Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

May 31, 2009

How I Spent My Summer Vacation in 2008...

Yes, last year, and I'll do pretty much the same this year.
by Shera Cohen

Eleven women, all over age 50, attended 38 performing arts events, toured 10 museums and historic homes, walked hundreds of miles, spent lots on gas (remember the days of $4 per gallon), ate at 5 restaurants (we're frugal and bring our own food) in 21 days. And, I was told there would be no math! The Berkshires remain the best place to vacation in the summer. No, I didn't go to all of these programs in alphabetical order - it's just easier to write this way.

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield

The move of BSC to Pittsfield is one of the linchpins that has turned the city 180 degrees towards the arts. While successful in its prior home in Sheffield, that venue was a high school. BSC's home now is a newly renovated state-of-the-art theatre, and that's what the quality of BSC's productions deserve. In the past, I've seen some great work, from the fabulous musical "West Side Story" to the dramatic "Suddenly, Last Summer" to the black comedy "Wonder of the World." Last summer seemed to be the year for Noel Coward, as one of his most famous works - "Private Lives" - took the stage in this highly charged, sophisticated, romantic comedy. The production was a considerable challenge, and one which was met head-on. There's do doubt that this season's mainstage plays - "Carousel," "Sleuth," and "Streetcar Named Desire" - will bring me to BSC.

Berkshire Botanical Garden, Stockbridge

Sure there are gardens - lots - and lots of flowers, plants, and herbs each with little signs with their names. That's good, because I can kill a cactus, which is why BBG continues to impress me. Winter and spring weather create a different look to the gardens each summer. A self-guided walking tour through the pristine grounds shows its "audience" the art in nature. A birdhouse sculpture exhibit was added last year, and it seemed that our feathered friends' gorgeous "homes" were The Hamptons. The Annual Stockbridge Arts & Crafts Show takes place in August. This juried show means quality yet reasonable prices. I buy half the gifts on my Chanukah list at this event.

Berkshire Choral Festival, Sheffield

I had been mistaken when I thought that I had to "know" a lot about music, the technicalities, and Latin terms to properly critique BCF. Just listen and enjoy. It's that simple. The 200+ singers and Springfield Symphony make that a very easy task. Surprisingly, the chorus members are not pros, but all volunteers who, by day, are doctors, carpenters, teachers, and retirees. Annually, they flock from all over the world for one week of training which culminates in a concert. It is obvious that they are talented, love to sing, and are thrilled to perform before an equally thrilled audience. "I Hear America Singing" was the encompassing title for one concert, with the highlight being "Frostiana" by Thompson. On another program, as if Orff's magnificent "Carmina Burana" wasn't enough, Beethoven's 9th was also on the docket. Held on five consecutive Saturdays, this summer includes works by Rachmaninoff, Mozart, Purcell, and Bach.

Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington

Only four-years-old, Fringe is experimental, novel, and avante garde music, theatre, and dance - sometimes separate genres and othertimes combined. 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 devoted an entire day to Fringe, which started with three play readings and audience critiques, then a rock concert by locals, and ending with the world premier of Under the Table's play "The Only Friends We Have." A bit like Becket with Kafka thrown in, the plot was about bedbugs. Odd, yes. Worth it? Yes. It might help to be age 30 or younger or to be young at heart to fully appreciate Fringe. This year's weeks are July 29 - August 17.

Berkshire Museum/Little Cinema, Pittsfield

I have to admit that last summer, for the first time in many, I didn't go to the Berkshire Museum, per se. This gem of a newly renovated venue is absolutely worth a visit, and it's on this year's calendar. I did, however, attend the museum's Little Cinema - a large auditorium attached/part of the museum. Each week, a different independent or foreign film is featured. Somehow, I messed up, because the plan was to see "Mongol." Instead of warriors, horses, and vast deserts, on the screen was an average-looking man in a slow-moving movie called "The Visitor." My mistake was a benefit in disguise, as this little movie was wonderful. I got smarter in time for my second trip. The movie was right - "The Rape of Europa" - although I thought it was film noir. No, "Europa" was a documentary on the plight of Europe's art treasures during WWII. My seeing this movie was meant to be.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge

