Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 30, 2012


New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through July 7, 2012
by Kait Rankins

Director Sam Rush has put together a masterpiece in New Century Theatre's production of John Logan's "Red."

Buzz Roddy stars as abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, presenting him as an aging lion - aggressive, set in his views of what art should mean and who is fit to consume it. He has been commissioned by the Four Seasons to create a series of murals for the dining room. For $35,000, it is the ultimate sellout, but he stubbornly attempts to justify the choice to take the work while he holes himself up in his studio with his paintings and classical music.

Justin Fuller plays his assistant Ken, starting as a nervous and over-eager painter who comes to work for Rothko, mixing paints and stretching canvases. As he both learns from and clashes with Rothko, he blossoms into a grown man and finds his strength of character.

The play deals with and debates the nature of art as Rothko and his assistant interact and work in the studio over the course of two years. With paint splashed on almost every worn-in surface, there is no hint that setk/costume designer Claire DeLiso created this space for a play: Rothko's basement studio full of carefully-controlled lighting (by Dan Rist) is a living, breathing environment that seems too intimate for a theatrical set. The cigarettes and food are real, the sink has a working faucet. Red paint sloshes in buckets, drips from brushes, and covers the actors, who move through the studio like they truly work as artists there. The tactile realism of the production is what makes it a successful one, breaking up Rothko's lengthy intellectual speeches and causing the script to come off as honest rather than pretentious.

The master/apprentice plot of "Red" is not surprising. The basic themes are common, familiar, and predictable, but the beautiful writing, immersive environment, and nuanced actors are what set it apart. Roddy and Fuller has the audience invested as their relationship develops and unfolds. Fuller's Ken could have been overshadowed by Roddy's more aggressive Rothko, but Fuller doesn't back down. Each actor knows how to give as well as take, maintaining a balance that keeps the audience transfixed. At 89-minutes without intermission, the play moves quickly and seamlessly through highs and lows, screaming and silence, the red and black that are thematic throughout.

"Red" is tour de force not to be missed.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Williamstown Theater Festival, Williamstown, MA
through July 14, 2012
by Jarice Hanson

The Williamstown Theater Festival is off to a great start this season with a delightful twist on not only one, but two old chestnuts, re-envisioned through the eyes of director David Hyde Pierce, who has combined Oscar Wilde’s wonderful comedy with the stylized voices of Damon Runyon’s "Guys and Dolls." The send up of high-society satire and gangster mannerisms sounds far-fetched, but the cast embraces the challenge, and Pierce has effectively created a counterpoint of language, comedy and pacing that is loaded with surprises and wit.

Tyne Daly plays Lady Bracknell as a tough, no-nonsense dame, and finds the nuances of Wilde’s language and Runyon’s delivery beautifully. Her relationship with Gwendolyn, played by Amy Spanger, powerfully sporting an “Adelaide-like” delivery, draws out the mother-daughter relationship as well as the reference to social class. Invoking the strongest sense of Victorian manners and music-hall mannerisms are Miss Prism (Marylouise Burke) and Reverend Chasuble (Henry Stram), both audience favorites who invoked an over-the-top (but highly effective) balance to the gangsters who leave the city to come to the country for love and finding true identity.

Director Pierce has also found a way to move the multi-scene Act I quickly through imaginative designs and staging enhanced by Scenic Designer Allen Moyer’s linear sets—moving from left to right as the actors walk from scene to scene while allowing the exposition necessary to set up the laughs in Act I and III. But what really stands out is the language, unchanged from Wilde’s pen, spoken through Runyon’s dialect, and interpreted with intelligence and wit. The result is a delightful way of looking at a pastiche of 120 years of popular culture, mannerisms and morals. "The Importance of Being Earnest" is a theatre gem, and this production, a shining example of artistic creativity.

June 29, 2012

Chris Robinson Brotherhood

Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion
Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA
by Eric Sutter

Performing songs from their current CD, Sarah Lee Guthrie and husband Johnny Irion hit the Colonial stage, in yet another wonderful Berkshire music concert. They strummed acoustic guitars, accompanied by Charlie Rose's stand-up bass to supply sufficient back up, to their beautiful voices that sounded as one at times. "Speed Of Light" and "Seven Sisters," aided by Irion's harmonica added folk and country elements to the sound. "Hurricane Window," written after Katrina, featured especially fancy guitar. The title cut, "Bright Examples" told a tale of an Appalachian trail hiker, which combined a bright melody and vibrant harmony singing. The song had a pop sheen that hit.

