes of a violin. The era of the Great Depression with WWI looming forms the all-encompassing location. At the base is the small shabby Wingfield home. Amanda (the mother) and her two adult children reside here. The physical and emotional lives of each hang by a thread. The fragility of these individuals speaks intensely; anything can break the relationships and destroy the future.

Mark H. Dold, as son Tom, exhibits a man smoldering inside, so much that he is about to explode. His sole salvation from his miseries is as an erstwhile poet. Dold, a BSC Associate Artist, proves to continually outdo his acting skills with each play he takes on. His precise diction and enunciation automatically put him at the forefront onstage, yet never scene-stealing. In his dual role as the Narrator, Dold depicts a man who pretends to himself that he is wiser than Tom.

The gentle demeanor in movement and voice of Angela Janas, as Tom’s sister Laura, shows a young woman, literally holding on to whatever sliver of happiness she can imagine – because imagine is the best that she can do. Laura’s small glass animals bring her joy. There is a thin line between pitiful and sad. Janas never lets Laura become pathetic. A staging suggestion would be to bring Laura’s menagerie downstage or spotlight the glass toys, making this key element in the story more visible to the audience.

Caitlin O’Connell’s mother role gives her audience a picture of a woman with sweet, feigned memories of her past balanced with harsh reality of the present. O’Connell portrays Amanda with more humanity than others in this role. It seems a reasonable choice to give likability to Amanda. O’Connell’s delivery of lines is flawless, but she often addresses the audience directly, as if in monologues, instead of the characters she speaks to.

Certainly, casting actors best fit for his/her roles is vital to make a production successful. Just how old are these characters? Laura is six years out of high school. Tom is four years out. Neither actor’s real age comes close. Is this discrepancy a huge blunder? No. Yet, it is a surprise because Director Julianne Boyd and BSC are near perfect.

October 8, 2018

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Pictures at an Exhibition

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
October 5–7, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

The “Star-Spangled Banner” launched this opening weekend program of the HSO’s 75th anniversary season. On Saturday, when 10 Connecticut residents became American citizens at the orchestra’s second annual naturalization ceremony 90 minutes earlier on the same stage, Carolyn Kuanjj welcomed these new Americans to special seating at the concert. Beginning her eighth season as HSO Music Director after acquiring her own American citizenship at the same ceremony in 2017, Kuan led the national anthem with fervor and aplomb.

Both works that followed fittingly featured no guest soloists but the HSO itself in two orchestral showpieces which owe their existence to Boston Symphony maestro Serge Koussevitzky. When Hungarian composer Bela Bartok was treated for leukemia in New York in 1943, Koussevitzky offered him an orchestral commission, and the resulting five-movement “Concerto for Orchestra” has become one of Bartok’s most enduring masterpieces.

In a broad and sweeping account by Kuan and many HSO soloists, the opening “Introduction” was dark and haunting; the “Game of Pairs” was jaunty; the central “Elegy” was, in the composer’s own words, “a lugubrious death-song;” the “Interrupted Intermezzo” hilariously mocked the German march quoted in Shostakovich’s contemporaneous “Leningrad” symphony; and the upbeat “Finale” was a whirlwind of energy. In a classy touch, Kuan had the five pairs of woodwind soloists stand on their first appearance in the second movement.          

A magisterial reading after intermission of Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” written in 1874 for solo piano and orchestrated by French composer Maurice Ravel in 1922 for Koussevitzky’s pre-Boston orchestra in Paris, brought the program to a colorful and triumphant close. Mussorgsky depicts 10 paintings by his friend Victor Hartmann from a posthumous exhibit with music, including a repeatedly varied “promenade,” of immediate melodic appeal and great emotional depth.

While it might have been more instructive to project the Hartmann paintings which inspired Mussorgsky, the New Britain Museum of American Art exhibit “that provides a modern interpretation” of his art (listed in a program insert) is often stimulating and confirms the Maestra’s refreshing desire to think outside the box and engage with new community partners.

