Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 27, 2014

Boston Symphony Orchestra

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 23, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

The concluding Tanglewood weekend featured one of the splashiest programs of the entire 2014 season. It opened with Berlioz’ “Roman Carnival” Overture, closed with all three symphonic poems in Respighi’s Roman Trilogy, and even Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” which preceded intermission, was connected to Rome by Paganini’s several brief periods of residence in the Eternal City.

Frequent Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) guest conductor Charles Dutoit got the program off to a lively start with an exuberant account of the tuneful Overture. Steeped in the French tradition, the orchestra and their leader indulged this colorful score’s every opportunity for instrumental display, but always with elegance and taste.  

Charles Dutoit
Russian-born pianist Kirill Gerstein then took the stage to deliver a knockout performance of the Rhapsody. Gerstein’s youthful experience as a jazz pianist may have inspired his freer than usual approach to the notes, but it nicely reflected both Paganini’s style of virtuosic showmanship as a violinist and Rachmaninoff’s as a pianist. Dutoit and the BSO were in total rapport with their soloist, from the music’s witty quotations of the “Dies Irae” plainchant to the soaring lyricism of the famous eighteenth variation.

The second half of the concert was devoted to a rare and spectacular rendition of Respighi’s iconic cycle of tributes to the city he loved. Dutoit programmed the individual pieces not in their order of composition but for maximum dramatic impact: first, the garish but glitzy Roman Festivals; next, the haunting and poetic Fountains of Rome; and, finally, the towering, majestic Pines of Rome.

Detoit led his musicians almost without pause, remaining onstage until the end, thus emphasizing their unity of spirit and sound. Dutoit has an instinctive feeling for this flashy repertoire, and the huge orchestra -- including multiple keyboards, an enlarged brass choir downstage right, and an offstage trumpet -- expressed its varied colors with unfailing technical command and surprising emotional depth. 

The imaginative and intelligent programming by maestro Dutoit of this and the next afternoon’s season-ending Beethoven program (why aren’t the kindred Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony paired more often?) only enhances the joy of hearing music in world-class performances at this uniquely appealing venue.

Jonny Lang/Runaway Saints

Mahaiwe, Great Barrington, MA
August 21, 2014
by Eric Sutter

Denim-clad alt-country band Runaway Saints debuted their sound at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center to an enthusiastic response. These Nashville, by way of Providence, RI, songsters sang about loves lost, found, and shared in an acoustic folk-rock/country format. The band opened with the love song "Caroline." Stand-outs in the course of the evening included "Loretta Lynn," about missing her voice on the radio; "California's Girl," about losing a woman to the Golden State, and a rave-up rootsy rock song "We Got Love" with mandolin, guitar and banjo. "Headed Home" carried it full circle to their next day's gig back home in Pawtucket.

This stop at Mahaiwe was important because it was the last venue on their current tour to feature Jonny Lang. Jonny Lang's new century sound is a slight departure from his 1997 debut blues-rock style. Part blues-rocker and soul singer, his approach added a sweeter soul sound to his vocal. Always edgy and passionate, Lang projected a strong stage presence with tribal inspired rhythms that resonated in the soul. The scorcher "Blew Up (the House)" was electric. "Freight Train" was powered by his frenzied lead electric guitar delivery. The Tinsley Ellis cover, "A Quitter Never Wins," harkened back to the debut album "Lie To Me."

The title cut of Lang's 2007 Grammy winner, "Turn Around," expressed turning life around in its lyrics. Rhythm guitarist Akil Thompson turned out a great solo on "Red Light." Lang showcased nice guitar tone throughout. Stand-out funky keyboardist Dwan Hill also hit the mic on Stevie Wonder's "Livin' For The City.” Lang found his true voice on his own "Fight For My Soul" from his first studio album. This time around, a fresh, crisp joyful sound filled the hall with spirited passion. Connecting effortlessly with the audience, Lang performed  "Wander This World." His encore was the familiar "Lie To Me" featuring a subtle acoustic guitar with a break-in by his blues band in a full tilt finale. Right on!

August 22, 2014

Bard Music Festival

Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY
August 8-17, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Over two weekends every August for the past 25 years, the Bard Music Festival has focused on a single composer, along with predecessors, contemporaries, and successors who influenced or were influenced by that composer. What distinguishes Bard from other music festivals is the annual publication by Princeton University Press of an accompanying book with essays contributed by scholars who also participate as speakers and panelists at festival programs.

