Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 2, 2008

"How I Spent My Summer Vacation Last Summer...and How I Will Do Nearly the Same This Summer"

by Shera Cohen

It's all in the numbers. Take seven women (a motley group of divorced, married, single, and widowed) from the Atlantic coast (Maine, Boston, Springfield, and North Carolina). Add 22 cultural events. Mix with three essential take-along items - food, event tickets, and bug spray. Leave behind six important items - dogs, cats, men, plants, mail, and computers. You are now ready to vacation in the Berkshires. And, think of the number of dollars saved in gas because everything is situated close together.

In past years, my Summer Vacation article has read like a diary. To make life easier on the reader, the following is an alphabetical list of our arts' experiences, followed by a look at some of this year's plans.

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield

I don't know why I hadn't attended a BCF performance until recently. Perhaps I thought that Sheffield was a distance; it isn't. Knowing that the Springfield Symphony is the "backup" should have indicated that this was the place to be. Each week, 200 or so amateur choral singers descend on the Berkshire School to rehearse for 6-days, perform one concert, and return to their homes throughout the world. The next week, it happens again with a different group, conductor, and music. We heard Dvorak's rarely performed spectacular "Stabat Mater." I'll attend two concerts this July including my favorite, "Carmina Burana."

Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington

New to the Berkshires, Fringe is experimental, novel, and avante garde music, theatre, and dance. I applaud the trio of young producers who have created workshops, free concerts, children's shows, and extremely low-admission theatre for audiences of all ages. I saw two plays, both one-acts; a stand-up comedy-ish play and the other an excerpt of seven vignettes taken from "365 Days/365 Plays." What I didn't see included "Lounge-Zilla" and the chamber opera "Venus in Furs." Fringe asks its audience to "alter your view," and it certainly offers many ways to do just that. This summer, we'll spend an entire day participating in play readings, hearing a free concert, and attending a play. Long day, but I'm sure, worth it.

Berkshire Scenic Railroad, Stockbridge

Maybe it wasn't exactly "art" but it was fun. Adult women riding the rail felt like many steps back in time. At least the train and tracks were older than we were. This 1920s passenger coach traveled 20-minutes back and forth, so we saw the same view frontward and backwards. We heard a voice giving us facts about the area. The ride was bumpy, the squeaks loud, and the seats hot. The kids alongside us didn't care. Nor did we. The end of the run was the Railway Museum to see memorabilia and photographs. This is a weekend journey only, also along a 90-minute route.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge

BTF has two theatres and just because one is bigger than the other in no way reflects on the quality of acting, directing, or production values. About to celebrate its 80th year, they will have to perform quite well to outdo their 79th. At the Unicorn Theatre, where more experimental plays take place, was "My Pal George," a political satire and guess who George was? "The Two-Headed" had one of the oddest titles yet was one of the Unicorn's best dramas staged in many years. On the Mainstage, "Morning's at Seven" starred a bunch of TV actors, and that helps to bring in new audiences, but "names" were not important for this delightful tragicomedy set in the 1920s. On this summer's calendar is "The Pageant Play," "A Man for All Seasons," and "Noel Coward in Two Keys."

Chesterwood, Stockbridge

This is the home of the man who created the Lincoln statue. Chesterwood is, essentially, a tour in three parts. There's the guided tour of the sculptor's studio and home which includes information on the process of creating such large pieces. Follow with a self-guided walk through the beautifully landscaped acres of property to see modern sculpture with price tags in the hundreds of thousands. Finally, look closely at the prolific work of Andrew DeVries. Since we wanted to see more DeVries, we ventured to his studio in downtown Lenox. The floating bronze dancers seen throughout the Berkshires are his pieces.

The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

One of the most beautiful museums in New England, the Clark is renowned for its on-going collection and special touring exhibits. Monet was the "star" at this visit. Titled "The Unknown Monet," participants could easily trace the progression of his work from a caricaturist to one of the most justifiably famous Impressionists through dozens of paintings. Monet is in good company, alongside pieces by Degas, Pissarro, Cassatt, and especially prominent at the Clark is John Singer Sargent. Numerous special events, free concerts, and lectures take place all year. It's worth stopping by the delightful Moonlight Café straight out of the 1950s.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox

No, we didn't have massages or play golf; although both would be nice. We did, however, laugh continuously to Capitol Steps. The satirical, nationally known comedy troupe began their annual summer tour at Cranwell last year, and they are a welcome addition. For those who like current event reports edgy, risqué, humorous, and with music, Steps outdoes Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report. The quintet pens offbeat and topical lyrics (and there is an abundance to choose from in this political year) to Broadway tunes. Certainly, our President was the butt of many jabs. They'll still have Bush to bash this summer when I attend.

Jacob's Pillow, Becket

It was nice to sit in the Pillow's barn on a comfortable day. Yet, even when the temperature is in the 90s, I have always seen a full-house. This is the arts venue where more teens (and younger) attend than any other. Bravo to our next generation of art lovers. The Royal Danish Ballet presented a world premiere. Set against backdrops of art or simply the back of the stage, the dancers paired, worked in trios, quartets, and ensembles in seven pieces. While I don't excel at understanding dance, I had no trouble here. The ballet was light and humorous. I will be seeing the Hofesh Shechter Company.