I probably should have camped out at BTF since I saw several productions last summer. A commonality among many of the Berkshire performing arts are their 2+ venues. Not only does it permit the company to present more theatre/dance/music from which to choose, but it also creates a campus atmosphere and experience as well as an opportunity to see several arts in one location. BTF has its Mainstage and the smaller Unicorn Theatre. It seems that the format for success is a coupling of the familiar and the unknown, the old and the new, or in this case the classic "A Man for All Seasons" and Noel Coward plays with "The Book Club" and "Pageant Play." Actors were the best of the Berkshire regulars, some TV stars, and new-comers. There are many choices to make at BTF, which include theatre for youth. That's when to get new audiences to love the arts - when they are kids. My plan this summer is to see some Neil Simon, the musical "Candide," and the new play "Sick".

Chesterwood, Stockbridge

This is the year to celebrate Lincoln, and this is the home Daniel Chester French, 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 large pieces. Each docent gives a different flavor to the talk; last summer's teacher was especially knowledgeable and eager for questions. Follow with a woodsy walk through the beautifully landscaped acres of property to see 30 modern sculpture works with price tags in the thousands. Sit on the porch, see the gorgeous view, and take time to smell the roses. Finally, look closely at the prolific work of Andrew DeVries.

Clark Art Institute, Williamstown

There's something new at Clark. Well, not exactly "at," but a nice walk up the trail, and a part of what has now become the Clark campus. The Stone Hill Center houses two galleries and a conservation center for art. The building's design is very different from that of Clark, yet last summer's exhibit was familiar - famed works of Whistler an Inness. One of the most beautiful museums in New England, the Clark is renowned for its on-going collection and special touring exhibits which included Japanese Art in Nature and the best of American and Eurpean Photography. Numerous special events, free concerts, film, workshops and lectures take place all year. It's worth stopping by the delightful Moonlight Cafe, which is straight out of the 1950s. Clark is not "just" a museum.

Cranwell Resort, Lenox

The presidential campaign was perfect timing to see Capitol Steps - a parody on the news of today for the sheer purpose of laughs. Each summer, Cranwell hosts these energetic and far-from-subtle zanies as they take the headlines and rewrite them into new lyrics to familiar songs. The satirical, nationally known comedy quintet are a exceptonally talented comedians/singers. For those who like current event reports edgy and a bit risque, CS outdoes Jon Stewart and Colbert. Humor is their key to getting to the audience's non-stop laughter, as they leave no celebrity or politician unscathed. For those who have seen CS and think there is no reason to go again, think again. As the news constantly changes, so do the segments, music, and lyrics. I will eagerly return.

Jacob's Pillow, Becket

The Hofesh Shechter Company danced its U.S. premiere performance at the Pillow last summer. JP is known for sharing its stage with young international troupes, and this was no exception. The dancers numbered 12, accompanied by their own musicians - not usually the case at JP, but a plus. Adjectives like energetic and athletic applied here. Dance/wrestling movement and spastic manners that created images of insects accentualed the modern pieces. The setting was the Ted Shawn Theatre - a huge barn, founded by Springfield's own famous dancer/choreographer. Other indoor and outdoor stages, one called Inside/Out, host numerous performances over the course of three months. While there, I take advantage of the freebies, especially the art and photo exhibits. I encourage a walk on the grounds. The Pillow is, literally, the highest point in my travels. It's a lofty, hazy, and lovely spot. On my JP agenda this summer are the well-known Merce Cunningham and the contemporary Cedar Lake

Mass MoCA, North Adams

MM has big stuff. Yes, it's definitely art, but unless you live in a mansion or on a ranch, there would be no room for such creative, odd, pieces in your home or on your lawn. So, the staff at MM have done New Englanders and visitors from throughout the world a great favor and housed these paintings, sculpture, and multi-media contraptions in one former factory-turned-museum. At any time of the year, several themed exhibitions take up the space. Western Artists in China offered a 20th century look at Asian art and photography; Badlands: New Horizons in Landscape focused on abstract as well as accessible pieces primarily in nature (Jennifer Steinkamp's virtual tree was mesmerizing). On many of the evenings music, dance, and/or film take the stage. MM has put North Adams on the map.