Groups like Furthur and Dark Star Orchestra have strived to keep Jerry Garcia's vision alive. In 2011, Chris Robinson Brotherhood began a similar quest and now comes their debut CD, "Big Moon Ritual." It is a new cosmic California sound with roots from the jam band grooves of the Grateful Dead. Robinson rocked tomorrow's blues with a 5-piece rock n roll band which featured Adam MacDougall on keyboards and Neal Casal on lead electric guitar. Robinson handled rhythm guitar, and all sang in four part harmony. In their mellow, melodically driven loose style the group performed "Star Or Stone" and "Tulsa Yesterday" from the CD. The Grateful Dead's "Brown Eyed Woman" was perfect company here. Robinson, et al, interpreted "Blue Suede Shoes" in their different but cool style with keyboard flourishes and the familiar "Go Cat Go!" vocal chant. Casal's slide guitar glided through "Never Been To Spain" and "Rosalee." "Girl On The Mountain" featured a deep blues that mesmerized. Casal's earthy guitar style channelled Garcia in many shades of blue.

Dylan's "Tough Mama" sounded right on with guitar and keyboards interplay challenged to the maximum. The organic "Vibration and Light Suite" received the Grateful Dead treatment with a relaxed but rollicking guitar solo. "Sunday Sound" was a great closer with Robinson's vocal, "Like water underground, we will find our way." MacDougall's syncronized keyboard solo sounded like water swelling up and building momentum as it flowed. The music bended, accelerated and crescendoed until it eventually descended. Casal's white hot warm guitar lines were interwoven between Robinson's vocals and the laid-back mellow groove of the rhythm section. As for the audience... imagine dancing bears everywhere!

Pontus Lidberg's WITHIN (Labyrinth Within)

Jacob’s Pillow Dance, Becket, MA
through July 1, 2012
by Amy Meek
Jacob’s Pillow Dance celebrates its 80th Anniversary Festival with a diverse and dynamic program of dance performances set amid the historic grounds in the Berkshire Hills. Morphosis' performance presents the world premiere of "Within" (Labyrinth Within), choreographed by Pontus Lidberg. The dancers are on stage alongside Lidberg's award-winning film “Labyrinth Within.” The two different presentations combined effectively to create a single interactive dance experience.

The film, which stars Lidberg himself alongside dancers Wendy Whelan and Giovanni Bucchieri, portrays a passionate love triangle between the three dancers. It combines gorgeous dancing with a lush score by David Lang. The film tells the dark story of passion and sensuality through the dance and stunning camera visual effects. In particular, a scene with a room filled with red flowers makes a vivid impact.

The real excitement comes in watching those on stage dance with the dancers in the movie. They alternated between mimicking the choreography shown in the film with responding to the dancers in the film in a new way, creating complementary and opposing shapes. The choreography comes alive with the dancers moving fluidly in circular motions across stage.

All of the dancers on stage execute their moves with intense energy and conviction.  They take the storytelling from the movie and make it come alive in the theatre with beautiful technique and artistry. It is a shame that the live dancers are underutilized in the second half of the performance. As stunning as the film is, there is too much time devoted to just the film. The film's story unfolds on screen very well, but it could be much more satisfying to incorporate the live dancers into the most dramatic of the cinematic sequences. Another flaw is the abrupt ending, leaving the audience to wonder if there is more to come. Unfortunately, it is the end of a thrilling and inventive night of dance.

June 28, 2012

Madwoman of Chaillot

Old Deerfield Productions, Deerfield, MA
June 29 - July 8, 2012

"The Madwoman of Chaillot," the perfect play for now, the perfect play for Greenfield will take downtown by storm. The little city that took on the Big Box will be celebrated in Old Deerfield Productions’ "The Madwoman of Chaillot," a delightful, deliciously topical comedy for the whole family. Main Street and the Common will come to life with circus and street performers, while the Arts Block and Pushkin Gallery provide double stages for a multitudinous cast from around the Valley.

Directed by Chris Rohmann, the performance will unfold in multiple venues: outdoor preshow entertainment will move into the Arts Block CafĂ©, done up as the Parisian sidewalk bistro where Act One takes place. Then the play will move across the street to the Pushkin Gallery for Act Two’s thrilling climax in an underground crypt, performed amid an art installation by designer and artist Athan Vennell which completes the Steampunk design concept of this hilarious and timely classic.

At the core of Jean Giraudoux’s whimsical masterpiece are corrupt corporate executives who plot to destroy Paris to get at the oil they believe flows beneath the city streets. Countess Aurelia, the Madwoman of Chaillot, played by Linda McInerney, rallies her eccentric community to save itself, and the world. With downtown Greenfield dressed up as the City of Light, local luminaries in cameo roles, and a movable feast of fun and fantasy, it will be dazzlingly clear that “Nothing is ever so wrong in this world that a sensible woman can’t set it right in the course of an afternoon.”

June 27, 2012

Fiddler on the Roof

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through July 14, 2012
by Walt Haggerty

Once again Barrington Stage Company, that shining star in the Berkshires, has breathed new life into one of Broadway’s “Golden Age” classic musicals, and the results are incredible. This “Fiddler on the Roof” is not just another revival. Under the astute direction and inventive choreography of Gary John La Rosa, the company has found the true heart within the story of Tevye, his wife Golde, and their daughters.

