Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 30, 2016

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through July 16, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

One of the challenges of mounting a Tennessee Williams play is that the audience often comes to the production with a number of preconceived ideas about the characters and an expectation of the type of southern claustrophobia so integral to creating tension among characters.  In Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” some of those expectations are realized, while others are not.

The cast is comprised of talented actors all of whom have some fine moments on stage, though Big Daddy and Big Momma are physically not as imposing as the script suggests. Still, each of the actors has gravitas and go beyond stereotypical portrayals to find moments of connection with the audience.

Photo by Emma Rothenberg-Ware
Director David Auburn sets the action in Brick and Maggie’s bedroom, which suggests a level of intimacy, even when all of the characters celebrate Big Daddy’s birthday in the room to accommodate Brick’s injured leg. Furniture is shifted between acts one and two, and two and three, with no real reason other than to perhaps, suggest an introduction of a different point of view. The claustrophobic tension between and among characters conflicts with a backdrop that suggests the wide open plantation that extends beyond the confines of the bedroom where the action takes place.

Though the play is long (after all, it is a Tennessee Williams script), the pace is steady. The strong southern accents become a problem—perhaps because of the acoustics, or possibly, as the actors attempt to deal with internal angst their verbal articulation suffers. As a result, some of Williams’ best lines are lost and the biting truth of the anger and lies that both hold this family together and drives the wedge between them loses tension and the seething power that is often at the heart of a Tennessee Williams script.

For someone who wants an introduction to Tennessee Williams this production might entertain, but for those who revel in his language and interpersonal conflicts, the production may disappoint.

June 28, 2016

Kimberly Akimbo

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA
through July 16, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Director Rob Ruggiero has crafted a delightful production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s dysfunctional family in “Kimberly Akimbo.” He gets plenty of help from a group of actors who seem to delight in the ensemble work necessary to make this cock-eyed play work, and a production team that shares his vision for a play that moves fast with sets, lighting, and music all keeping the momentum going.

A large part of the success goes to the talent of Debra Jo Rupp, an actress with a likability factor so high that it’s off the charts. In her portrayal of Kimberly, the teenager with a genetic disease that causes her to age at an accelerated rate, Rupp’s small frame ages from gawky to elderly. Her face registers the successful career Rupp has had in decades of character and leading roles she’s had, but her youthful voice is one of her gifts, and she uses it effectively to portray Kimberly’s unique view of the world. People with Kimberly’s condition rarely live much beyond sixteen, so the audience wants a happy ending. But will they get it?

Kimberly has some major obstacles, beside the fact that her body is aging so rapidly. Her father Buddy, (Chris Thorn) is an unreliable alcoholic. Her mother, Pattie (Jessiee Datino) is pregnant and a hypochondriac. Her Aunt Debra (Jessica Savage) is a criminal who ropes Kimberly and her nerdy classmate Jeff (charmingly played by Adam Langdon) into a scheme that drives much of the story. And despite how different each character is, there are moments of pure connection and delight among them. The adults are like children, and the children become adults.

The author sets the action in present-day New Jersey and many of the portrayals and jokes allude to Jersey stereotypes, but this interpretation of the play is much like the character of Kimberly. You can’t change what life gives you, but you can choose to do the best with what you’ve got.

The production will make you laugh, but you’ll also see a first-rate team at work, and as a bonus, you’ll get a master-class in acting from the talented Debra Jo Rupp.

June 27, 2016

American Son

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA 
through July 9, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden
The content of “American Son” is ripped from the headlines of the reality of the Black Lives Matter movement.  In the 85-minute pressure cooker of a play commissioned by Barrington Stage, author Christopher Demos-Brown gives the audience a compressed version of what happens when a bi-racial teen seems to go missing in Miami. Set in a room in a police station, Jamal’s mother and father confront cultural expectations and the breakup of their marriage while trying to find out where their son might be. The story unfolds while a clock on the wall keeps time, adding to the building stress in the wee hours of the morning.

Beautifully setting a pace that accelerates throughout the play, Tamara Tunie knows how to inject energy while the police execute “normal” procedures. Tunie is well known to television viewers of “Law & Order: SVU” as the controlled Dr. Melinda Warner, but on stage she is a fireball of emotions, as the mother of the missing teen.  She gives a first-rate performance, loaded with emotional depth and courage. She is well matched by Michael Hayden, the husband from whom she is separated, who explodes with repressed anger as information is leaked about the possibility of what might have happened to the son who he refers to as “J.” The police officers are well played by Luke Smith, the White rookie who stumbles while trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, and Andre Ware, a senior Black officer of a physically imposing stature who goes by the book.

Director Julianne Boyd has given us a multi-layered production that allows the audience to examine their own beliefs about culture and race. We hope for the best, but given what has become a national tragedy in race relations, we fear the worst.