The Mount, Lenox

You thought there was nothing to do in the Berkshires on a Monday. Wrong. For the past 16 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 insightful and entertaining. Voltaire's mistress "Divine Emilie" was a brilliant mathematician and scientist, yet her paramour is the person we have heard of. Artist Edward Hopper and wife Jo Nivison made for a fascinating team on and off the canvas. The talk on Marie Antoinette was the most delightful. The secret was revealed as to how she kept her hair piled high and gauche. Vegetables framed the center with hair rigged up and over. After a few days, it's easy to imagine the smell of the cabbage. While at The Mount, tour the house and gardens, listen to Edith Wharton readings, and enjoy the lemonade and scones. It's just so civilized and a lovely step back in time. I will attend three author lectures this July and August.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge

Is there an American alive who does not know at least one of Rockwell's works? This prolific artist's stories were so familiar that perhaps his audiences and critics took his incredible talent for granted. But it wasn't too late for me to see this man's art at the museum dedicated to his treasures. On the lower level are covers of every Post Magazine drawn by Rockwell. I've seen it before, but it's always worth a return visit. Last summer's focus was titled "In Full Bloom: Artists Design Garden Gates" - 32 local artists created an installation of 24 whimsical, colorful, clever, free-standing sculptures of gates. A walk around the well-manicured museum grounds led patrons from one piece to another. Some depicted butterflies, others blew bubbles at passers-by. Touring exhibits of Rockwell contemporaries fill other rooms. On this trip, "Raw Nerve - Political Art of Steve Brodner" was as satirical as Capitol Steps. I joined one of the many gallery walks. Oddly, I had never participated before, which was a mistake rectified.

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox

It's no coincidence that I spend more time here than at any other art venue. I am an admitted S&Co. junkie. In total, I attended 12 plays, talks, pre-shows, and lectures. I did all but sleep over. Of course, the works of The Bard are their mainstay, which included a riveting and exquisitely acted "Othello" (scheduled again this summer) and "All's Well That Ends Well." While one might have thought that the musical "The Mad Pirate & the Mermaid" was a kiddie show, the adults appreciated it equally. "The Goatwoman of Corvis County" had a metamorphosis from a staged reading the year prior into a full-fledged production of a contemporary black comedy. The in-your-face, fast, furious French farce "The Ladies Man" was so much fun that I went back a second time. Several factors make S&Co. unique and successful: so much to choose from 10am - 11pm, four indoor and outdoor stages, superbly skilled directors, a cadre of talented actors who are often in two different plays in the same day, and lots of free stuff. This summer I'll see "Twelfth Night" and "Measure for Measure," four new plays, three lectures, plus a tour. For those who missed "Hamlet," it's once again on the menu.

Tanglewood, Lenox

What can I say about Tanglewood's music, conductors, orchestra, soloists, concert halls, landscape, and even the gift shops, that many others have not already written? All of the accolades and superlatives are accurate. On any given week, you can attend as many as a half-dozen concerts and public rehearsals. And on any given week the performers are the Boston Symphony, the Boston Pops, a guest orchestra, and/or the Boston University Tanglewood Institute. If I write this statement every year, it's true every year - last summer's programs were the best. Highlights were 10 weeks of Saturday morning rehearsals, Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade," the Music Center Fellows Opera Scenes, and Keith Lockhart leading the Boston Pops salute to Bernstein. To drop a few more names, Film Night brought composer/maestro John Williams, actors Kate Capshaw and Karen Allen, and surprise guest Steven Spielberg to the stage. No Harrison Ford? But, isn't it wonderful that Williams (just a composer!) and Spielberg (just a director!) are names and faces as recognizable as Ford. This was a WOW event. What am I attending this year? Does it matter? I will go to anything and be very happy.