The 2014 festival, “Schubert and His World,” presented 14 concerts, two panel discussions, and several film showings. Most evening concerts featured orchestral music played by members of the American Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Bard President and ASO Music Director Leon Botstein in the acoustically excellent 900-seat Sosnoff Theater of the distinctive Richard B. Fisher Center designed in 2003 by Frank Gehry. Daytime concerts offered mainly chamber and instrumental works in the 200-seat Olin Humanities Building auditorium, where the panels were also held.  

The highlight of weekend #2 was a concert presentation of Schubert’s rarely performed 1823 opera “Fierrabras,” whose title character, a brave and selfless Moorish knight, survives political conflict at the hands of Charlemagne and a romantic rivalry for his daughter. The gorgeous music, trimmed from its original “heavenly length” to just over three hours, was thrillingly rendered by Botstein and his forces. All the vocal soloists were good, but tenor Joseph Kaiser brought special conviction and beauty of sound to the title role.   

Another festival highlight was a “Schubertiade,” or “evening of music making and socializing with friends,” genially hosted by pianist Piers Lane as Schubert’s friend and host of many Schubertiades, Josef von Spaun. Lane not only introduced a revolving cast of singers and instrumentalists but made amusing and informative comments on the music, some of which he also played at the keyboard. His titanic account of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D959, in a different concert was particularly moving.

Other performances of special distinction were a sensitive unabridged reading of Schubert’s second Piano Trio by the young Horszowski Trio, and the ASO’s lively playing of Luciano Berio’s imaginative Rendering, a post-modern “restoration” of another “unfinished” Schubert symphony. Among the many singers who performed, baritone Andrew Garland and mezzo-soprano Teresa Buchholz were standouts. But the protean Bard Festival Chorale under James Bagwell seemed especially tireless and omnipresent.

With a packed schedule at the festival, time to visit such nearby attractions as the historic town of Rhinebeck and the homes of Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Church is often scarce, but the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley is its own reward.

August 19, 2014

A Hatful of Rain

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 30, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

Photo by Emily Faulkner
How could a play first produced in the 1950's be as timely, riveting and shocking today as when launched - perhaps even more so?

The focus of Michael V. Gazzo’s flawlessly written “A Hatful of Rain,” as produced by Berkshire Theatre Group, is on Johnny Pope, a veteran who has become a drug addict, initially because of medication prescribed during his recovery from wounds received during the Korean War.

The role of Johnny Pope, as unforgettably portrayed by Tommy Scheider, travels a tortuous path of taut desperation, loss and ultimately, hope. As Johnny’s pregnant wife Celia, Megan Ketch is equally brilliant in her confusion and frustration, attempting to learn what has happened to her husband and their marriage.

Greg Keller, as Johnny’s brother Polo, is outstanding as the brother who always has to settle for second place, but is always there to comfort, support and rescue other family members. Stephen Mandilo, as the mostly absent father, gives vent to his disapproval by blaming Polo for Johnny’s desperate situation, without ever accepting, or even recognizing, his own failures.

The trio of menacing drug dealers deliver portrayals of consummate evil in action: Triney Sandoval, ironically identified as “Mother;” the kingpin, Chris Bannow, as “Apples;” and Cornelius Davidson, as “Chuch." Their participation at times provides flashes of sardonic humor as well as terror. Davidson’s role, as a mistreated African-American and reluctant participant, is the most sympathetic. “Mother” specializes in terrorizing, while Bannow’s “Apples” is frighteningly bizarre. In a scene showing the group, accompanied by an out-of-control Michelle McGregor, as Putski, all are in “high” humor until terror comes dangerously close to boiling over.

The fine-tuned, meticulous direction of Greg Naughton deserves much of the credit for this exceptional revival of what should deservedly rank as one of the peaks of this theatre season. The Berkshire Theatre Group must be commended for bringing this amazing production to the region. Hopefully, future audiences will fill the theatre, which was regrettably well below capacity on opening night. This cast demands "Standing Room Only” attendance, and those who do attend will be greatly rewarded.

