Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 30, 2016

Sotto Voce

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 11, 2016
by Stuart Gamble

Sotto Voce in Italian means in a soft voice. Indeed, this new play, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz is a quiet, chamber piece, yet whose timeless themes of lost love, obsession, collective guilt, and the immigrant experience scream out to the rafters. Featuring only three actors (two of whom play two roles apiece), this is a bold and powerful drama sprinkled with humor throughout.

The story begins in 1999 when an exhibition for the 60th anniversary of the U.S. St. Louis (“the ship of indifference”) is being planned in Miami. This particular ship set sail from Germany to Cuba in the spring of 1939. Some 900 Jews fled Nazi Germany aboard the St. Louis in hopes of a safe future. Unfortunately, because most of the passengers didn’t have Cuban Visas, they were denied entry. The same occurred when they attempted to enter the U.S. Much to the horror of the passengers and the world, those onboard were forced to return to Germany and an uncertain future.

Photo by Ava Lindenmaier
This little known episode of 20th century, pre-Holocaust history sadly remains a chapter in world history that should be brought to light. Cruz’ drama, “Sotto Voce,” does precisely that. We first meet the rather peculiar, black-clad Cuban student Saquiel Rafaeli (Jaime Carrillo) who is on an obsessive search for the Garbo-like reclusive writer Bernadette Kahn (Annette Miller). Saquiel finally locates Kahn and holds vigil across from her apartment building; he has personal reasons for searching for Kahn, but she suffers from agoraphobia and her only human contact is with her housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (Evelyn Howe). Bernadette and Lucila are equally concerned and fascinated by Saquiel’s stalking behavior. Soon, the play becomes a “virtual affair of voices.”

The actors in this romantic triangle give memorable performances. Miller is tough but tender as the disillusioned Bernadette who dreamily drifts from the present to the past. Carrillo gives an eloquent performance as the driven yet empathetic Saquiel and briefly as Bernadette’s lost Jewish lover Ariel Strauss. Finally, Evelyn Howe makes both her earthy Lucila and Nina Strauss (Ariel’s doomed sister) realistic and sympathetic.

Directed with assurance and emotional power by Daniel Gidron, “Sotto Voce” is a relevant theatrical piece. In a year in which world immigration has captured much attention, Cruz’ timeless play should be seen and remembered for years to come as a testament to the lives of those who seek freedom from oppression.

August 23, 2016


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA 
through September 3, 2016
by Barbara Stroup

Photo by Scott Barrow
In search of a voice, in a family with nothing but the loud and argumentative kind, Billy – deaf from birth – stumbles into his first relationship. Sylvia, from a family of two deaf parents, has at least two fluent voices--- her signing voice, and her English language. Billy’s protective family’s usual chaotic interactions draw Sylvia into the kind of discussion that has permeated the worlds of deafness, education, and ‘rehabilitation’ since hearing aids were invented -- can aids and lip reading provide total integration into a hearing world? And if so, why join the Deaf one? Is sign language inferior semantically? Is it better to be hearing than deaf? 

Nina Raine manages to include these themes and more in her passionate comedy about belonging, self-definition, dependence, family and language and its limitations. The family’s dining table is a stage for chaotic arguments, quickly resolved, which reveal both their self-absorption and their love for each other. Noisy, loud, and rarely tender, their voices spin unheard around Billy, and have done so all his life –they are too busy with ego to take the time to face him attentively and include him in their ranting. Through Sylvia and sign language, he finally expresses need, and is able to find not only love but a new tribe. 

Miles G. Jackson is outstanding as Billy’s older brother Daniel, who fears Billy’s independence even while he fights his own demons. The audience gradually becomes aware of how ill he is, feeling his despair, his powerlessness, his loss and fear. But this play is also a comedy, and the bickering of Billy’s family, played by C. David Johnson, Justine Salata and Deirdre Madigan, gives the audience much enjoyment. When Billy’s growing Deaf awareness finally finds expression, Joshua Castille brings the character’s pleas and frustration to passionate, moving fruition. As she journeys into silence, and as music, laughter, and weeping all become just a roaring rush of sound, Eli Pauley as Sylvia, brings tears of empathy for her encroaching loss. 