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown

WTF always brings first quality productions to the Berkshires. While some might think of the Nikos Stage as second cousin to the Main Stage, with plays that are less important or skillfully produced - not true. This is a wonderful venue, particularly for experimentation with new works such as "Broke-ology." It's risky to mount a world premiere by a first-time playwright. However, the play was received by the audience (including me) with a standing ovation. You don't need casts of thousands to make great theatre. The quartet of actors were perfect in their roles. WTF also hosts some old chestnuts by Chekhov and new ones by Durang, for example. The upcoming roster follows the same format with works by Gurney and Shepard as well as "unknowns." Take a chance, particularly on Nikos productions.

There's just no more room to include the Church on the Hill Craft Show, the Red Lion Inn porch and rocking chairs, Friends of the Trustees museums, and Third Thursdays in Pittsfield. I went to two Thirds in '08 and will attend two more Thirds in '09 in Downtown Pittsfield - maybe I'll run into you.

May 27, 2009

Greater Tuna

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through May 31, 2009
by R.E. Smith

"Greater Tuna" is a show built for actors and those who appreciate the craft. The action takes place in the third smallest town in Texas where various life stories play out and intertwine. Brian Mathis and Neal Mayer did yeoman's work portraying 21 citizens of Tuna, Texas. Each brought distinctive voice and body language to both male and female characters. Mayer's humane-society worker Petey Fisk was an audience favorite, with his appeals to adopt stray dogs and save homeless ducks. Mathis' embodiment of put upon housewife Bertha Bumiller earned knowing smiles and sympathy. Through use of physical subtleties and facial expressions, each performer brought a measure of humanity to bucolic stereotypes. The costume changes were swift, impressive and never distracting, sometimes achieving great results with just an adjustment of a wig and a shirt.

Advanced press proclaimed that the show was a "comical tour de force" and "side-splitting," but while the characterizations were broad, the humor was subdued. Truth be told, many people left during intermission. There were some amusing vignettes, but no belly laughs. A macabre pall hung over much of the action and those who stayed to Act II were faced with more disturbingly uncomfortable revelations. Many seemed to come expecting Jeff Foxworthy redneck humor and were rightly thrown off by the Faulkner Southern gothic that was presented instead.

A number of factors may have contributed to the displeasure. The producer of the show did warn us to dismiss all notions of political correctness, but the book is becoming dated. Many of the topics (sharecroppers, Agent Orange) are just not that funny anymore or foreign to the current generation. The actors also seemed to be held back by the direction. From the opening music, to the entrances and exits, to the delivery of punch lines seemed to be drawn out. Maybe this was done to suggest the pace of life on a late summer day in Texas, but when comedy and drama are both delivered at the same pace it leaves the audience more time to notice what they don't like. It is to the actors' credit that the most pleasant aspect of the evening comes from the appreciation of two artists working hard to make difficult material palatable.

May 25, 2009

Faith Healer

Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge
through July 4, 2009
By Barbara Stroup

Berkshire Theatre Festival starts its season of "theatre that matters" with "Faith Healer." This three-character play revolves around Francis Hardy who offers the Welsh and Scottish locals one night only performances. Waited on and accompanied by his wife Grace and manager Teddy, Francis uses a spoken incantation of Welsh village names as a mantra to quell the self-doubt inside, a characteristic exceeded only by his self-absorption.

The play is divided into four solitary monologues by Francis, Grace, Teddy, and again by Francis. The fourth wall is gone as they each address the audience about the events of their ravaged lives and a trauma that ended their travels. Francis perceives that "the lame, the crippled, the barren, deaf, or blind" come to him not to be healed, but to confirm the absence of hope. Grace, portrayed by Keira Naughton, offers a different set of memories. Though she claims health, the audience senses her fragility. David Adkins' Teddy - whose comb-over sets a record by starting just above his ear - begins Act II. He brings some much-needed comic relief, and skillfully evolves it into the passionate disappointment of a human being whose unrewarded love persists. His intensity is the high point of the evening. As each subsequent character tells a different story about the same events, the actors' strengths are evident - the audience is both convinced and skeptical. Were ten people healed one night in Scotland? As facts are supplanted with each new version, is it memory that fails...or is it distorted by time, need, attachment, and the human frailty so well portrayed?