The wonderful music of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick is all here – “Tradition,” the perfect opening, becomes the theme of the evening, followed by “Matchmaker,” performed with warmth and humor by the daughters. Next comes, “If I Were a Rich Man,” impeccably delivered by Brad Oscar as Tevye. An exuberant “Miracle of Miracles” becomes a joyous anthem through Colin Israel’s Motel the tailor. Tevye and Golde capture every nuance of tender memories in “Sunrise, Sunset” and Stephanie Lynne Mason’s “Far From the Home I Love” elicits tears as she bids her father farewell in one of the most touching moments of this memorable production.

Performances by the large cast are uniformly award-worthy. Oscar’s Tevye doesn’t miss a laugh, but behind the humor his love and caring shine through. Joanna Glushak resists turning Golde into simply a shrewish wife with a moving portrayal of a loving and caring soul mate and mother who knows, loves, and understands her family.

Rebecca Kuznick as Tzeitel and Dawn Rother as Chava create unique personalities as they grow in independence. Rother’s goodbye, as her family leaves Anatevka, is especially touching. Alexander Levin’s Perchick is every inch the committed revolutionary. Rachel Coloff’s Yente the Matchmaker, gives her character broad strokes of humor, but never exceeds believability.

The term “summer theatre” has a casual tone that suggests productions that are quickly assembled for a week or two and not necessarily first class. That is definitely not the case at Barrington Stage. There, professionalism is evident in every aspect of this production from colorful sets and costumes to an excellent orchestra directed by Darren Cohen.

For a rewarding evening of professional musical theatre, with a top-drawer company, don’t miss “Fiddler” at Barrington Stage.

June 21, 2012


Circle Mirror Transformation

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through June 23, 2012
by K.J. Rogowski

New Century Theatre’s production of Annie Baker’s “Circle Mirror Transformation” is a play that, for a number of reasons, leaves you hoping for/wanting more. It is incomplete due to both the script and the presentation.

The play itself is a series of vignettes about average folks taking a six week acting class. The difficulty for the audience is…too many vignettes, which start in a direction, developing a thought or character, and then trail off. Others are just very short, mundane exchanges, and when punctuated by the many blackouts needed to make scene changes, leave audience members trying to remember how this play is intended to hold together, and hold interest. The impact is that it is then difficult to warm up to, or indeed really care about the characters. Yes, they each have problems and issues, and the cast does a credible job, and there are a few brief moments of tension, and a few laughs, but the production does not rise to the accolades given it for either humor or self-discovery.

The circle concept is reflected in the curved walls, and the circle floor design, and there are a set of floor to ceiling mirror doors, but they do not play a role in moving the action. The final scene transitions from an acting exercise in the last class at the local community center to some time in the future, as two of the characters meet and talk of where they are now and what’s happened. But as presented, they are the same people. They have moved on, but there has been no transformation.

June 5, 2012

Carmina Burana

Hartford Symphony, Hartford, CT
through June 3, 2012
by Michael J. Moran

It was a brilliant stroke by Hartford Symphony Orchestra (HSO) Music Director Carolyn Kuan to pair Dmitri Shostakovich’s somber first Violin Concerto with Carl Orff’s crowd-pleasing “Carmina Burana” on the ninth and final “Masterworks” program in the orchestra’s current season. Audience members who came for the Orff were also treated to a blazing performance of the Russian composer’s rarely heard 1955 masterpiece (this was its HSO premiere).

The soloist was the HSO’s popular Russian-born concertmaster Leonid Sigal, whose deep connection with the music of his compatriot was clear from the hushed but firm tone of his opening notes in the brooding first movement Nocturne. He negotiated the shifting moods of the raucous, klezmer-inflected Scherzo, the intense slow Passacaglia, and the five-minute cadenza into the whirlwind closing Burlesca with emotional depth and virtuoso technique to spare. His colleagues were sensitive accompanists.

The rafters of the Belding Theater all but shook during the spectacular account of Orff’s colorful 1937 “scenic cantata” that followed intermission. “Carmina Burana,” or “Songs from Beuren,” a region of southern Germany, sets 24 poems about medieval life by the wandering “Goliard” poets in their original Latin or old German texts.

The large orchestra played with a marvelous balance of control and abandon, including extra percussion and two pianists, who provided a strong rhythmic undercurrent. The choral singing by the Hartford Chorale and the Connecticut Children’s Chorus was equally fine, from the staccato opening and closing “O Fortuna,” to the softer “Veris Leta Facies” and the playful solo quartet in “Si Puer Cum Puellula.” The swaying male chorus in “In Taberna Quando Sumus” was a hoot!

Tenor Joshua Kohl conveyed the roasting swan’s plight with poignancy and humor. Soprano Amanda Hall landed her high note in “Dulcissime” with clarity and ecstasy, while baritone David Pershall fully inhabited both the tipsy abbot of Cucany and the ardent lover of “Circa Mea Pectora.”

Although texts and translations were included in the program book, projection of English supertitles might have enhanced audience understanding and appreciation. But enthusiastic standing ovations after both pieces suggested that music ultimately speaks louder than words.