The play attempts to do a lot, and is largely successful. The only moments that seem slightly unexamined raise the question of why the mother and father stayed married for 17 years, despite their cultural differences and societal expectations. Still, “American Son” packs a wallop, gives you plenty to think about, and creates a deeply caring family portrait.

Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director, Williamstown Theatre Festival

Williamstown Theatre Festival:  Home of 4 World Premieres
An interview with Artistic Director Mandy Greenfield
by Shera Cohen

Mandy Greenfield
The following is a paraphrased interview with Mandy Greenfield, Artistic Director, Williamstown Theatre Festival (WT). This article focuses on the theatre’s 2016 summer season which includes four world premieres. Neither Greenfield nor WT shirk from what could be a scary task. In fact, the opposite is true, as Greenfield actively seeks out new plays and writers.

Greenfield comes across as a no-nonsense professional who loves theatre, playwrights, and audiences; particularly WT audiences. 

Spotlight: How would you describe your job at WT?

Greenfield: I am a writers’ producer. Productions and plays come together with the actors. I love words. The words are so important. It’s the chicken and the egg situation coming together. 

Spotlight:  What is your process of choosing plays? Do you read scripts, receive suggestions from others, know of successful playwrights whose work you think you would like to produce? 

Greenfield:  I read 250 new pieces each year. That’s my job. As the Artistic Director, I curate the work, like in a museum. There’s no theme, no formula, or detailed process to help me choose. Sometimes works come by agents or artists directly. I see plays all the time.

This job is a combination of joy and risk. We are doing it from scratch, putting ourselves out there to create and make it come about like a high wire act. It’s trust and collaboration. But, it’s not all done until the play meets the audience; it’s humbling. 

Spotlight:  What has been WT’s audience response to new plays?

Greenfield: Audiences at WT are incredible, thoughtful, and engaged. In my first year here, I got to know the audience, learn about them, and from them. The plays chosen reflect a piece of the human experience. I’m grateful that our audiences embrace new works. I decide on plays that I think give the audience a broad spectrum -- stories that feel like a theatrical representation of the totality of the American Experience. If I had to credit a single source for WT’s success, it’s definitely the audiences. 

Spotlight:  Your theatre has mounted several world premieres in the past. Have any of these succeeded to go on from WT? 

Greenfield:  You mean, have further life? Absolutely. “Living on Love” went to Broadway. “The Bridges of Madison County,” a musical, went on.

[WT has mounted many world premieres in the past 2 years alone; i.e. “Legacy,” “Unknown Soldier, and “Paradise Blue.”] 

Spotlight: Isn’t it a box office risk to mount new plays, not to mention difficult for the marketing department? 

Greenfield: Last year was our strongest with record breaking sales. It’s really the opposite. The people who come to WT have a robust appetite for new works.  They are thrilled to be the first to see a piece. In a way, they feel as if they have had a hand in giving birth to it. If anything, these new works built up the regulars [subscribers]. We find that more people come from New York State, so they often stay over a few nights. Then, they might come to another play the next day.

Mandy Greenfield briefly described the upcoming four world premieres at WT and the reasons why she chose these particular plays.

“Romance Novels for Dummies,” by Boo Killebrew, is a big-hearted comedy. These are some powerful females starting over in their lives. I think the audience will be able to laugh through the characters.

“Cost of Living,” by Martyna Majok, is what I call a “chamber piece” – meaning 4 actors. It’s about disabilities and abilities with numerous meanings. I’m especially glad that we were able to cast two actors who have visible disabilities.

“The Chinese Room,” by Michael West, might be considered a bit unusual for WT. It’s a sci-fi comedy thriller farce about a man rushing to wed his legacy with his own technological inventions.

“Poster Boy,” by Craig Carnelia, is our one musical premiere, inspired by a true story. While it is dark and provocative, it is inspirational and moving with the theme that humans can always help each other. 

For information on these plays and the entire season, call the Box Office at 413-597-3400, visit their website or email

June 21, 2016

A Chorus Line

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford,  CT
through July 31
by Barbara Stroup

Playhouse on Park proves something with the production of every play, and “A Chorus Line” is no exception. The list of superlatives is endless for this production and its cast, but the director’s and choreographer’s abilities to make a condensed space (in Broadway terms) feel vast must be the first one on the list. But wait, shouldn’t it be the energy, or the movement, the singing by the youthful cast --- or perhaps the highest accolade should go to the sincerity of each solo performance, or better yet, to the tightness of the ensemble vocal and dance numbers?