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Naked

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through  October 28, 2018
By Stuart Gamble

Luigi Pirandello’s puzzling, philosophical, and poetic drama “Naked” is set in Rome, Italy during the 1920’s or 30’s. This existential drama forces the audience to bare the truth of human existence while stripping away the lies that protect beings from despair, loneliness, and ultimately, death.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
“Naked” tells the story of Ersilia, a troubled woman who has just been released from a (mental?) hospital and is taken in by kindly novelist Ludovico Nota. Among the antagonists who threaten to dredge up her past include Ludovico’s gossipy landlady Signora Onoria, her jilted fiancĂ© Franco La Spiga, a trouble-making journalist named Alfredo Cantavalle, and her married lover Counsil Grotti. “Naked” is a pot boiling melodrama. Its audience is sure to anticipate and accept that all will probably not end well.

Berkshire Theatre Group’s actors are all well cast and well-played by this small ensemble. Tara Franklin, as Ersilia, has the most challenging role. She shows the seething rage of a woman manipulated by men, who nonetheless must cope with the consequences of the choices she’s made, including prostituting herself in economic need. Rocco Sisto, as Ludovico Nota, also shows great skill as a man who tries to care for and help heal Ersilia, through his eyes as an objective observer. James Barry’s (real-life spouse of Franklin) Franco La Spiga expresses great, operatic passion that seems missing from some of the other performers. Barbara Sims (Signora Onoria) and David Atkins (Alfredo Cantavalle) do the best they can with essentially (as written) one dimensional characters. Jeffrey Doormboss’ loathsome Consul Grotti has a scene with Franklin that is quite disturbing, echoing recent headlines.

Eric Hill directs with simplicity and honesty. Allowing the actors to speak directly and frankly with each other, he wisely avoids any artificial theatricality that would detract from the play’s serious, psychological themes. British playwright Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of “Naked” uses succinct, contemporary language that keeps the show’s running time to 90 minutes.

Costume designer Yoshi Tanokura dresses the actors in earthy browns, blues, white, and black suits and dresses that exemplify the period of Mussolini era fascism. Randall Parsons’ set design beautifully envelops the actors. The deeply cracked walls, newspaper-strewn floor, and piles of moldy books perfectly reflect the inner turmoil of these six characters in search of the meaning of life.

October 1, 2018

PREVIEW: Paradise City Festival, Pattern Play: Rhythm & Decoration in Art & Design

Paradise City Festival, Fair Grounds, Northampton, MA
October 6, 7, 8, 2018

Piece by Ira Frost
Playful, mesmerizing, seductive, even startling patterns captivate visitors at Paradise City Festival with their clever, intricate rhythms.

Patterns are all around us, playing an important role in our ability to navigate through life. Some scientific studies suggest seeing patters will even make you smarter. And what a pleasure it is to be mesmerized by the pattern found in a snowflake’s design, a tiger’s symmetrical stripes, or the never-ending spiral of a shell.

Following in nature’s footsteps, artists use patterns to repeat or echo important ideas in their work, letting a pattern communicate a sense of balance, harmony, contrast, or movement. Drawing patterns is one of the oldest art of rms. Think of the re pleating patters of lotus leaves carved into the great tombs and monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs. From the 7th century on, the ultimate pattern masters had to be the Islamic artists whose geometric patterns still inspire our awe in magnificent buildings throughout the world.

Piece by David Winigrad
At Paradise City, artists and makers of all stripes continue to enchant with their pattern play. Handmade textile and clothing designers turn useful coast and scarves into fashion extravaganzas wit the clever us of repeating designs. Jewelers transfix us with gold, silver, and precious stones  placed in delicate, rhythmic arrangements.  Painters, photographers, ceramicists, woodworkers, glass blowers, and all manner of metalsmiths us patterns to create works of art that let us lose ourselves in their intricacy.

This year’s Paradise City’s theme is “Pattern Play!” Discover the mysterious power of patterns to communicate ideas, create new connections, and spin a web that draws you deep into the artist’s imagination.

On-the-Road: Eclipse Mill Gallery

Eclipse Mill Gallery, Preparing for its 14th Annual Open House
North Adams, MA
by Shera Cohen

1881 Drawing, Eclipse Mill
Each year I include one venue that is new, at least to me, to write about in my summer Berkshire articles. Surprisingly, I had never heard of Eclipse Mill Gallery which has been in its present stage for over 15 years, and in its initial stage as a cotton mill started in 1896. Until now, my visits to North Adams were only to visit Mass MoCA while en route to other art offerings in nearby Williamstown.

Gail Sellers, part-owner with her husband Phil, of Riverhill Pottery was the guide for five woman, each dabblers or professionals in various performing arts genres. None of us came with a great deal of knowledge about the creation of visual art and crafts. Of course, we each had our own personal tastes.