Directed by Eric Hill, these three fine actors - Adkins, Naughton, and Colin Lane - possess the ability to convince the audience that they live inside their characters. In this intimate theatre and with little blocking or stage business, the audience feels in close conversation with the actors. Each have complex and beautiful vocal characteristics, and the various accents were either 'spot on' or their own. The set was spare, dominated by a large aged-looking "Faith Healer" poster with graphics typical of the genre. Many audience members left without being sure they heard the final word clearly - Lane may have lost or dropped his voice inadvertently, but it was pivotal to understanding the tragedy to which all three characters referred.

May 14, 2009

42nd Street

Goodspeed, East Haddam, CT
through July 4, 2009
by Shera Cohen

"The show must go on!" This cliché is the entire plot of the sparkling, toe-tapping "42nd Street" at Goodspeed Opera House. The story is the backstage life of a new musical - the audition, rehearsal, and tour of "Pretty Ladies" (the play within the play). The era is the Great Depression. Why "great" was ever linked with the economic doldrums of "Depression" is a question to ponder. "Great" can, however, apply to this revival in 2009. Perhaps it was not a coincidence when Goodspeed planned its season opener to be more apropos in theme than one would have guessed.

As the sounds of the pit orchestra hit that strong opening note and the ruby red curtain rises, onstage are 14 hoofers tapping away. Their shoes are another instrument, and one that never stops during the entire musical, thank goodness. The ensemble is first and foremost superb dancers. They are young, energetic, attractive, in unison, and can sing. The production itself is the "star" and can be compared to a large canvas - on it are colors, swooshes, vibrancy, glitter, boldness, and whimsy. Some of these colors are literal in the costumes (the musical becomes a 1930s fashion show) and the lighting.

That said, this is not to discount those in leading roles, with each actor playing his/her caricature exceptionally well. Kristen Martin (ingénue heroine) is a sweet soprano who taps as fast as a speeding bullet. Austin Miller (her beau and Harry Connick look-alike) is sassy with feet that keep up with his gal. James Lloyd Reynolds (the boss) doesn't sing much, but delivers comedy so straight to get extra laughs. Laurie Wells (leading lady) is the real singer in this quartet. And what do they sing that leaves the audience unable to eradicate tunes from their collective heads for the next week? "We're in the Money," "Lullaby of Broadway," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," and the title number.

The other important stars are choreographer Rick Conant and director Ray Roderick - a dynamic duo who set the tone and spirit of "42nd Street" to please the likes of Busby Berkeley.

May 10, 2009

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

65th Anniversary Concert
Symphony Hall, Springfield
by Shera Cohen

In the distant future, it is possible that audiences will recall the SSO's 2008/09 season as one of its best in decades. In particular, the Grande Finale, will be marked in the symphony program books as a banner concert. Apparently, it wasn't enough to just schedule "Carmina Burana" – which is oftentimes the sole selection on many orchestras' programs. SSO, Maestro Kevin Rhodes, et al, started the evening with Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra" (aka "2001, A Space Odyssey").

The Strauss work commenced with a rumble of music, swelled, and later ebbed and flowed. Percussion on one end of the see-saw balanced with harp strings on the other. Several tease endings preceded the ultimate closing in this long and big piece. Rhodes was always in command of his musicians, one-half second ahead of every note in his instruction. The man and his team worked in perfect synch.

Looking at the stage after intermission, one could see the orchestra spilling out to both sides, complete with two pianos. The setting became a three-quarter thrust arena with the SSO, its Chorus (tenors, baritones and bass), and South Hadley Children's Chorus center stage; the SSO Chorus and Pioneer Valley Symphony Chorus' sopranos stage right; and the latter two groups' altos stage left. The soprano and alto sections sat and stood in the logue, creating a physical and musical vastness to the upcoming "Carmina Burana."