August 18, 2014

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
through September 14, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Though the title may reference Chekhov, there is only a wink and a nod to his work in Christopher Durang’s comic treatment of the master’s works. Add the skill of a talented director (Matthew Penn) and a stellar cast, and this production will have future audiences giggling and guffawing at squabbling siblings, pop culture, repressed desire, and libidinous lust. This show leaves no doubt as to why Durang won the 2013 Tony for Best Play with this gem.

In the Shakespeare & Co. production, director Penn has used his knowledge of how to interpret the work in an intimate setting, emphasizing the tensions between characters while allowing the audience to participate as voyeurs. An actor’s director, he trusts his actors’ instincts while giving them original bits to allow each one to shine in their own special way. The director’s note in the program states, “This play’s popularity is a credit to Durang’s wonderful ability to make theatrical moments simultaneously funny and touching…” Definite agreement here. Yes, the material is wonderful, and yes, the director has an expert touch, but in this case, each member of the ensemble deserves to take a bow for creating such memorable performances.

Vanya (Jim Frangione) is a cerebral, repressed 50-something man who lives with his despairing adopted sister, Sonia (Tod Randolph) in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Masha (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), their movie star sister “adored by many and loved by few,” comes for a visit with her sexy boy-toy (Mat Leonard). Newcomers Angel Moore as Cassandra the fortune-telling, voodoo practicing cleaning lady, and Olivia Saccomanno  as Nina, the innocent young neighbor, add wonderful layers of comedy and sweetness to advance the story. This talented ensemble take their audience on a hilarious, but heart-felt journey as each character comes to terms with who they are, and what they mean to each other.

This play is currently being produced in theatres around the country, and undoubtedly will be produced for years. Kudos to Shakespeare and Company for presenting such a memorable production, and for capping off their summer season with heart and warmth.

Dancing Lessons

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 24, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

The standing ovation for the world premiere of Mark St. Germain’s "Dancing Lessons" was well deserved. Yet, upon leaving the theatre, overheard was a wide range of comments by patrons that expressed divergent views on what worked in the production and what didn’t. There is a lot to like in this new work. John Cariani is quirky and compelling as a professor with Asperger’s Syndrome.  His charm and honesty provides much of the heart of the story. Paige Davis as an injured dancer clearly expresses frustration and anger as she faces a future she can’t control. 

Director Julianne Boyd weaves contemporary music into the fabric of the story to create a metaphorical dance of two people as they get to know and trust each other. One of the major challenges for a work dealing with autism is how to impart the peculiarities of the neurological condition to the public, and in this production, the writer, director, and actors are most effective when autism is shown, rather than described.

There are moments of brilliance in the script, but the play suffers from trying to cover too much territory. Short, staccato bursts of dialog at the beginning of the show are intended to set a pace, but they fail to establish a rapport with the audience. At times, information on autism becomes didactic, and a litany of names of famous people who may have been autistic seems unnecessary to establish the fact that autistic individuals can be brilliant. Clues to the dancer’s back-story are delivered through phone messages from someone who sounds like a character from "The Prairie Home Companion." Surprisingly, the ending, though not particularly original, works well and leaves the audience with a message of hope for these two individuals trapped in worlds they can’t control.

"Dancing Lessons" is appropriately titled, and the characters’ relationship creates a compelling story that touches our humanity and is ultimately moving. If some of the “extra information” embedded in the script were eliminated or downplayed, the basic questions of what we as individuals control, and what circumstances in our lives we would change if we could, are strong enough for the story to stand alone. As a new work, "Dancing Lessons" may not be perfect, but this production shows great potential for a script that will be produced often, and will touch many.

August 14, 2014

Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, NY
July 11- August 24, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

Alice Busch Opera Theater
Glimmerglass’ 2014 season presents three “beloved audience favorites after each underwent several revisions” and a revised version of a recent premier. All four productions can be seen in one weekend during August in the ideal acoustics of the 900-seat Alice Busch Opera Theater.

The newest piece is Tobias Picker’s opera “An American Tragedy,” based on Theodore Dreiser’s 1925 novel, commissioned and first presented by the Metropolitan Opera in 2005. Dreiser added a wealthy love interest (Sondra Finchley) to the real-life story of Chester Gillette (Clyde Griffiths in the novel and opera), a poor factory worker in upstate New York with no assets but his good looks, who was convicted of murdering his pregnant lover Grace Brown (Roberta Alden) in 1906 and executed in 1908.