A huge thank you to Gail who gave us a three-hour private tour of many of the studios/lofts, along with walks through the hallways that once housed cotton-making machines. Her discussion encompassed an historic look at this long stretching building of brick and pipes and its role in the growth of North Adams. The three-floor factory had been carefully restored, now housing 35 artists, each site with 14-foot ceilings and 10- foot windows. Every unit is unique in size and shape. Eclipse Mill is its own neighborhood.

More and more, some communities, especially those throughout New England, are restructuring factories and other such large buildings for modern-day purposes. What a wonderful alternative this repurposing philosophy is to the “tear it down” years. It is obvious that Gail and Phil, her husband are effusive in their pride of what the Mill has become.

We had the rare opportunity to be invited to meet six artists, their studios/homes, and their works. Most are “locals,” meaning that the artist had lived in the Berkshires proper before moving to Eclipse. Like Gail, there is a commonality in their appreciation of the landscape and leisure of this aesthetic piece of New England.

Art genres not only included the expected visual arts (painting, sculpture, guilting, photography, metal-work) but performing art as well. One dance choreographer/teacher taught us a few moves prior to her students’ class. An instrument builder gave us a chance to show off our terrible skills on his finely carved design.

Gail & Phil Sellers pottery
I had anticipated that Gail arranged some “peaks” into the art and homes of her selected group. But, even better -- each artist was extremely welcoming, inviting us in, answering questions about their creative process, and showed us such mundane things as the bathroom – unique and artsy, of course. Whenever questioned, each took the opportunity to explain the conception, the process, and the meaning of the piece of art.

Every few months a trio of artists produce their own gallery design in a large, empty space. This is the formal setting for visitors to attend Eclipse events and to appreciate the finished products of the artists’ labors. The displays feature disparate genres, which makes the setting eclectic and enjoyable.

Gail and Phil generously opened their studio.  If there had been a contest for “best studio,” this unit would have received a score of 10 in many categories. Their genre – rope woven pottery; their home – seemingly as long as two city blocks; their design – a circular-fashioned connection of living space and studio. This was a gem.

Julia Dixon, painter
Before readers think, isn’t this lovely that North Adams’ folk make arts and crafts for fun, think again. Each is a professional in his/her field, having exhibited and sold commissions throughout the world. However, the walls boast the works of most of the tenants – Eclipse is a museum in its own right.

The fact that these professional artists permitted five strangers into their homes, cheerfully welcoming us, was lovely to experience.

Eclipse Mill will host the 14th annual North Adams Open Studios,  Saturday, October 13 and Sunday, October 14, from 11 am to 5 pm both days. The event is free and fully handicap accessible. The Eclipse Mill is at 243 Union Street , North Adams.

September 27, 2018

REVIEW: The Bushnell, The Play That Goes Wrong

The Bushell, Hartford, CT
through September 30, 2018
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Jeremy Daniels
While a Bushnell patron may think that he/she has purchased a ticket to the comedy “The Play That Goes Wrong” by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayr and Henry Shields that is only partly correct. The primary story is the play-within-a-play, “The Murder at Haversham Manor.” The Cornley University Drama Society has transported itself from the British Isles and landed in Hartford for one week. The troupe, called Mischief Theatre, sticks to its name with naughtiness even prior to the play’s start, continuing for the next two hours.

For those theatregoers who might have a Top 10 list of plays which include “Noises Off” by Michael Frayn, then this production is an ideal choice. If other comedies include “The Real Thing” (Tom Stoppard) or “Play On” (Rick Abbot), “The Play That Goes Wrong” will be a treat. The theme, format, and characters are, for the most part, similar. Throw in the slapstick of “Shear Madness” (Paul Portner) and the wit of many David Ives’ works, and again, you have “…Wrong”. Most of those making up the opening night full house at the Bushnell were thrilled to see the similarities and laughed, almost incessantly.

The Sherlock-like plot takes an inspector to a lavish countryside English manor. Kudos to set designer Nigel Hook, whose work is impeccable, having created immense, extravagant, and grand staging. In fact, the set is every bit a “character” as the humans onstage. Of course, there is the who-dun-it murder. The audience wastes no time in caring about the mystery, because the true mystery is just what ridiculous, chaotic, and hilarious thing will happen next. Pratfalls, dialogue blunders, missed cues, and slapstick abound. However, many times, these segments go on a little too long or are repetitive. Yes, the length and monotony have comedy in mind. This is the script’s “flaw,” but the audience is bright enough to say, “Okay, we got it, no need to do it again.”

