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.