The shorter revision heightens the personal drama of the three principals but loses some of Dreiser’s broader focus on class. Most of the cast are current or past members of Glimmerglass’s impressive young artists program. Baritone Christian Bowers was a suave and callous heartthrob as Clyde, while soprano Vanessa Isiguen was a poignant Roberta and mezzo-soprano Cynthia Cook an aristocratic Sondra. Veteran opera conductor George Manahan led an incisive account.

Like “Tragedy,” Francesca Zambello’s delightful production of Strauss’s “Ariadne in Naxos” was reset from central Europe to a barn in upstate New York, where a burlesque troop and an opera company must provide simultaneous dinner entertainment. Featuring local children and farm animals, the cast was headlined by soprano and 2014 artist in residence Christine Goerke, who was a hilarious Prima Donna and a ravishing Ariadne. Soprano Rachele Gilmore was lively and moving as burlesque queen Zerbinetta, and Kathleen Kelly conducted a vibrant rendition.

But Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” offered the breakout performance of the season in soprano Yunah Lee’s elegant, heartrending portrayal of Cio-Cio-San. Young artist mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi was a compelling Suzuki, and tenor Dinyar Vania as Pinkerton and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov were other cast standouts. The leadership of Festival music director Joseph Colaneri and the stark sets by Michael Yeargan were cathartically effective.

A dark and dramatic production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” (which conductor Doug Peck notes that Rodgers instructed his orchestrators to “treat as his own Puccini opera”) completed the Festival line-up. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, last year’s riveting Flying Dutchman, was an equally riveting Billy Bigelow, with a strong Julie Jordan from soprano Andrea Carroll and a brilliant Carrie Pipperidge from young artist soprano Sharin Apostolou.

Such nearby attractions as the Baseball Hall of Fame, scenic Otsego Lake, and the Fenimore Art Museum, this summer featuring tie-in exhibitions on Madame Butterfly’s Japan and the Gillette/Brown case, offer worthwhile diversions from the ample Glimmerglass schedule.

August 11, 2014

Matthew Penn, Guest Director

From the director’s vantage point at Shakespeare & Company
Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA 
by Jarice Hanson and Shera Cohen

Act I: The Interview
The following is a paraphrased interview with Matthew Penn, director of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” performing at Shakespeare & Company (S&C), Lenox, from August 6 - September 14. The interview took place during the first week of rehearsal.

The Tony Award winning play by noted playwright Christopher Durang tips a hat to Chekhov’s look at family dynamics, sibling rivalries, love, and dreams under the umbrella of razor-sharp comedy.

Penn’s primary credits are as director and producer of television and theatre. Penn has directed and/or produced over 150 prime time TV dramas including Law & Order (2003 - 2007), NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, House, Damages, and The Closer. He has been nominated for an Emmy Award. Prior to TV, Penn spent many years working in theatre. Last summer, Penn directed “Beauty Queen of Lennane” at S&C.

Q: What drew you to this show?
MP: I was drawn to its sweetness. It’s tons of fun. Having worked here last year, I enjoyed the experience. My family has had a house in Stockbridge for about 50 years, so I feel at home in the Berkshires

Q: What is it about “Vanya and Sonia...” and this venue that appeals to you?
MP: The audience here is very erudite. This play gives an affectionate nod to Chekov, but you don’t need to know Chekov to get the idea that this is about three siblings with all of the squabbling siblings go through. A casual theatre-goer can have lots of fun. There’s the kind of affectionate wit here that perhaps urges the audience to take a chance and change our lives for the better.

Q: Have you seen a production of this play before?
MP: I saw this in New York, but well before I knew I would be directing it. I thought that Jim Frangione (a Berkshire Playwrights Lab co-founder) to play Vanya. I thought that Elizabeth Aspenlieder would be Sonia, but then Tod Randolph auditioned and she was “born to play Sonia.” So Elizabeth became Masha. There are also a number of newcomers to S&C in this production.