“The Play That Goes Wrong” is The Bushnell’s challenge to mount a non-musical production to initiate it’s 2018/19 season. By the laughter and obvious fun, it certainly seemed like a success.

There’s more to enjoy after the return home from the theatre – reading the program book. Actor bios are quite inventive, and in keeping with the evening’s entertainment.

September 24, 2018

REVIEW: Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Opening Night

Symphony Hall, Springfield, MA
September 22, 2018
by Michael J. Moran

To open Springfield Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary season and his own 18th season as its music director, Kevin Rhodes noted in the program book, he planned a concert of three 20th-century “American classics” and a 21st-century piece by “a young American composer…who is really going places.”

That would be 37-year-old Adam Schoenberg, a native of western Massachusetts now teaching at Occidental College, whose “Go” launched the formal program after a spirited singalong season-opening “Star-Spangled Banner.” The catchy pop sensibility of this seven-minute piece, which, the composer wrote, begins with “a revving effect” and ends with “a sprint to the finish,” delighted the capacity audience and drew exuberant playing from the SSO under an animated Rhodes. The same manic energy produced an equally fine performance, to honor the composer’s centennial year, of the ebullient overture to Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 musical “Candide.”  

Norman Krieger
Making his third appearance in the same piece with the SSO since 1997, American pianist Norman Krieger then gave a masterful account of what Rhodes considered “THE American piano concerto,” and the program notes called “the first large-scale jazz composition in a traditionally classical form,” George Gershwin’s 1925 Concerto in F. Krieger was playful in the opening Charleston-based “Allegro,” sensual in the “Adagio” blues nocturne, and mercurial in the rondo-style finale. Rhodes and the orchestra supported him with matching intensity.

The program closed after intermission with “what is widely regarded,” according to Rhodes, “as the best symphony ever written by an American,” Aaron Copland’s third. Composed between 1944 and 1946, its four movements progressed from a meditative “Molto moderato” through a turbulent “Allegro molto” and a troubled “Andantino” to a jubilant finale based on Copland’s own popular 1942 “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Under the maestro’s kinetic baton, the musicians delivered a stirring rendition of this colorful 40-minute score.

Before the Copland, Rhodes explained that concertmaster Masako Yanagita is recovering from a recent injury and thanked assistant concertmaster Marsha Harbison for ably substituting. While appreciating this depth of talent in their SSO, the audience audibly extended the message of hope that Rhodes found in the symphony to Yanagita for her early return.

September 20, 2018

PREVIEW: Playhouse on Park, Peter and the Starcatcher

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
Through October 14, 2018

"Peter and the Starcatcher" opens Playhouse on Park’s 2018/19 season of seven plays. Upcoming shows include: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Murder for Two,” “The Revolutionists,” “Reel to Real,” “My Name is Asher Lev,” and “The Scottsboro Boys.”

Photo by Curt Henderson

REVIEW: Hartford Stage, Make Believe

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through September 30, 2108
by Shera Cohen

Photo by T. Charles Erikson
The cover of the playbill for “Make Believe” depicts a cartoon of four children, all in color, with little tags on their clothes and bodies. For those who remember the 50’s and 60’s, these kids look like those from McCall’s Magazine’s then-famous Betsy McCall toy paper dolls. For other audience members, the picture will imply a game of “make believe.” More importantly, the pictures of a mom and dad are hollow and grey, standing apart from each other. From the play’s start, it is obvious that there is something amiss in this imaginary family.

Although a one-act, the play is divided into two parts: the first features the quartet of children, the second with four adults three of whom are grown-up versions of their counterparts. “Growing pains” might be a very simplified subtitle of this story, which dwells on the subject of sibling relationships at two different stages in their lives – both without parental figures.

Roman Malenda (older brother), Sloane Wolfe (older sister), Alexa Skye Swinton (younger sister), and RJ Vercellone (younger brother) fill the individual personalities of their roles perfectly. Each is so real in his/her part. Hartford Stage’s casting crew could not have found more talented youngsters better than these four. Chris, the oldest and leader of the clan, enjoys “let’s play house.” As the youngsters replicate their household drama, the audience can see the touching and sad situation that their invisible parents have put them in.