Photo by Rich Wagner
In its hands, this conception of “A Chorus Line” is no repetition of something we all knew and loved 30 years ago. It is fresh, relevant, and touching with a balance of pathos and comedy that still honors the original creators. Running through this amazing production is the golden thread of memory and time – memories that sear when past histories come forth, as well as each dancer’s personal dedication and commitment to what the future holds for choices already made.

One hesitates to highlight individual performances when a group works this well together. In response to the persistent probing of the “director” Zach, Alex Polsun as Mike sets a standard for all that follows in “I Can Do That” – he lets the audience know that this company will not hold back. Outstanding also is Bobbi Barricella in “What I Did For Love,” as well as Andee Buccheri’s self-revealing “Dance: Ten Looks: Three.”

But back to where this review began – the use of space. Where many musical theatre directors might see a problem, Sean Harris capitalizes on the intimacy of the U-shape and stage-level seating. His staging cannot help but draw every audience member into an unforgettable and peak experience.

June 17, 2016

Yankee Tavern

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA 
through June 25, 2016
by R.E. Smith

There is no denying that Steven Dietz’s “Yankee Tavern” deals with topics and questions that are especially relevant to today's political climate. Set in New York City in 2006, this four character piece finds that the repercussions of 911 are still keenly felt, in both broad and subtle ways. It also posits that everybody has secrets, whether they're bartenders or governments. What “Tavern” doesn't have is a script that is quite as clever as it strives to be.

Back-stories are parceled out strictly for their “wow” factor, with intriguing bits thrown about and left unexplored. Motivations are often contradictory and muddled, existing not to deepen the mystery but because they make for easy plot propulsion. The young romantic leads of Adam and Janet are given so little genuine emotional interaction that when one character tells another “he really loved you,” someone in the audience whispered, “Did he really?”

The two other characters are better served in their opposite but equal authority roles. Ray, an old friend of Adam’s father has a paranoid explanation for everything. The mysterious Palmer also has specious information to impart but from behind the curtain itself. Between the two, just about every conceivable 911 conspiracy is aired. But because Ray also rants about the machinations of the wedding industry, Starbucks and the moon landing, his more reasoned arguments carry less weight.  But Michael Dell’Orto is an audience favorite with his addled but sentimental portrayal. As befits a possible black ops worker, John Kooi has better luck speaking with quiet authority due to his understated, contained demeanor.

While the rundown barroom setting is nicely realized in execution, it is laid out so literally that the blocking of the action is hamstrung. Too many lines are delivered up stage, backs turned, with long stretches of action taking place behind the bar or seated at a table.

“Yankee Tavern” certainly posits some unique theories and asks enough questions to get and keep the audience thinking throughout the evening. But the show is the summer theater equivalent of a quick thriller beach read. There's just enough going on to keep your interest, but as weighty as it wants to be, it is still a paperback.

June 14, 2016

An American in Paris: World Winds

Hartford Symphony Orchestra
June 9-12, 2016
by Michael J. Moran

While the title for these concerts came from the famous 1928 program opener by George Gershwin, the subtitle appears to have come from Argentine-born Osvaldo Golijov’s 2007 “Rose of the Winds,” here given its Hartford premiere. Woodwinds begin the finale of the program closer, Rachmaninoff’s 1940 “Symphonic Dances,” but the varied character of these three pieces is justification enough to bring them together.

Gershwin’s symphonic poem got the evening off to an exuberant start and gave all sections of the orchestra a chance to show off. Percussion and brass had a particular field day, with special kudos to principal trumpet Scott McIntosh and principal trombone Brian Diehl for their jazzy solo spots. Kuan had the entire ensemble sounding jubilant and looking joyful.

Golijov’s piece is a concerto for orchestra and four instruments rarely featured in classical
Christina Pato
music: kamancheh, a traditional Iranian violin played by Kayhan Kalhor; klezmer clarinet, played by David Krakauer; Galician bagpipe, played by Cristina Pato; and accordion, played by Michael Ward-Bergeman. Its four movements incorporate several Christian and Jewish musical themes and many exotic sounds, including a vocal ritual for the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe recorded in Chiapas, Mexico, and culminating in a stunning chorus of ten shofars, or ram’s horns, played by the HSO brass section.

The flashiest soloist was Pato, whom Yo-Yo Ma has called a “rock star,” and who enhanced her dramatic playing with shouts of enthusiasm, but the other three were equally committed, nowhere more so than in a riveting five-minute improvised encore.

The three “Symphonic Dances” were Rachmaninoff’s last work, and while they reflect his familiar melancholy temperament and Russian heritage, they also speak in a more twentieth-century language than most of his earlier orchestral music. The opening movement features the only saxophone solo in his work, and it was played with soulful beauty by Carrie Koffman. Glistening percussion gave all three movements a modern-sounding edge, and Kuan handled the tricky tempo shifts throughout the piece with masterful sensitivity.