Q: Do you have any favorite moments yet?
MP: I usually have a series of  favorite moments, but it’s too soon in this rehearsal process to have any yet. Plays are a conflation of writing talent, acting  talent, and as a director, I just need to know when to get out of the way.

Q: What was your first directing experience?
MP: It was “The Marriage Proposal” -- interestingly by Chekhov, which I directed very badly when I was still in school.

Q: Which do you enjoy more -- directing TV or live theatre?
MP: I love live theatre because the audience is right there with you. In “Beauty Queen,” for example, you hear the immediate laughs and gasps. There’s no substitute for live theatre.

Q: Is there a relationship between Berkshire Playwrights Lab (of which Penn is one of the founders) and S&C?
MP: Not officially. Last year I asked Elizabeth and Tina Packer (S&C. founder) to do readings at the Lab. I have always considered myself a fan and think of it as “a special place” largely because of Tina’s vision.

Act II: The Rehearsal
Photo by Kevin Sprague
Down what seemed like a maze of hallways at the Bernstein Theatre is a rehearsal room. It’s large, open, white, and unexciting. We sat in the few chairs situated against one wall. A table to the side held bagels and cream cheese. There was nothing fancy about the setting. Any thoughts of seeing the actual play set were quickly dashed, as the actors worked with only a few chairs. Each actor greeted us warmly -- highly unexpected, as we were the ones who interrupted their work.

Today’s rehearsal was Act II, Scene I featuring four of the actors. Penn had already (a week
 or so prior to our visit) set the scene, pace, character interaction, etc. which the actors stepped into. They wore casual summer costumes. They stood. Each held a script -- this is called an open book reading -- but the actors had already memorized most of their dialogue. It was instantly clear that three of the characters were siblings and the fourth, a young stud boyfriend of one of the sisters. The actors didn’t “just” read; they acted each line, addressing the others.

Let’s do it again...this time sitting on chairs in a semi-circle. On occasion, the actors walked to faux settings and held pretend props as they felt appropriate, undirected yet in character. Periodically, they talked to each other and asked Penn questions. There were no lengthy discussions.

It was Matthew Penn who walked and paced, deliberately and with concentration. He often held his hand under his chin. He said nothing, didn’t laugh, just watched from all angles. He let the rehearsal scene play out. Only then did the significant conversation take place. Yes, conversation. This was not dictatorial direction, but a give and take between the actors and Penn.

It will be exciting to see the “end product” on stage.

Henry IV, Parts I & II

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 31, 2014
by Jarice Hanson

Adapting any of Shakespeare’s history plays so that today’s American audience can understand them can be a daunting task, but Jonathan Epstein has created a lively, energetic version of Henry IV by combining elements of Part I and Part II that capitalize on the bawdy humor of the Bard’s most entertaining comedies. Battles are fought with the sound of aircraft and artillery in the distance; information arrives by cell phone and computer; acrobatic actors swing on ropes and leap to different playing levels; actors sing, dance, and the inevitable sword fight is performed with outstanding vigor.

Epstein has condensed the two plays to focus on Prince Hal, the heir apparent who negotiates his future duties by relating to Henry IV (forcefully played by Epstein with appropriate gravitas) and the secondary father figure of Falstaff who is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most bawdy creations. Every character in the production is perfectly cast, and Malcolm Ingram’s portrayal of Falstaff is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Henry Clark as Prince Hal physically and intellectually inhabits the son, torn between fatherly love and parental rejection. Travis George’s set design provides a dynamic multiple-purpose playing space that complements the story beautifully, and combines Shakespearean and contemporary stagecraft to best advantage.

For anyone who may think that Henry IV may be too historically complicated to understand, this production will change their mind. The adaptation shows the timeliness of Shakespeare and the elements of human desire, greed, and political will that characterize his work. The words—the beautiful words—come alive and the characters touch our sense of what it means to be human. Though Epstein’s adaptation takes some liberties with the original text (for example, he sometimes gives lines to different actors and emphasizes different features of the two original plays), he has clearly demonstrated how Shakespeare’s magic still works, 450 years after the author’s birth. I think the Bard would approve.

August 7, 2014

Steampunk Circus Bands

Steampunk Circus Bands
Saturday, August 16, 2014
Come for the day or any part of the day.