Director Jackson Gay creates Bess Wohl’s work as a play within a play; i.e. the child characters enjoy their world of “make believe,” then the adult actors realize the not-so-pretty mysteries of “make believe.” The large playroom setting establishes the ideal segue from Part I (kids) to Part II (adults).

Important to realize that in spite of advertisements for “Make Believe” with the depiction of cute kids, this is not a show for audience members under age 18, as clearly stated in the venue’s literature.

Bravo to Hartford Stage for taking yet another risk presenting a world premiere.

Note: While this recommendation does not in any way reflect on Hartford Stage and/or “Make Believe,” it is important. Future patrons of any performance, in any venue, please do not drench yourself in perfume before entering the theatre. Sitting for a one-act play next to one of these culprits was nearly unbearable. Consider your neighbors.

September 18, 2018

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, Hir

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox MA
through October 7, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Taylor Mac is one of the most interesting playwrights working in theatre today. A finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, Mac has accumulated many awards in literature. In “Hir” Mac pushes the boundaries of absurdist theatre.

The title of the play refers to the pronoun that is not gender specific. Mac defies conventional social relationships and propels the concept of the dysfunctional family into a new dimension to explore traditions of gender fluidity, social expectations, psychological warfare and family cruelty, love, and violence. Yes, there’s a lot that goes on in the two-hour piece, but it is so well crafted that some lines immediately register with truth and impact. At one point, the mother tells her marine son who just returned from Afghanistan, “I’d tell you to kill yourself here, but I don’t want to clean up the mess.”
Photo by Emma Rosenberg-Ware

A big mess is exactly what the audience sees when they enter the theatre. Clothing is strewn everywhere and this small “starter home that never really got started” is indicative of a family that never moved forward, but certainly devolved backward.  Metaphors of past and future are embedded in the dialog, but the real message is that this is a show about the messy present we inhabit. 

An excellent cast delivers performances that are nuanced, energetic, and loaded with cultural meaning.  Elizabeth Aspenlieder as Paige, the mother, wants to be the guiding light of her family and thrills with the realization of a “paradigm shift.”  Arnold, the father, subtly and sublimely played by John Hadden, has had a stroke, and Paige emasculates him by forcing him to wear women’s clothing and make-up—her revenge for a lifetime of abuse. Max, portrayed by Jack Doyle, is transitioning from Maxine to become a “trans masculine” hir. As Isaac, the elder son, Adam Huff is dynamic as a drug-abusing marine charged with picking up the body parts of the deceased.  Now, he’s home, trying to put the pieces of his family together again.

“Hir” deals with toxic masculinity and the changing culture in which we live. It is messy, and sometimes painful to watch, but what makes it so jarring is that it most certainly contrasts love and abuse. “Hir” contains strong language and themes may offend some people, but it is an important play in that it is in the crosshairs of contemporary culture and confusion.

September 16, 2018

REVIEW: The Majestic, Johnny Guitar, the Musical

The Majestic, West Springfield, MA
through October 21, 2018
by Shera Cohen

“Johnny Guitar, the Musical” (“JG”) is a chick western; meaning that it’s not just for female audiences but is a western whose lead roles are female. A bit atypical, and a bit fun. While “JG” hit the Off-Broadway stage in 2004, it was 50 years prior when the movie version of the same name opened, starring Joan Crawford.

The plot of “JG” is slim; i.e. good guys versus bad guys, more or less. However, remember that the guys are gals, which creates an edge and adds humor to the comings and goings of the main characters.

Photo by Kat Rankins
Myka Plunkett portrays our pistol-packin’ heroine Vienna. Bethany Fitzgerald depicts her arch nemesis Emma. Plunkett wears a tough exterior. She’s no Crawford. Plunkett is a beautiful young woman, perhaps a little too good-looking for the role. Plunkett’s songs offer the audience a mid-West twang mixed with smooth soprano notes. Fitzgerald spends more of her stage time as a somewhat buffoon-like comedian. Billy Clark Taylor’s (Vienna’s love interest Johnny) exquisite talent is his voice, singing most of the ballads.

The production belongs to Mitch Chakour and his band. Chakour’s name is synonymous with The Majestic. It is his skill and that of his team that delivers most of the success to “JG.” That said, many of the solos, duets, and ensemble pieces are a pleasure to hear, yet at times, the band drowns the singers’ lyrics, and/or the singers do not project. This can be a small and fixable problem in future performances.

