Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

March 31, 2008

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Theater Guild, Hampden, MA
Weekends through April 5
March 29, 2008
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Although this warm, funny, problem-ridden family play is set in September 1937, there are similarities with today’s vicissitudes and the inevitable maturations of human nature. Still mired in The Great Depression, the Brooklyn family has reconfigured their living space to accommodate recently widowed and destitute Aunt Blanche (Kathleen Epaul) and her two daughters, young Laurie (Angelina Cavallini) and impatient teen Nora (Christine Arruda). Because Hitler has shredded the Treaty of Versailles and positioned his army to invade Poland, concern for their European relatives and keeping a roof over their own heads beset the mother and father of the household – Kate (Patricia Colkos) and Jack (Jonathan Trecker). Their two sons, young adult Stanley (Dan Tapper) and teenager Eugene (Michael Piel) are wrestling with their own rites of passage. Shepherding this cast is Mark Giza, director, whose vision as founder of the Theater Guild of Hampden is not sabotaged by negatives.

Consider the L-shaped set designed from space stolen from the Hampden Country Club’s dining room. The approximate six foot depth of the staging supports an outdoor porch at right angle to an interior that includes a hallway, two bedrooms, dining and living rooms, furnished with tables, a console radio, easy chair, settee, upright piano, sewing machine, and more, in which seven actors inhabit as a family to bring Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical play to life.

Michael Piel as Eugene chronicles the family’s events with a stage presence generously endowed with aplomb. There is no mistaking Eugene’s self-absorbed anguish and wonder about advancing puberty. The hilarity this awareness engenders evokes Philip Roth’s classic, "Portnoy’s Complaint." Compared to 1937, now formerly naughty French postcards are benign.

As the no-nonsense mother, Colkos is appropriately stressed by running a house bursting at its seams. As the exhausted father working two jobs to support the family, Trecker’s performance is reminiscent of a physically worn out Willy Loman but unlike Willy, Jack has a philosophical overview who gently guides those who come to him for advice. The love emanating from the parents is that intangible glue that keeps the disparate souls anchored as a family.

March 28, 2008

12 Angry Men

The Bushnell, Hartford
through March 30, 2008
By Keith H. Purcell

Reginald Rose’s gritty human drama “12 Angry Men” was vividly brought to life as part of the Bushnell’s Broadway Series. It is a complex study of human interrelationships under stress and how it brings out the worst and the best in men.

The story revolves around jury deliberations of a capital murder case on a hot summer day in 1954. In the locked confines of the jury room, all but one of the jurors believe the young defendant is guilty and would rather get their duty over with quickly and go home.

In this production, which is played in one act without an intermission, Richard Thomas stars as Juror Eight, a role made famous by Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie of the same name. This juror is not so sure about the boy’s guilt, but believes that the jury should not vote to sentence him to death without talking about it first, and discuss it, they do. And so begins the crux of the entire play.

Two performances especially stood out. Julian Gamble as Juror Three portrays a man whose own troubled relationship with his son colors his judgment and arguments and eventually, his vote. His final rant made a few audience members gasp and others silent. Kevin Dobson (of "Kojak" fame) played Juror Ten with such venom and hatred for people of the defendant’s kind, it made audience some members squirm.

Allen Moyer’s set design superbly evoked images of what one would think a New York jury room of a by-gone era would be like on a hot summer day. The lighting and sound design by Paul Palazzo and Brian Ronan also added a just the right touch in the form of a late summer thunderstorm.

The only disappointment in the production was, unfortunately, the performance of Richard Thomas. The portrayal of his character was inconsistent and constantly looking into the audience.

March 22, 2008

Go West…Middle-Aged Woman from Springfield…Go West

By Shera Cohen

When a friend moved to Arizona in 1995, I was given an open invitation. “But there are no arts in Tucson, just cactus,” I replied. Thirteen years later, I finally traveled out West to learn that I was completely wrong about my perception of their arts.

I jam-packed about 20 arts and cultural activities into one week. My friends thought that this was not the definition of “vacation.” Relax, sleep late, enjoy the cool weather (86 degrees), eat Mexican food. None of that was for me.