1 Armory Square, Springfield, MA
(Corner of State & Federal Streets)
For more information: 413-734-8551
Sponsored by The Springfield Armory NHS

August 4, 2014


Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MA
September 26 & 27, 2014

After its huge success in Greenfield last month, a new adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein will be presented by Old Deerfield Productions for two nights only in Springfield. Written and performed by Lindel Hart as the Creature, the cast includes Colin Allen in the roles of Victor Frankenstein, Mr. DeLacey, and William, with Jane Williams playing Mary Shelley and Elizabeth.

Said McInerney, "This is a wild story that takes the audience on an unforgettable roller coaster ride through the life experience of the Creature. We follow his birth, his rejection by his father, his abuse and mounting rage, and his superhuman travels around the world ending in the Arctic on an ice floe as he relentlessly seeks connection with his father, Victor Frankenstein. By highlighting the prescience of Shelley’s novel we hope to further the process of changing the original "Story" from one that sanctions dominance over nature to the New Story of our interconnectedness that will allow the human race to thrive in respectful relationship with the planet.

The production will feature projection design by Albanian artist, Florian Canga illustrating the story through light and image that will also draw parallels to the troubled present. Handheld video cameras and video installation manipulated by the character Mary Shelley incorporates images from the Scientific Revolution of her time with present day images. Athan Vennell creates set installation and costumes, Matt Cowan is the lighting designer, Sloan Tomlinson is the poster designer and the extraordinary makeup design and execution is by world renowned make up artist, Joseph Dulude, II.

Not appropriate for young children.
Tickets are $20 and available at or at the door.

The Visit

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 17, 2014
by Walt Haggerty

“Here we go again. It’s all about fresh starts, new beginnings,” commented legendary superstar Chita Rivera. Based on Friedrich Durenmatt’s play, "The Visit" has been turned into a musical by John Kander and Fred Ebb, with a book by Terrance McNally.

“The Visit” tells a dark and foreboding tale of a woman betrayed, abandoned and shamed by her lover. Late in life Claire returns to the village of her youth. The once beautiful and thriving community is decayed and the townspeople impoverished, including Anton, her former lover. Following a series of profitable marriages, Claire has become a woman of enormous wealth. Her mysterious visit is anticipated with curiosity as to why she has elected to return. The hope is that she will rescue her former neighbors. On arrival she makes an extraordinary offer, but demands an even more extraordinary price.

As Claire, Rivera delivers a dynamic performance destined to cap a career of more than half a century. She is incomparable. Roger Rees, as Claire’s former lover, portrays a character deserving of total contempt. Enacting Claire and Anton as young lovers are Michelle Veintimilla and John Bambery, respectively, who reflect the youth and beauty that once existed. As schoolmaster, Jason Danieley makes his solo, “The Only One,” powerful and moving. Distinctive characterizations are also contributed by Judy Kuhn, Melanie Field, and Rick Holmes.

The score and lyrics (Kander & Ebb) make this musical one of the team’s best, with each selection tailored precisely to the situations and characters as reflected in Claire’s bitter “I Walk Away” and “Anton’s egotistical, “I Must Have Been Something.” “Love and Love Alone,” sung and danced by Claire and Young Claire, is beautiful and moving.

“The Visit,” directed by John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, is still a work in progress. The strong, sturdy framework is in place for a memorable, even great, evening of theatre. Perhaps a reconsideration of the most recent cuts and condensation of the current production might be revisited, with an eye to adding definition to key characterization. More extensive use of the marvelous music would also be most welcome.

August 3, 2014

It’s a Wildly Adventurous Summer of Theatre

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
by Shera Cohen

On any single weekday, you can see five plays at Shakespeare & Company (S&Co). On any single weekend, (how about a short stay in the beautiful Berkshires?) you can see as many as 11 performances. A significant number of the plays are those by Shakespeare, of course. However, for those who might not feel comfortable with the Bard, then there’s the “& Company” part of the troupe’s title.