From the first loud and harsh bang of drums to soft and southing strings, lush songs of the soloists to the largess of the 300+ chorus, "Carmina" is and always will be a standout piece. Carl Orff's "Carmina" offers constant contrasts in musical styles, tones, and moods. At times dramatic, then humor follows. Trumpets blast pomp and circumstance, then strings flow operatic. To tackle the difficulty of this marvelous, exhausting, awesome, and sometimes strange epic, is a huge task. "Carmina" is in the proverbial class by itself, with the reputation as one of the most illustrious choral/symphonic works of the 20th century. For the full house at Symphony Hall, their immediate standing ovation applauded more than music, but an experience.

May 5, 2009


PACE, Academy of Music, Northampton
through May 10, 2009
by Meghan Allen

P.A.C.E. undertakes "Falsettos" at the Academy of Music this month. "Falsettos" is a musical by William Finn that ran on Broadway in 1992 and 1993. The play is the second and third parts of a trilogy. The first show is called "In Trousers", the second is "March of the Falsettos", and the third is "Falsettoland."

"Falsettos" is an operatic musical that deals with the same characters. Marvin (played by Michael Holt), is a gay Jewish man who battles his inner demons while playing ping pong between his wife, his lover, and his son. Holt sinks his teeth into the complexities of Marvin's struggles. Nikkie Wadleigh effortlessly plays Marvin's ex-wife Trina, who is neurotic, loving, and scorned. Amidst the chaos of her failing marriage and therapy appointments, Wadleigh brings a humor to the role that engages the audience, and her voice is a delight. Noah Loving portrays their son Jason. Loving's entertaining facial expressions and interpretation of typical teenage angst make him a pleasure to watch. Rounding out the cast are Ed Ryan as Mendel, the family shrink; Andrew Gilbert as Marvin's lover Whizzer; Stephanie Devine as Cordelia and Rebecca Rose-Langston as Dr. Charlotte. Ryan's sense of coming timing, Gilbert's strong belting notes, and Devine and Rose-Langston's sweet and sassy portrayal of lovers and friends add depth to the piece. Memorable numbers include Wadleigh's hilarious rendition of "Trina's Song" in Act 1 and the ensemble's comic relief number "The Baseball Game" in Act 2.

The score is lyrically sophisticated and chock-full of intricate harmonies. The actors have no time to catch their breath, as there is no spoken dialogue in the "Falsettos." It sounds good on the whole, but some harmonies could use tightening. The piece feels somewhat dated, as it tackles the subject of A.I.D.S., though never mentioning the disease itself. The set is minimal and that is okay, except that the actors constantly move furniture onstage. It can be somewhat distracting, and the direction of the piece seems to be more focused on the furniture moves than the actors conveying of emotions at times.

George M!

Exit 7 Players, Ludlow MA
through May 17, 2009
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

Some may speculate that George M. Cohan's obsessive determination to make it big on Broadway began while he was still in the womb. He was born into a vaudevillian family - father, mother, sister; while just a kid, he wrote routines for the family act. There were setbacks during his climb to the Great White Way, but his goal never wavered, nor did his ego.

Fast forward to 1984 when the love of theatre and no fear of hard work gave birth to a new community theater: today the Exit 7 Players celebrate 25 years of presenting productions of higher and higher calibre. This is where George M! and Exit 7 Players are the rubber that meets the road.

If it's possible for the departed to tune into a theatrical interpretation of his life, then George M. Cohan's ethereal self can extract pleasure from visiting this energetic production. For sure, his notorious ego is getting stroked. As performed by Del Caraway, Cohan's obsession with show business is evident throughout this musical that exacts demanding performances by everyone, from the leads through the chorus. The forgotten songs and the ones still appreciated today (all written by Cohan)- "Yankee Doodle Dandy," "Give My Regards to Broadway" - and the hypnotic tap dancing of a few or the full company, are reminders of Cohan's talent that drove him to greatness and inspires the dedicated cast and crew to put on a winning show. Bravo to Director Bob Sullivan-Neer.

Choreographer David Michael Bovat's innovative combinations have turned neophytes into authentic dancers; thanks to Musical Director Karla Newmark, every sung word is understood; Costume Coordinator and Seamstress Carolyn Samonds has created a calendar of fashion spanning 60 years; Stage Manager Sue Crowther keeps the backstage from becoming a logistical nightmare.