Given the title of the show, it’s no surprise that a guitar features prominently. Credits list Chakour and Aaron Porchelli as guitarists. A running theme couples a background guitar refrain each time any actor says the name “Johnny Guitar”. It is this type of campiness that works well. Unfortunately, there are many missed opportunities for similar schtick.

No review of any Majestic production can omit praise for Greg Trochlil, scenic designer. It’s difficult to imagine that a movie set and lots of money to build it can look more authentic than Trochlil’s saloon.

A word about the program book: What a pleasure it is to read bios about everyone (not just actors): musicians, designers, and techies. However, where is the song list? Audiences want that information.

September 4, 2018

REVIEW: Chester Theatre Company, The Aliens

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 19, 2018
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

In his curtain speech before the show, CT’s Producing Artistic Director Daniel Elihu Kramer (also the production’s Director) suggests that the audience may need to keep an open mind during the performance of this thought-provoking play. “The Aliens” is a story about remarkable people who don’t necessarily fit into “normal” parameters, and what befalls those who ask only that the world allow them to fit in as they choose.

The three actors in this fine production handle their roles sensitively and naturally; it is lovely to see performers skilled enough to express character through silence as well as dialogue. Each one creates a unique persona in their roles, and a camaraderie that bridges the differences between them.

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka
As writer Jasper, James Barry reveals a rough and roguish outside and poetry within. His reading of an original piece about his own life wanderings, as well as excerpts from the writings of Charles Bukowski, are inspired. Barry brings a wonderful Mad Hatter charm to his role, and palpable strength and devotion to his relationship with the more vulnerable KJ.

Irresistible charm, extraordinary gifts, and human frailty and complexity shine in the performance of Joel Ripka as KJ. This actor portrays a somewhat tragic figure with grace and often glee, especially when he sings. He never crosses the line which might make the character feeble; instead, his performance gives life and light to KJ, and credence to the affection which the others so clearly hold for him.

Some of the finest moments occur in Paul Pontrelli’s portrayal of Evan, a young man closer to the customary definition of normal, who is drawn into an unlikely friendship with the others. Pontrelli’s comic timing, combined with his ability to share raw emotion, tis a joy to behold. Winning and authentic, he is a perfect foil for the unusual duo he befriends.

Simple and effective costumes by Stella Schwartz reflect the characters beautifully, subtle lighting designed by Lara Dubin, stunning sets by designer Ed Check, on-point sound by Tom Shread and some wonderful original music by Michael Chernus, Patch Derragh and Erin Gann all add to the power and sweetness of this story.

Director Kramer allows the tale to unfold in quiet ways, giving the audience much more than an unusual theatre experience that can open minds; “The Aliens” is about opening hearts as well. With all its fine production elements, excellent performances and moving story line, this show does just that.

Note: “The Aliens” ended the outstanding Chester Theatre’s summer season. Due to unforeseen circumstances, this review could not be posted in a timely manner. However, it is important to inform our readers about regional productions, no matter what the date.

August 30, 2018

PREVIEW: “Keepers of the Flame” Exhibit

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
exhibit through October 28, 2018

Walking through four galleries on the first floor of the Norman Rockwell Museum (NRM) provides a look at 20th century artists whose works carry a common thread or design. Commonality, whether taught professionally, by happenstance, or by observation, has created masterful artists throughout the centuries. Visitors see the artist’s teacher’s teacher.

“Keepers of the Flame: Parrish, Wyeth,  Rockwell, and the Narrative Tradition” graces the 16 or so walls and pathways in connecting rooms. One of the shared and important denominators between Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) and Norman Rockwell (1884-1978) is their skill at storytelling. With more than 60 works by 25 American and European painters, the exhibit reveals the lineage of American illustration to some 500 years of European painting through the long line of teaches who have passed along their wisdom, knowledge, and techniques to generations of creators. 

To paraphrase NRM Director Laurie Norton Moffat, “European painters have tutored American artists across the ocean. The exhibit provides a unique view of a particular line of picture-making, demonstrating the importance of the connections of American illustrators to the Western tradition.”

“Keepers of the Flame” displays the talents of some of the most recognized narrative-picture makers of the past century – to their artistic forbears reaching back to the Italian Renaissance. It shows how these three men, all of whom painted with the same principals and techniques as their artistic ancestors, produced what would prove to be iconic imagery and unforgettable narratives that defined them as keepers of the flame of traditional Western painting.