Art in nature was surely abundant. Yes, cacti (about 100 varieties) were everywhere – the ones called barrels with yellow flowers on top that are chewed up at night by wild hog/pig creature, the flat purple Mickey Mouse ears-type, and the tall ones with arm that seem to say “hello.”

The majestic perimeter to the city were the mountains, some grassy, others all rock, or with snow atop (a beautiful sight from the plane). At times, their height and breathe looked like a child’s drawing of the outline of mountains in the background. It was not until moving closer that the 3D, cinematic scope loomed. After all, this was the location for many western movies and TV shows.

There were also sights not often found in New England – my first ostridge farm, pistachio groves, never-ending trains, bridges over what once was water, and snakes that come within inches of you with no Plexiglas in between. Another reptile, of sorts, was a long walking bridge which linked two sections of highway. Drivers had the best view of the head with open mouth, body with scales, and rattler tail of perhaps the world’s longest (yet happy) rattlesnake.

On sidewalk corners, highways, and tree belts was a plethora of public art. Sculpture, murals, pottery, paintings and other genres could not escape my view. Many were whimsical, others Mexican, some brass and others multi-media and colorful. I thought, wasn’t it wonderful that a city appreciated its artists by displaying their work for all to see.

What follows is a diary of the highlights of my arts education in Tucson.

Day #1

Bookman’s Used Bookstore – For those who remember the wonderful Johnson’s Used Bookstore, this site was ten-fold in size and contents. You might not think of a bookstore as culture, but this was unique by its unabashed lack of d├ęcor, sheer volume (literally), and crowds of readers.

Congress Hotel – Its floors were made of wall-to-wall pennies, there’s the same old switchboard, message boxes, beds, and the over-night stay is probably the same price as it was in 1919. The hotel is infamous on the map as the location where John Dillinger was caught.

Tucson Children’s Museum –Pioneer Valley families would be lucky to have such a wonderful place for youngsters to play and interact without ever realizing that they are also learning. On any given day there was enough to do to tire out any kid, let along his chaperone. With under a one million budget, it’s amazing how much TCM has done over the years, recreated their physical space into multi-use areas, and educated/entertained youth. The emphasis is on “play” in all aspects and for all ages, as the Children’s Museum is very much a Family Museum.

Day #2

Sabino Canyon – It was time for a “city girl” to venture into the great outdoors. This

Was a tram tour through miles of mountains, dried but beautiful stream beds, green rocks, and homes for scorpion. The driver’s talk of the Canyon’s history brought me back to the days of volcanoes, rooming buffalo, and John Wayne (in that order). The Canyon is a living museum of Tucson’s past.

DeGrazia Gallery – Not only was the gallery of this famous artist (known for UNICEF cards) packed with works representing Spanish and Indian culture; the entire grounds were as well. Each room held artwork which flowed in sequence to create mythical stories. The prolific DeGrazia made 1500 paintings and thousands of sculpture in nearly all media, and placed it from floor to ceiling in a large house-like gallery. One room is devoted to a Christian art-theme, another displays works of his wife, and in a tranquil environment outdoors is DeGrazia’s own grave surrounded by his creations in wood, mosaic, glass, and ceramics. In protest to taxation of inherited art work, DeGrazia burned hundreds of his own paintings. It’s hard to image such a waste, not only for the artist but for art-lovers. Exhibits rotate, so a visit is possible whenever one arrives at what is called “Gallery in the Sun.”

Tucson Jazz Society – While my vacation timing did not fit their concert schedule, this hard-working staff of jazz lovers told me the story of their agency. For someone in the arts field, learning about jazz genres and musicians, audience likes and dislikes, hiring the best musicians, selecting venues, the importance of collaborations, and funding sources was information to take back home.

Day #3

San Xavier del Bac Mission – Aside from the mountains and the cacti (the later grow one inch per year), this gorgeous mission from the 1700s represented an important part of Tucson’s history. On the grounds was a one-room chapel with rustic benches, candles, and no window. A wedding took place that morning, and anyone could attend. The mission is a national landmark and huge in structure. At its center is a circular garden and fountain, straight out of a Zorro movie.