Cohan's friend William Collier said, "George is not the best actor or author or composer or dancer or playwright. But he can dance better than any author, compose better than any manager, and manage better than any playwright. And that makes him a very great man."

Similarly, Exit 7 Players is a fine community theatre that honors professional standards.

May 4, 2009

Noises Off

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through May 17, 2009
by Shera Cohen

"Noises Off" is either a director's dream or nightmare, depending if the fun of working such a production outweighs the torture of creating a play-within-a-play, three times. From the end result, it seems as if director Malcolm Morrison had a wonderful time, and took the audience along for the fast and furious joy ride. It is difficult enough for a good director to mold the script, actors, and crew into a successful play. Add on, purposeful bad directing of a pathetic play within the umbrella play. Confusing? Yes, and it works fabulously at Hartford Stage.

Before the lights dim, three clues let the audience know that this is a play(s) for laughs. There's the pompous British voice-over advising turning off cell phones, the playbill's cover is a misnomer including the hysterical bios of the pretend cast, and the set has 10 doors. Lots of doors equals farce - the more doors, the funnier the production.

The plot is a behind the scenes look at an English theatre troupe as they rehearse and then tour. The ensemble of nine actors begin their roller-coaster ride at a moderate pace, rev up to full throttle, and then to warp speed. It's hard to image that on some days, Hartford Stage mounts a matinee and evening show. The actors must be exhausted. The characters are caricatures. There's the proverbial dumb blonde, the funny drunk, mistaken identity, sexual innuendos, a burglar, love triangles, an IRS agent, and sardines. Props, particularly dead fish, are key to "Noises Off."

Scenic Designer Tony Straiges deserves endless kudos for his ingenious creation of two entirely different sets - the elegant "fake play," and the backstage 2-by-4 "real play." A line in the script credits actor "Tim" as having built the stage himself in just 48-hours. While Straiges' skills are obviously A+, he certainly had help from a very talented crew, and undoubtedly it took at least three days of hammering and drilling.

Physical humor, with a capital "P" and "H" abounds, from pratfalls to pantomime, dropping pants to (of course) slamming doors.

May 2, 2009

What the Butler Saw

Suffield Players, CT
through May 16, 2009
April 30, 2009
By Donna Bailey-Thompson

As it turns out, the butler didn't see anything; however, the audience gets an eyeful. How's that? According to a Wikipedia quote included in the program, "'What the Butler Saw' was a mutoscope reel, and an early example of softcore pornographic films. It depicted a scene of a woman partially undressing, as if 'the butler' was watching her through a keyhole. It was viewed by depositing a coin in a freestanding viewing machine, which then ran the presentation. The title of this feature became widely used in Britain as a generic term for devices and movies of this kind."

As performed by the venerable Suffield Players, "What the Butler Saw" is silly farce on speed that not only has the characters skittering in and out of doors but stripping down to their skivvies, swapping clothes, and when newly garbed, they have new sexual identities, not just once but multiple times. The mayhem is triggered by a randy psychiatrist whose seduction of a secretarial job applicant is thwarted by the surprise visit of his wife who's been indulging in some hanky-panky of her own. Nonsensical confusion is off to the races.

Leading this titillating romp is Dana T. Ring as the lecherous Dr. Prentice whose variety of facial expressions is exceeded only by his appropriately suave or jerky body language. He swigs courage from a bottle of gin housed in his desk top drawer. To protect his own peccadillos and grander lascivious aspirations, he gets identities so twisted that the exasperated clinic director Dr. Rance (Bruce Showalter) fumes the establishment is a lunatic asylum. "The room is full of naked men!" namely, Steve Wandzy as the wife's would-be toy and Larry Chiz as a policeman who assumes so many identities that he loses his own - along with his clothes. As Geraldine, the aspiring secretary, Rayah Martin is a curvaceous, not-so-dumb blonde, and as Mrs. Prentice, Dorrie Mitchell, puts her gorgeous legs to work charging about the stage in high heels. Director Philip Vetro corralled the perfect cast which he guided and drilled before turning them loose.