This program brought a challenging season for this indispensable ensemble to a brilliant close and a hopeful future.  

June 11, 2016

Blue Man Group

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
through June 12, 2016
by R.E. Smith

"Ready, go!" As those words flash across an LCD message board, the Bushnell theatre roars to life as the Blue Man Group takes the stage and transports the audience to a world of wonder. Rock concert, pantomime, performance art, silent movie, percussion showcase, visual pun; a performance by BMG is all these things and more.

The BMG has taken the group experience and made it intimate with now famous, ground breaking, multi media sequences featuring everything from black lights to human paintbrushes. With child-like intensity, the BMG explores their environment, deftly manipulating marshmallows and Captain Crunch with equal ease. Lights flash, drums pound, plumbing becomes musical instruments, music becomes something you can see and feel.

Who or what the BMG are/is can be left open to individual debate but it really doesn't matter; these silent, bald, and blue beings are incredibly talented. Daniel Carter, Adam Erdossy and Steven Wendt as the. . .well. . . blue men, work together with precision and evident trust in one another. As befits such a communal experience, the curtain call prominently recognizes not only the 3 “leads” but also the stage/technical crew and the 4 musicians that help propel the action.

The make-up of the audience is evidence that the show’s appeal cuts across demographics with Grandparents and kids alike clamoring for the opportunity to participate. Who hasn't wanted to play with giant glowing beach balls, or dance to a song devoted to the human posterior?

Anyone who needs to smile, laugh, or lose themselves for a while needs to see this show.  Theatergoers leave the theatre energized and never looking at a Twinkie the same way again

June 10, 2016

Capitol Steps It’s a Very Political Year – Interview with Jack Rowles

Cranwell Resort, Lenox, MA

July 1September 2, 2016
By Shera Cohen

Jack Rowles
In the Spotlight (ITS) had the pleasure of interviewing actor/singer/comedian Jack Rowles. Jack is one of the mainstays of Capitol Steps, having been with the troupe for 15 years. This presidential nomination year also marks Jack’s 10th season at Cranwell.

ITS: Describe a typical performance. Is each night unique?
Jack: Each night is unique. Each audience has its own personality. For example, with a Capitol Steps show it seems that most audiences have the personality of my mother. She laughs at everything, and her laugh is one of those annoying cackles that comics love! (intended affectionately)

ITS: How politically savvy were you prior to Capitol Steps?
Jack: Prior to Capitol Steps I was mainly familiar with that news story about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. After 15 years with the group, I can name every Senator and Congressman dating back to 1963, give or take a few in the Dakotas.

ITS: How easy or difficult is it to add new scripts and become new characters?
Jack: Sure, we need to learn new material on a regular basis, ESPECIALLY THIS YEAR! But that's the easy part. Coming up with the new material is the hard part. Our writers, Elaina Newport and Mark Eaton, are the brains and brilliance behind this zany entertainment. After every show we meet the audience in the lobby. Our audiences are not shy about offering their opinions on everything, which can sometimes be as funny as the show. But, the most common comment about our show is, "The writing is hilarious and brilliant." I agree.

ITS: What are your favorite roles?
Jack: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Mitt Romney, and the Pope. Only because these are a few of the characters I am playing in our current show. And, this particular year is being referred to as the Golden Year in Political Satire. It's a great time to be in The Capitol Steps!

ITS: Do you have input in the show's preparation?
Jack: I've contributed only two jokes. I know, not very impressive. BUT, both of those jokes were Killer! Otherwise, I think each performer comes up with a funny, fresh take on today's political figures.
ITS: Do you think of yourself as an actor, singer, comic, or all three?
Jack: I like to think of myself as all three, but what really matters is how others see me. Recently, I met a lovely couple on a flight home from a show. After talking and laughing with them for a bit I mentioned that I'm a performer. The woman then blurted out, "What are you? A comic?" So, I guess I'm mainly a comic.
ITS: Are there any onstage or backstage anecdotes you would like to talk about?
Jack: Jerry Springer came to our show. He sent word ahead that he'd like to make a guest appearance. He's a huge fan. So, we added him to one of the songs. After his bit, I was lined up to do the next song. WELL, I guess I was totally star struck, because as soon as I went on stage I had no idea what my first line was. I think I was taken by how different he was from his TV persona. Or, I was worried that he might ask me if I had fathered the child of my cousin's ex-girlfriend. 

Performances are held every day except Tuesdays at 8pm. For information call: (413) 881-1636 or go to

June 1, 2016

The Price of a Berkshire Summer

by Shera Cohen

Just when you thought there was no such thing as free or inexpensive things to do in the Berkshires, I prove you wrong.