Tubac – If all that I had seen in Arizona was Tubac, this would have been enough. It’s a dream village for anyone who loves visual art. Hundreds of artists sell their works from their small galleries, all aligned row upon row. Just when you think you have seen every shop, every craft, every painting, there are more. I allotted three hours, and could have spent the entire day.

Arizona Theatre Company – It was a privilege to interview the director of “To Kill a Mockingbird” immediately prior to the performance. Her perspective into the making and nuances of this wonderful play were enlightening. Everything about ATC was professional onstage and lovely outside in the front courtyard. The stage is quite large. Unique to ATC is its two venues – one in Tucson and the other in Phoenix. By means of collapsible sets, the entire cast and crew performed in both cities, back to back. This particular play was also co-produced with Kansas Repertory Theatre. [See sidebar]

Day #4

Tombstone – I am your typical tourist, and proud of it. But this wasn’t the pretend, shoot ‘em up, cowboys & Indians – this was the real Tombstone, a whole town/museum of stores, taverns, inns, dirt streets, the O.K. Corral with the Earps vs. the bad guys played a dramedy in the streets. And, yes, photos of Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner were also on sale.

Boothill – The famous graveyard with dozens of outlaws, town folks, and many unnamed souls was “The Real McCoy.” I walked through the aisles of stone graves, each marked with wooden signs; i.e. “He was hanged by mistake, and now he is ded.”

Day #5

Beowulf Alley Theatre Company – This small, young troupe took on the ambitious undertaking of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Talking to the founder and director after the curtain fell was an up-front and personal theatre education. It wasn’t enough that each had her/his role, each also handled the box office, concessions, and swept the floor. No prima donnas here; that’s what thespians do. [See sidebar]

Day #6

Tohono Chul Park – I strolled through this lovely garden with its landscape of familiar flowers among cacti. The latter were “deceptive,” as some look soft and light with prickers that could wound. The “beware of rattlesnakes” signs didn’t scare the prairie dogs, but did me, especially when a huge black snake (so it wasn’t a cobra) slid faster than the speed of light after an equally large lizard.

Day #7

Invisible Theatre – This theatre was so tucked away and nearly hidden that its name was appropriate. Yet, for 30 years, the troupe has presented hundreds of plays with a bent toward the new and unique. With no show on this day, I interviewed IT’s stalwart/founder – an Edith Head look-alike, who also tours the world in her own play about this famous designer. [See sidebar]

Presidio Arts – A walk along an avenue of paintings, crafts, jewelry, and more was the place to buy gifts that I promised to bring back. In spite of, or because of, the lovely buildings that linked together, I guessed that prices for this art were prohibitive for my budget. I was wrong.

I must especially thank the staff of the Greater Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, who gave me lessons on the history of Tucson and its cultural sites. A recommendation to any traveler is to first contact the CVB. My friends asked if it would take me another 13 years for me to return. I only made a dent in all of the arts and culture that Tucson had to offer. I think I’ll make it before 2021.

March 18, 2008

The Ten Tenors

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
March 14
By Shera Cohen

Two math questions. What is Il Divo x 3.33? Hummm? Let’s make it easier? What are The Three Tenors x 2.5? Answer -- The Ten Tenors, or affectionally dubbed TTT. These Aussies combine camaraderie, energy, and animated choreography of a football team with debonair charm, wit, and professionalism of Wall Street bankers. They are personable, relaxed, and as one of the members referred to all, “incredibly good looking.” They are the boys next door, if the boys had voices like Pavarotis in the making.

Starting as impromptu street singers, the classmates launched their career performing in every town and hamlet in their homeland, quickly cut a CD, and then ventured to Europe. Except for one PBS performance, few in this country have had the opportunity to hear TTT. Now on their first North American tour, these boys are fast becoming known and applauded, and not just for their pretty faces. They can sing!

As a unit, TTT is at its best – whether singing as one voice or as a group sporadically highlighting individuals within sections of songs. It is clearly evident that each vocalist has his unique singing style, range, and genre expertise. They also can sing anything – and do!