Let’s take an arbitrary day. How about Wednesday, August 6th. The day’s offerings are:  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (this is Shakespeare’s writing at its best, but updated to 1930’s New Orleans), “The Servant of Two Masters” (by Carlo Goldoni with adaption by long-time S&Co. creative master of wit Jenna Ware at the helm), “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” (Christopher Durang’s contemporary salute to Chekhov), “The Complete Works of Wm Shakespeare - Abridged” (a modern day Cliff Notes compilation of all of Shakespeare’s 36 plays in two hours.) The latter is far from a history lesson; instead a somewhat risqué, non-stop, crazy, and hilarious look at the Bard’s works as performed by three actors in dozens of roles each. While it might help to be familiar with these works, audience members who are novices to Shakespeare will appreciate the ridiculously intense humor. This is definitely not a trip down the memory lane of high school English classes. And, if by chance, you might be tired of sitting all day, take a Behind the Scenes Tour to observe the inner workings of what makes S&Co. tick.

Romeo & Juliet
Can’t take time off from work? How about next weekend? Or any weekend? To the above list of five theatre experiences, let’s add performances of “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Henry IV, parts I & II,” (each unmistakably Shakespeare) along with “Shakespeare’s Will” by Vern Thiessen, starring S&Co. veteran Kristin Wold.

The only reason for it being impossible to see every program at the venue’s four stages is because some play times overlap, particularly as one production takes the Tina Packer Playhouse, another is mounted at the Bernstein Theatre. Yet, four of the five offerings on that Wednesday, and eight of the eleven on the weekend might be enough -- more than enough -- to entrench yourself in theatre. can’t make it on Wednesday. Tuesday is better? Then add the Tuesday Talks to your “to do” list. Join actors, directors, et al at 5pm for discussions and Q&A on each of the season’s plays. For those about to experience a lesser-known Shakespeare play, in particular, the talk offers particular insight in a non-didactic environment.

Having already seen most of plays on the menu, let’s take a closer look to entice infrequent and new audiences.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
“Midsummer” It’s a literal and verbal romp in the forest, yet in Louisiana some decades ago. Would Shakespeare mind the update? Purists would say “yes.” I think he would say “Bravo.” With a large cast of S&Co. vets, Johnny Lee Davenport shines as the common man turned mule.

“Complete Works...” Twice might not have been enough times for me to see this fun piece. Jonathan Croy directs his trio of actors in a raucous melding of dramas, comedies, and histories in a Monty Python-ish spoof (yes, there is dismemberment).

Shakespeare's Will
“Shakespeare’s Will” You’re thinking, “I don’t like one-person plays.” Right? Kristin Wold as Will’s wife Anne Hathaway will change your mind about the merits of what one highly talented actor can produce on stage.

“Julius Caesar” Here, the company took the exact opposite approach as “Will” with six actors portraying 100 or so roles. The Talk immediately prior offered a focus on this warrior, his methodical mind, and his adversaries.

“Servant of Two Masters” The play highlights the talents of the student actors. The tent stage turned into centuries-old Italy coupled with commedia dell’arte mistaken identities, comic confusion, and lots of door slamming all in the sake of fun.

For information call 413-637-3353 or log onto

Note: S&Co. doesn’t close the doors on Labor Day. Fall and winter productions mount the main stages.

August 2, 2014

Other Desert Cities

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through August 9, 2014
by Konrad Rogowski

The unearthing and ghoulish autopsy of old family secrets, deceptions and plots creates the conflict and intrigue of New Century Theatre's production of Jon Robin Baitz's "Other Desert Cities."

The premise of the play is pulled straight from the often times brutal reality of today's "tell it all" autobiographies, recounted, most often, by the children of the rich and famous; and so it is with the Wyeth family. Author Brooke Wyeth (Cate Damon) arrives on Christmas Eve at the home of her movie star/high powered political hob-nobbing parents (Richard McElvain and Carol Lambert) with a present that promises to blow the lid off of a well-kept family secret. She presents them with her "tell all" book that suggests what happened to drive her younger brother to both acts of mass violence and suicide. The author, who has her own take on the family dynamics which caused this situation, give other family members -- brother Trip (Sam Gillam) and aunt Silda (Ellen W. Kaplan) -- the chance to read and to deal with what has occurred.

Each of the actors creates characters dealing with a family imploding into a series of hateful accusations and counter accusations. The interesting and different facet of the play here is that each of these characters makes points that ring true in their facts and their hypothesis, only to be countered by the others' equally valid points, leaving the audience wondering just who's version of the truth is the one to believe. To compound the issue, Rand Foester has successfully directed his cast to express flawed people who deal with others, equally flawed. By play's end, a truth does come out. The audience discovers why Brooke finally takes the road she talks about to other desert cities.