N. C. Wyeth (American, 1882-1945) The Scythers, 1906 Oil on canvas, 96.72 x 68.58 cm The University of Arizona Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samu

August 27, 2018

REVIEW: Barrington Stage Company, Well Intentioned White People

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through September 8, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

While the words of the title are never spoken in this play, the message is clear.  Good intentions or not, White people can seldom understand the experience of a Black person—especially when embedded in a culture that systematically supports racist and misogynistic patterns of behavior. In the world premiere of this topical and courageous play, playwright Rachel Lynett forces the audience to confront their own beliefs and attitudes.

Set on the campus of an unnamed college in what the script identifies as “a ‘hip’ and liberal town in a red state,” an accomplished Black professor’s car is keyed with the “N” word. With tenure decisions looming, she doesn’t want to make a big deal of it, but a friend puts the event in the spotlight and before long, a Dean at the college demands that the professor organize an event to show that hatred and bigotry should not be tolerated. Soon, “Equality Day” becomes “Unity Week” and in the process, identity politics come to the fore.

Photo by Jennifer Graessle
In the lead role of Cass Davis, Myxolydia Tyler demonstrates the mental anguish and physical exhaustion of having to be the representative of her race.  She is particularly effective when, in her keynote address for Unity Week, she plaintively decries, “The problem is that no one is listening to anyone.” Viv, (Victoria Frings) is her girlfriend, a well-intentioned activist who can’t see her own privilege getting in the way of her causes. Parker, (Samy El-Noury) is trans and delivers some of the most cogent lines of the play. Dean West, (Andrea Cirie) is another well-intentioned white person who generates the idea for an “event” that is more public relations than effective, and young Mara, energetically played by Cathryn Wake, is a student with a habit of acting before she thinks.

The story is not atypical of a college campus. There is much truth to the way the power dynamics spin out of control. At the same time, the characters became a bit stereotypical and the dialog slightly forced. Director Tiffany Nichole Greene knows how to find the best moments to make the point. As the show runs, hopefully the cast can feel more comfortable with an audience, they will tease out the danger that is inherent in each characters’ decision. We need more plays like this to enliven discussion and show what is so hard to talk about.

REVIEW: Shakespeare and Company, Heisenberg

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA.
through September 2, 2018
by Jarice Hanson

Loneliness and social isolation are meaty topics for theatre and Simon Stephens’ “Heisenberg” explores these topics from the perspective of a 40-something year-old woman from New Jersey who meets a 75-year-old Irish butcher in London. On the surface they have nothing in common, but as the 90 minute one act unfolds, the unlikely duo stumble through random events that focus on the decisions that lead people to take actions in their lives that we might never have been contemplated. The reference to the Heisenberg Principle (also known as the Uncertainty Principle) is the metaphor for the possibility of what can happen in moments of the unknown.

Photo by Daniel Rader
At Shakespeare & Company, Malcolm Ingram (Alex) plays a subdued introvert and Tamara Hickey (Georgie) is the extrovert. He seems likeable, and she is manic in her energy and body movement. Director Tina Packer has her actors use the stage well, with every nuance planned and well executed, which keeps the pacing fresh and sets up a feeling that the audience is watching a dance of attraction and rejection. The moments of decision become tantalizing as the onlookers wonder what new direction is going to be taken next, and how the consequences might unfold.

Stephens is a prolific playwright who received the 2015 Tony for Best Play with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” an investigation into the mind of an autistic teen that bombarded one’s senses with technology and sound. “Heisenberg” is much more subtle. Though it resembles a romantic comedy, it is one predicated on pain, and has unexplained holes that are expected to be acceptable. The audience never finds out why New Jersey-brash Georgie is working in London, and in this production, or how to understand why Alex is so impulsive. The excuse, perhaps, is that she is American and that seems to give her license to lie, hurl insults and behave without consequence.  She is hard to like, and though Hickey is an immensely likeable performer, the character of Georgie remains fatally flawed. Perhaps that is why the “wise old(er) man” becomes a familiar archetype to stabilize her flightiness.

“Heisenberg” seemingly breaks many of the rules of familiar theatrical rules, and is fascinating in its statement of the unpredictability of life. At the same time, the audience is left pondering the very questions of uncertainty, relationships, and what might commonly call “fate.”