The Year of Magical Thinking

TheaterWorks, Hartford
through May 24
By Karolina Sadowicz

"Do you think it will be sad?" a woman in the audience asks her companion. The subject of "The Year of Magical Thinking" makes the audience uneasy. The play, and the book on which it's based, was written by Joan Didion about the loss of her husband and daughter, and the mental game of avoidance and denial--or magical thinking--that followed.

Annalee Jeffries portrays Didion, in the one-woman show with an abundance of terse, dry wit and a creeping vulnerability that resurfaces when least expected. Though the tragedies at the core of "Thinking" are overwhelming, Jeffries fearlessly navigates Didion's tightrope walk to escape grief. When the audience anticipates a breakdown, she is controlled, defiant, often sarcastic. In a brightly lit living room, she recounts feigning the process of grieving, but inside rejecting grief in hope that not yielding to it will bring back her husband.

The strength of the story and the performance is that it defies expectations, in particular for those who are not familiar with the book. The set and Didion's clothing are in pale neutral colors; the lighting changes subtly to signal shifts in tone or mood, but is rarely stark. The music, too, is soft, spare, and ethereal. Despite Didion's direct, unflinching manner, there are no harsh notes, no melodrama. There is no self-pity. Steve Campo's disciplined direction keeps the production focused, even when Didion's intensity wanes.

With the writer's suffering kept at bay, the audience never experiences the quick descent or visceral meltdown that might be expected from the subject. But what is revealed, and completely entrancing, is a capacity in humans for both hope and self-delusion, and the deep need to transcend the darkest of times. In her controlled and willful avoidance of the reality of death, Didion exposes the fragility and uncertainty in all those who have family, friends, and the capacity to love.

Jeffries' performance brings depth to the narrative voice, never apologizing for its bluntness, but never registering as cold. Her voice, mannerisms, and spot-on timing create an electrifying, honest performance of this thought-provoking memoir.

May 1, 2009

Summer Lecture Series

17 Years at The Mount, Lenox
July 6 - August 24, 2009

Sunday may be the traditional day of rest, but in the Berkshires it's Monday. So, what's an arts-loving tourist to do? Get thee to Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, for eight consecutive Mondays at 4pm. Noted authors (primarily biographers) read from their works, discuss their subject, and answer questions from the audience.

After researching topics, writers, and receiving recommendations from series' participants, The Mount's staff invites authors whose books focus on the interests which were those of Edith Wharton; i.e. literature, history, garden design, and architecture. The authors are national and international award recipients in writing, filmmakers, professors, and Pulitzer Prize winners.

July 6th starts with an intimate, behind the recluse story of poet Emily Dickinson, written by Brenda Wineapple, who has also penned books on Gertrude Stein and Nathaniel Hawthorne. The following week, architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson talks about turn-of-the-century high society New Yorkers at Harbor Hill. Perhaps this year's most famous historic figure is Abraham Lincoln. But where would the man have been without Mary Todd Lincoln by his side? Catherine Clinton discusses this enigmatic Southern daughter who found herself a Northern wife. Brad Gooch has written the first major, long overdue biography of the great southern writer Flannery O'Connor. While her life was short, O'Connor is considered one of the brilliant writers of the 20th century.

The lectures in August begin with Lily Koppel's "The Red Leather Diary," the story of a chance discovery of a diary which led to a fascinating journey into the past. On August 10th, John Matteson speaks about the Alcott family - particularly Louisa and her relationship with her father. "The Hemingses of Monticello," by Annette Gordon-Reed, is the true story of Sally Hemings and her master Thomas Jefferson. The series ends on August 24th with author/lecturer Barry Werth on the topic of Darwin's "Origin of Species" and the repercussions that these controversial ideas had on Americans at that time.

While the atmosphere is casual in what once was the estate's barn, the programs exude an air of sophistication. Wharton and her friends, including Henry James, read their own works in this same setting a century ago. Lectures end with a meet & greet, book signing, munching on currant scones and sipping iced tea. The series is a very pleasant and welcome step back in time, when life was a bit more civilized and formal.