Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

September 30, 2009

The Hound of the Baskervilles

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
through November 8, 2009
by Shera Cohen

Leave any reverence for Sherlock Holmes or Arthur Conan Doyle at home before attending “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at Shakes&Co. The play’s title is the only element of Doyle’s work that is still in tact. In just three weeks, director Tony Simotes has created one of the funniest play productions since “The Complete Works” and “Irma Vep.” In fact, blend the ingredients of theme and caricatures of “Works” and “Vep” and mix in dashes of any Monty Python spoof (for younger readers, think “Spamalot” without the music), and the U.S. premier of “Hound” becomes a delicious dish.

While the plot of the original “Hound” forms the framework, it’s easy for the audience to realize within the first minute that this is no ordinary Holmes, the sleuth. The big mystery of this “Hound” is to wonder, how does Simotes pull it all together and how do three actors pull it off? The answers don’t really matter, as the end results are that they succeed phenomenally.

To paraphrase the playbill, Simotes stated that he wanted to present a richly layered play that speaks profound truths about the human condition. “But instead, I directed this.” That was a tease for the next two-hours of non-stop comedy onstage and audience laughter.

The sound effects are howling dogs. The lights are dim, creating gigantic shadows. The set is sparse; i.e. it’s unbelievable what can be done with an old park bench. The costumes are many because two the actors portray multi-roles (male and female). The pace is fast, faster, and fastest as the story moves to its conclusion. Josh Aaron McCabe and Ryan Winkles are flawless in creating physical humor. While McCabe seems quite sober at first, he surprises in his hysterical roles as a Gypsy dancer and diminutive person (okay, a 3 foot hermit). Winkles is this year’s Shakes&Co. shining young star. He can do nothing wrong. His Scottish farmer with lamb in a sack is priceless. Jonathan Croy (a Shakes&Co. old timer) has the unenviable task of playing the semi-straight man, receiving fewer laughs than his cohorts. Ahhh, the price of fame.

Finally, kudos to the costume changers. Thank goodness for Velcro.

September 22, 2009

American Buffalo

TheaterWorks, Hartford, Connecticut
through October 25
by Jarice Hanson

"American Buffalo" premiered in 1975, and catapulted David Mamet to fame as one of the most earthy, funny, and intense playwrights of the era. The plot is simple; three guys from Chicago see an opportunity to make an easy buck, but as they hatch their plot, everything falls apart. The three characters are what makes the play compelling; they represent archetypes that reflect American male anger, frustration, and fallibility that emerged in the mid-'70s, as a backlash to the women’s movement. Though billed as a comedy, when well-played, the sadness of people trapped by their own limitations gives the characters greater depth.

In TheaterWorks' production, the actors explore their characters beautifully. Donny, owner of a junk shop (played with excellent control by John Ahlin); Bobby, the slow-witted drug addict, who serves as surrogate son to Donny (portrayed by Zachary Spicer, a young actor with tremendous physicality); and Teach, who delivers some of Mamet’s best lines, like, “The only way to teach these people is to kill them” (powerfully played by Andrew Benator, whose commitment to character is astounding) deliver a production that roars with testosterone and human fallibility.

Director Steve Campo allows Mamet’s dialog to shine; and the set, designed by Adrian W. Jones, and the subtle, effective lighting by Matthew Richards in the intimate TheaterWorks space, seems to encourage the audience to eavesdrop on the ill-fated petty crooks. At the play’s conclusion, the audience, leapt to a standing ovation, but as good as the opening night show was, it will undoubtedly get stronger as these three capable actors find the subtle peaks and valleys in Mamet’s multi-layered script. While it would have been helpful tohear some good, strong Chicago accents to punctuate Mamet’s dialog for a strong sense of place, "American Buffalo" is an actor’s play, and TheaterWorks is delivering Mamet’s work in fine form.

September 14, 2009

Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle

Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
in repertory through October 23, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

Superb! The Hartford Stage world premiere of Horton Foote's "The Orphans' Home Cycle" - Part One, "The Story of a Childhood" - foretells that Parts Two ("...Marriage") and Three (..."Family") will build and deepen the compelling story of Horace's journey from ages 12 (1902) to 38 (1928).