Mass MoCA, North Adams

MM has become a staple for tourists. It's no wonder, with their mix of music, dance, film, and huge pieces of modern sculpture and other art forms. Sometimes the canvas stretches the entire length of a wall, other art hangs above your head, and there might also be a dinosaur-size can opener in an exhibit. Creators are professionals from New England to the Netherlands. Admittedly, I sometimes question why a 36-foot watercolor with thousands of dots is called art. But, I will not define "art" for anyone else. "Band on a Can Festival" was such a success that it continues this summer.

The Mount, Lenox

You thought there was nothing to do in the Berkshires on a Monday. Wrong. For the past 15 years, The Mount Lecture Series has presented afternoon talks by authors of recently published biographies. It matters little if you have heard of either the author or his/her subject. The lectures are conversational, insightful, and entertaining; the Q&A is lively. Frances Kiernan spoke about Brooke Astor - an anti-Astor who gave her money away in the true definition of philanthropy. For our second lecture, Judith Farr's talk on Emily Dickinson proved that Farr was enthralled with Dickinson, as we were with both women. I will see three authors in July and August, as the series runs for two months.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge

Is there an American alive who does not know at least one of Rockwell's works? Probably not, and hopefully not. This prolific artist (in my humble opinion) was never given due credit as a consummate talent. Perhaps his stories were too familiar that we took him for granted? Maybe we saw The Post or other media with his cover art and dismissed the extraordinary skills? Whatever the case, this museum is dedicated to Rockwell, along with touring exhibits of his contemporaries. Participate in gallery talks, listen to concerts, let the kids join workshops - there is something to do 24/7.

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox

I admit it without shame - S&Co. is my favorite place in the Berkshires, and perhaps in the whole USA. If they had more plays, I would be there all summer. A misnomer about S&Co. is that they only perform works by the Bard. That's the case about half the time. The other half are all in plain English, some familiar plays and some brand new. Extremely skilled directors to watch for are Jonathan Croy, Michael Hammond, and Tina Packer. All three are equally talented actors. The requirement of all at S&Co. is multi-talent from acting to directing to mopping the floor. No prima donna's here. There's just too much to write about S&Co. See my website instead. As for this year, there's "Othello," "All's Well that Ends Well," "The Ladies Man," "The Mad Pirate & the Mermaid," "The Goatwoman of Corvis County" and free Shakespeare lectures.

Tanglewood, Lenox

What can I say about Tanglewood's music, conductors, orchestra, soloists, concert halls, outdoor setting, and even the gift shops, that many others have not already written? All of the accolades are true. On any given week, you can attend as many as four concerts as well as public rehearsals. And on any given week the performers are the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, a guest orchestra, and do not forget the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. The latter are students who perform and sound every bit as wonderful as the pros. Again, just check my website for many Tanglewood review. The writing might seem repetitious. After all, how many superlatives are there? As for this summer, we will go to just about anything, because everything is "a winner."

Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown

Experience one of the best no-cost activities in the Berkshires - Williams College Museum. But it's on a campus and only students are allowed. Nope. It's for everyone. Considered one of the finest college art museums in the country, there are 12,000 works. Huge eyeball sculptures greet you upon entering. Once there, the large staircase is backed by a rainbow of vivid colors. A photo exhibit from the 1920s was the summer attraction. Yet, on every day but Monday, the public can enjoy Mary Cassett's pastels and Winslow Homer's seas, for example.

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown

I hadn't been to WTF to see their new, modern, comfortable theatre. The venue doesn't change the quality of the productions, but amenities are appreciated. Oftentimes, the play selections have been old chestnuts, or at least, the tried and true. I'd never seen better productions of "Hedda Gabler" or "A Doll's House" anywhere. Falling in the chestnut category was "Blithe Spirit." TV's Wendie Malik was a great plus for the play. Later on we saw the drama "The Corn Is Green" starring mother and son, Kate Burton and Morgan Ritchie. This was truly one of WTF's best in recent memory. Our plan is to attend "Brokology," "A Flea in Her Ear," and "The Understudy" this summer.

Whew…exhausted. Yet, we didn't see everything; there's Barrington Stage, Berkshire Museum, Mahaiwe Theatre, Berkshire Botanical Garden, and Colonial Theatre. I hope to fit each in this summer. You might think that all we "do" is culture. Well, almost. We always wedge in time to shop at the Lee Outlets, walk through the Town of Lenox, and sit on the rocking chairs of the Red Lion porch. After all, we could use a rest.

Jacob's Pillow photo of Rasta Thomas of Lar Lubovitch Dance Company by Erin Baiano.

Norman Rockwell Museum image "Clash of the Titans" ©2008 Stephen Bodner. Used by permission. All rights reserved.