There are folk, pop, rock, Australian pieces, disco, and a lot of opera. One of the men told the audience that they would perform, “opera without the boring bits.” The repertoire shifts from Puccini to Queen, “Waltzing Matilda” to Dean Martin’s “Volare,” the Tarantella to Simon & Garfunkle, and Verdi to the Bee Gees. Envision ten businessmen walking out of an office, instantly singing “Saturday Night Fever” as a chorus line performing disco moves.

While the singers promised no encores, they lied. There were three, with standing ovations after each. The last was perhaps the best tenor aria ever written – “Nessun dorma” from “Turandot.” What an evening!

The wonderful experience of this concert starts before spotlights go up and a note is sung. It begins upon entering the newly renovated 100-year-old Colonial Theatre. Millions have obviously been spent in keeping the original historic luster. The venue was breath-taking, and every dime was well-spent. Pittsfield’s residents should feel proud of their good work in turning their arts around 180 degrees. Pittsfield is very much a destination point.

March 7, 2008

25 Questions for a Jewish Mother

CityStage, Springfield
through March 9
By Shera Cohen

Judy Gold, star and co-writer of this stand-up comedy performance, has a Jewish mother. Judy Gold is a Jewish mother. This talented, funny woman is also 6’3” and gay. These facts are not passing tidbits of information, but are essential to the story told onstage.

Perhaps one would anticipate this latest program on the CityStage roster to be a show replicating one from Channel 98’s Comedy Central. Well, there is that, and the audience certainly enjoyed those many moments. Speaking of audience, opening night’s attendance was huge.

The voice over of a “typical” Jewish mother (from New Jersey, not the Bronx) starts the show as Judy comes onto the stage – a set with one microphone and one chair. The pace is fast, the flow from story to story is smooth, and the Jewish phrases are liberal. While she defined many of the terms, it would be curious to know if parts of her act were missed by non-Jews. The saying about Woody Allen might apply – you have to be Jewish or from Manhattan to fully appreciate him. Yet, Judy has a huge following, numerous awards, television appearances, so undoubtedly, many appreciate her. Equal in affect to the humor is her candor. Her life story becomes an open book, with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yet, even the latter are given comedic spins.

Most impressive are the numerous segments when Judy portrays the Jewish mothers who she interviewed across the United States. That one chair is the complete set for this myriad of unique women, as Judy turns on her acting talents. Merely with accents and her seating position, Gold takes on the persona of the Jewish women, each having their own dramatic story. Perhaps a half-dozen segments are strewn throughout the act, when Judy the comic becomes Judy the actress. Indeed, these reminiscences are quite serious; i.e. intermarriage, female segregation in synagogues, and death in concentration camps. It’s these vignettes which make Judy Gold and her performance different, and much better, than even the best of television or touring shows.

March 4, 2008

Natalie MacMaster

Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
March 2, 2008
by Eric Sutter

Natalie MacMaster comes from the high cliffs of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. She started fiddling at age 9 and step-dancing at age 5. With attractive looks she lives and breathes this unique culture through her music and dance.

In all her splendid glory she moved from Gaelic airs to reels and jigs. Her back-up band included equally competent musicians who quickened the spirit. The spritely "Sweet as a Bird" was an exquisite balance of sweetness and sinew. Clog rhythms were evidenced in the spine-tingling excitement of "Volcanic Jig" as she tapped out the tune with fancy dance steps. With driving energy and irresistible charm she showed the audience what a Cape Breton party was all about. Evidently there existed plenty of Celtic DNA in the audience judged by the response of sheer joy. "Joshephine's Waltz" was a soulful balanced interplay between heartfelt cello and fiddle.

Into the light she played and danced while the backdrop lighting changed from hues of pink and blue to green and purple which softened or bolstered the music accordingly. She was dressed in effervescent blue. Oftentimes she cavorted around the cello player or bass man and coaxed them to play mightily. Drawing energy from them she suddenly turned and cut into rousing fiddle tunes.

The second half of the program brought an awesome bagpipe solo. The woeful slow air "Lament for the Death" conjured up a graveness of spirit. The delicate calm lasted until the fired up and mischievous, "Madness Medley" which oscillated between flashy fiddling and funky world beat bass and drum jams interspersed with Nathaniel Smith's moving cello solo, "What a Wonderful World."