This elaborate production prompts superlatives. A cast of 22 playing 70 roles wears authentic period costumes (David C. Woolard), hair and wigs (Mark Adam Rampmeyer). Subtle lighting design (Rui Rita) enhances the many scenes which dissolve seamlessly thanks to the engineering legerdemain of scenic designers Jeff Cowie and David Barber: huge flats glide sideways and props move forward and back - where stood a boy, now stands a man.

Responsibility for this dramatic tour de force belongs to Artistic Director Michael Wilson. He convinced the aging playwright that the full nine-play cycle Foote had hoped to turn into nine movies (he and his wife succeeded in bringing five to the screen).could be staged in repertory. "The Cycle" is co-produced with New York's Signature Theatre Company where it will play from November to March.

Horton Foote's scripts suggest that he was light years distant from being pretentious. A gifted storyteller who eschewed any tricks, especially maudlin sentimentality, his characters are multi-dimensional; identification with their human nature explains one aspect of Foote's popularity. Another is quite simple: the man could really write.

Act I ("Roots in a Parched Ground" about 60 miles SW of Houston) opens with the dying of Horace's father whose excessive drinking alienated his wife. She marries Mr. Davenport who doesn't drink, smoke, or chew. "He has no problems," she states, except he's a dry drunk with profound control issues. Mr. Davenport's job transfer to Houston includes Horace's mother and sister but young Horace is left behind. In effect, he's an orphan. By Act II, age 14, ("Convicts") he's clerking in a scruffy store on a hardscrabble sugar cane plantation owned by an alcoholic skinflint who uses cheap convict labor. By Act III ("Lily Dale"), Horace is 20. A short visit in Houston with his uneasy mother and self-centered sister is prolonged when he is stricken with malaria. When he leaves, he's still weak but resolved to succeed.

The casting is inspired: Bill Heck (adult Horace), Henry Hodges (Horace, age 14); James DeMarse (plantation drunk), Annalee Jefferies (Horace's mother), and Pamela Payton-Wright (Mrs. Coons) who gives new meaning to "church lady." Michael Wilson's directing reflects the gentle yet precise cadence of Horton Foote's script. The result is immersion in Horace's odyssey - Greek tragedy, Texas style, never hurried, never drags.

Because scheduling of this three-part cycle is complex, theatergoers are encouraged to visit for ticketing information. Each three-hour performance includes three short plays and two intermissions.

Red Remembers

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA
through November 1, 2009
by Barbara Stroup

Berkshire Theatre presents an engrossing one-person play. "Red Remembers" visits Red Barber in retirement in his Florida home, where he is caring for his ailing wife Lylah, plagued with Alzheimer's. Red recalls the major events of a long career and takes a seat at a 'microphone' to repeat for the audience the moments for which he is most famous - notably the ninth inning hit that broke up a no-hit pitching performance by Bill Bevans in the 1947 World Series.

Tony-nominated veteran actor David Garrison plays Barber. His professionalism shines as he portrays a man beset by responsibility, some failure of memory, and the ravages of a bleeding ulcer. This reviewer particularly liked his use of gesture and movement style. Garrison's voice is sonorous and sportscaster-like, and becomes even more profound when he sits down at the 'microphone'. The beautifully-lit living room becomes a ball field as the lights go down and rear- projection, wall-sized images transport the audience to Ebbetts Field and Yankee Stadium for play-by-play moments.

Garrison has a lot of stage business to manage during the one-act 90-minute play, and he does so with total naturalness and finesse. There are cocktails to mix, phones to answer, garments to pack, and broken tumblers to sweep up - all of this action flows smoothly within the on-going monologue. The script is full of the phrases that made Red Barber's broadcasts famous, and reveals the changing principles of a man who resisted the integration of the sport until he realized that the real requirement of his job was simply to report on where the ball was.

Both set and lighting design make a remarkable contribution to the script. The living room is crisp-looking and complete; mementos stand out. Director John Rando has made all the pieces fit, and David Garrison brings reality to a remarkable script - a rewarding experience for fans of both baseball and good theatre.