Foester keeps the action tight, and the arguments crisp and ringing of reality. Daniel D. Rist's set design creates the scene...and like the conflicts played out, it is panoramic in scope, and appears, at least to the uninitiated, picture perfect.

A Number

Chester Theatre Company
through August 10, 2014
by Bettie Hallen

When staged in London in 2002, this play was identified by The London Evening Standard, as “the first true play of the 21stcentury." As its five scenes unfold, the audience is immersed in a depth of bio-socio-medical-ethical questions to ponder. This puzzler of a psychological thriller heads straight into the middle of the situation when, after having seen something unnerving, Bernard, a son questions Salter, the father who has raised him. "Are you my father? Was I the first one, the original? Would you know me in the batch?” The father answers somewhat evasively, often changing his story, finally telling Bernard, “I am your father (long pause) genetically.” At this point in the first scene, the audience, if not already confused, realizes it has no idea what is going on. Why does Bernard ask if he was the first of ‘a number’? Who are the “they” whom Salter wants to sue for a huge amount of money?

Caryl Churchill’s intriguingly styled script allows for a great deal of free rein of which director Byam Stevens thoughtfully takes full advantage. In a discussion with opening day audience, he would not categorize the play for all of the many questions which it poses. The script has no stage directions and little punctuation. Learning this, its audience realizes what imaginative command both Stevens and his truly brilliant actors have staged to create amazing characterizations.

The versatile Jay Stratton returns to Chester as Bernards 1 and 2, and Michael Black, three of the identical sons who are not at all similar in behavior nor demeanor; this is most impressive acting. As Salter, Larry John Meyers is a brilliant choice in his first appearance at Chester. He adeptly changes in his behavior as each of the young men confront him. Audience members must watch carefully during the scene changes; that there are no black-outs is another clever directorial decision. Both actors speak with a gentle, easily understood British accent, while standing or sitting across from one another in unmatched kitchen chairs on an otherwise bare platform stage encircled with 19 slightly out of focus, varyingly angled mirrors.

Be sure to see this play with a full carload of folks for a lengthy discussion on the ride home of the questions and their possible answers introduced by “A Number.”

Lizzie Borden

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 31, 2014
by Michael J. Moran

American composer Jack Beeson, scenario writer Richard Plant, and librettist Kenward Elmslie first published their opera “Lizzie Borden” in 1965. A new version for chamber orchestra with orchestration by Todd Bashore and dramaturgy by John Conklin was commissioned and debuted by Boston Lyric Opera in November 2013. The same forces recently presented it at Tanglewood.

Although the real Lizzie Borden was acquitted of killing her father and stepmother with an ax in 1892 at the family home in Fall River, MA, suspicions of her guilt still persist. The stark and stylized BLO production, performed in 90 minutes without an intermission, built a mood of almost unbearable tension from early scenes of family life to the murders just before the end.

The orchestra was situated at stage right in Ozawa Hall. Set designer Andrew Cavanaugh Holland placed a table with four chairs downstage center, and most of the action was movement of chairs around the otherwise empty stage by the six cast members. Stage director Christopher Alden provided some comic relief by using the floor as a bed for Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, and his wife, Abigail, and the table as a piano and lounging area for Abigail.

Soprano Caroline Worra played Abigail to the hilt, garnering much appreciative laughter from the enthusiastic audience. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Andrew, soprano Chelsea Basler as Lizzie’s younger sister Margret, baritone David McFerrin as Margret’s ship captain fiancé, and tenor Omar Najmi as the pastor of the Borden family church all sang with clarity, focus, and strong characterization. But the evening belonged to mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as Lizzie, whose heartrending and harrowing account of the tragic heroine won sympathy as well as horror for her actions.

BLO music director David Angus led a tight, intense performance, and the reduced orchestration highlighted both the astringency of the often violent score and the tenderness of its rare lyrical interludes. Members of the Voices Boston children’s chorus sang with spirit from the first balcony. 

Projected titles and a post-show panel discussion featuring the composer’s daughter further enhanced this rare opportunity to hear an American operatic masterpiece.