MacMaster's boundless energy was displayed on the closing foot-tapping rave-up, "Pretty Mary." She performed a Celtic Michael Jackson moonwalk dance which was pure exhilaration. To be sure, MacMaster possesses Celtic beauty, grace and soul and is a source of inspiration to many lovers of modern Celtic and Appalachian music.

March 3, 2008

The Bluest Eye

Hartford Stage, Hartford
Through April 20, 2008
By Bernadette Johnson

“There were no marigolds in the fall of 1941,” begins the narrative to a backdrop of sheets hung out to dry. As the sheets are taken down and folded, a simple set is disclosed gently and deliberately, as are the ugly secrets and the harsh realities in the coming of age of Pecola Breedlove (Adepero Oduye), a poor, 11-year-old black girl growing up in Ohio in the 1940s. Pecola’s family life, such as it is, is defined by an abusive father’s drunkenness and a mother’s bitterness.

Based on Toni Morrison’s Nobel-prize-winning novel of the same name, the play unfolds through a combination of convincing dramatic portrayals and transitional commentaries, offered sympathetically by Pecola’s grammar school friends, sisters Claudia (Bobbi Baker) and Frieda (Ronica V. Reddick), who share their perspectives (as adults) on Pecola’s tragic vulnerability.

Society’s mirror tells Pecola she is ugly. She prays for blue eyes, not to see the world differently, but to be seen differently, like the little white girls that fill the pages of her “Dick and Jane” reader.

Oduye expertly conveys Pecola’s angst through her remoteness and wistful reflection: her stooped shoulders, her cringing, her expectation of rejection. Particularly heartrending is her explanation of disappearing, piece by piece, except for her eyes, which, of course, she “sees” as blue.

Baker, on the other hand, adds pathos and humor as she releases her pent-up anger and jealousy of “white girls” by beheading and dismembering her white doll.

Also offering comic relief are Ellis Foster’s dissertations (as Daddy) on kindling and coal, and Miche Braden’s mock diatribe (as sharp-tongued but compassionate Mama) on milk consumption. There is so much more: Silhouettes, gossiping women, a magician, stardust, Braden’s soulful Gospel hymns and a dramatic storm that floods the stage.

Through it all, Pecola’s inner storm rages unceasingly. She carries her emotional scars with her straight through to a chilling, but not totally unexpected, ending. This is drama at its finest.

“Enchanted April”

Majestic Theater, West Springfield
through April 6
by Shera Cohen

It’s March 2nd, dirty snow aligns the streets and sidewalks of downtown West Springfield. Yet inside the Majestic, it’s a warm spring full of flowers that could have been painted by the best Impressionists, setting the stage for rebirth and renewal. The current production at the Majestic is “Enchanted April,” which accomplishes all of the above and more.

It’s 1922 England at the play’s start. Two strangers, both dressed in black on a bleak stage with next to no furnishings, are the catalysts that change this setting, and indeed themselves and others, into bright and shining individuals. Act I creates a motley quartet of women, each leaning close to caricatures. As the story evolves, however, these stereotypes truly become characters with personalities, people to take seriously, laugh with, sympathize for, and perhaps emulate.

Lisa Rowe-Beddoe and Cate Damon lead the cast. Both are housewives in their own uneventful worlds. On first look, they portray the antithesis of each other, but beneath the exterior each needs to fill her own hole of things lost in life. The women play off of each other well, with the former acting crass and in-your-face, and the latter demure and saintly. Joining them on their journey toward hope are Margery Shaw (dowager) and Sandra Blaney (socialite). As their characters require the four actresses to become more and more real, the audience appreciates each as somewhat injured yet with purpose to go on. Blaney, who was so wonderful in this season’s “Trying,” is an especially welcome addition to this cast.

Yes, there are some male actors, who get more onstage time in Act II. Keith Langsdale (uppity lawyer/husband) makes the most of his role, particularly as he receives the longest laughs in this serio-comedy. Actually, every actor was well-chosen for his/her skill, not to mention keeping English accents going throughout the play.

Special kudos to the stage hands, which swiftly created each of the many scenes. The artistic crew – Bev Browne, Gary Miller, and Danny Eaton – made seeing believing, and believing is the core of this enchanted play.