September 12, 2009

The Porch

Majestic Theater, West Springfield, MA
through October 18, 2009
by Donna Bailey-Thompson

The porch belongs to the storybook cottage the widowed Alma lives in created by Set Designer Greg Trochlil, so inviting that it's no wonder neighbors Gert, Marjorie, and their husbands Leo and Pat, feel enough at home there to express intimate thoughts restrained by only token self-censorship. Set in 2005, Alma is hosting her first Labor Day family cookout since her husband's death five years earlier.

Gert reeks attitude. She's reading Bill Clinton's book, "My Life," flipping through pages in search of the juicy stuff. When she finds a titillating tidbit, she gasps, "Ohmygod!" Marjorie asks, "What are you reading?" Gert holds up the book. Marjorie's reaction is a sotto voce, "Oh, him." Wordplay gets rolling when Alma takes a cooking break. She doesn't understand the cryptic vocabulary Gert uses when alluding to Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. Alma wonders if "oral sex" means "outloud." After inventive sign language and desperate searches for synonyms, Alma shrugs. "What will they think of next" and returns to the kitchen.

The depth of the husbands' friendship is borne out by Pat's solicitous inquiry about Leo's erectile dysfunction. "You're just having a little down period." The double entendres fly. Whereas Marjorie and Pat's relationship is full of questions. "Would you marry me now?" Marjorie wonders. Pat asks, "Do you mean the way you look now?"

For a while, the gay population is treated to fleeting humor. Alma thinks that "homosexuals" is code for "homeless sexuals." The kidding becomes edgy when pedophilia is mentioned. The personal topics the two couples treat with banter and gags, Alma puzzles to understand. But there's one subject she knows significantly better than they do.

Ellen Colton as a ditzy but sensitive Alma and Cheryl McMahon as good-natured Marjorie honed their roles in earlier "Porch" productions. Barbara McEwen's Gert misses no opportunity to stir the pot. As Leo and Pat, John Thomas Waite and Stuart Gamble are warm, fuzzy buddies.

Somewhere within playwright Jack Neary's entertaining "The Porch," there's a strong play waiting to emerge, one that will also engross and inform. As of now, "The Porch" with its many laughs is less play and more saucy sketches - bawdy humor sporting a college education.

Freud’s Last Session

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
run extended through October 4, 2009
by Shera Cohen

It was a wise decision to bring encore performances of “Freud’s Last Session” – the play which kicked-off Barrington Stage’s 2009 season – back to complete the company’s summer months of plays. Another excellent choice was to mount “Freud” at Stage 2 located a few blocks from the Mainstage. This intimate theatre with its smaller stage and fewer seats is ideal for the audience to closely eavesdrop on the conversations of Dr. Sigmund Freud and author C.S. Lewis. While Freud and Lewis probably never met in 1939 (the play’s time) or at any other time, does not matter. Their discussion, which is the script, is timeless.

Born a Jew, Freud was a staunch atheist eager to preach his beliefs. Lewis, on the other hand, was a steadfast Christian. Lewis enters the study of the eminent, elderly, and dying Freud, and their 80-minute conversation starts. A one-act play, with only two characters, one of whom audience members might not know (Lewis wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia”), arguing the merits of religion as well as life vs. suicide could easily become a snoozer. Excellent acting, directing, pace, humor, and setting (yes, the couch was ever present) keeps the verbal action intelligent and quick like a fine game of chess.

Martin Rayner’s Freud is sick with incurable cancer, yet still brilliant and witty. The actor, perhaps half the age of Freud at 83, truly fleshes out the doctor. Yes, there is mention of psychoanalysis and sex, but the audience observes far more about Freud as a husband, father, and atheist.

Mark H. Dold (a regular at Barrington) portrays Lewis as unassertive, not yet famous, and intimidated by the renowned Freud. Yet, he grows -- through posture, voice, and physical proximity to Freud -- as a man to be reckoned with. Rather than adversaries, the two men become respectful debaters.

The trappings of the period set, along with sounds of airplane bombers and radio broadcasts of caution, are seen and heard throughout the play. Kudos to the backstage crew.