The playwright blends many comedic moments with this play’s serious themes, and her frequently angry characters reveal the numerous complexities of just being human. It is a brilliant and moving theatre experience. Barrington Stage’s production is beautifully produced, with an intricately detailed set. Music, and its visual representations, enhance scene changes while responding to the theme. Hearing audiences cannot help but be affected by this glimpse at a silent world.

Broadway Bounty Hunter

Barrington Stage Co., Pittsfield, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Barrington Stage’s new musical, “Broadway Bounty Hunter” features an extraordinarily talented cast of 12 actor/singer/dancers, and a live band of six versatile musicians on the very intimate St. Germain Stage. Authors Joe Iconis, Lance Rubin, and Jason SweetTooth Williams write in the playbill; “Thanks to every artist who has ever been made to feel less than, not as good as, too black, too white, too weird, too old, too young, too whatever. This one’s for you.”

Photo by Scott Barrow
The incomparable Annie Golden, known to many from her stage and television performances (most recently as the silent Norma in “Orange is the New Black”), plays herself—Annie Golden. As a “woman of a certain age,” Annie is experiencing the prejudice that comes with being past her prime in theatre, and when she can’t pay her bills, she is visited by a frightening group of martial arts-experts headed by Shiro Jin (Scott Watanabe), who convinces her to join them as a bounty hunter. She’s partnered with Lazarus (Alan H. Green), a big, powerful Black Man complete with swagger and a pimp’s outfit, and together they set off to capture Mac Roundtree (Jeff McCarthy), a drug lord.  

The situations are preposterous, and the music and lyrics, also by Joe Iconis, draw from every popular culture genre of the 1970’s. Most obvious are the images from black sexploitation films—themselves notorious for the sketchiest of plots, but we get many more familiar themes, from theatre (especially “Hair,” Ms. Golden’s first Broadway show), and “jukebox” musicals that featured popular music of the day. Throughout the show, Golden’s own experiences and her masterful delivery poke fun at theatre and the acting profession. We can laugh at her predicament, because we sense an optimistic denouement for our heroine. The entire cast is so strong and the characterizations so engaging, we can’t help but go along for the ride.

The show’s concept originated in Barrington Stage’s Musical Theatre Lab, and like all new musicals, has been in development for a while. It’s hard to think of anyone playing the lead but Annie Golden, but in a way that doesn’t matter. The show is fun, makes you laugh with the characters and situations, rather than at them, and reminds you that no matter who you are, every day brings a new start.

August 17, 2016

Two Gentlemen of Verona

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier
“Two Gentlemen of Verona,” one of The Bard’s early comedies, performed infrequently at Shakespeare & Company (S&Co), hits the stage running, dancing, promenading, singing, and clowning. The cast of 15 are a colorful lot – literally and figuratively. The motley group boasts royalty, outlaws, servants, lovers, scoundrels, and a dog that steals the show.

This is a Shakespeare play which is quite easy “to get” by any fledgling audience member. At the crux of the tale are two handsome young men; 16th century BFFs. Our hero, Valentine, journeys to Verona. There he meets and falls in love with Sylvia. Back home, Proteus, engaged to Julia, decides to join his buddy, sets his eyes on Sylvia, and also falls in love. Poor Julia? Out of sight, out of mind. The story is light, until the ending, although issues of true friendship, betrayal, and fickle love are demonstrated throughout. There’s the woman disguised as a man theme, love triangle, and razor sharp servants (called clowns) which often populate these comedies.

It is wonderful to see many S&Co “regulars” and “former regulars” on stage; i.e. Jason Asprey, John Hadden, and Ryan Winkles. In my early S&Co days, I primarily saw Asprey featured in dramas and history plays. Now, a bit older, he seems to have diversified his talents, making for a perfectly enjoyable servant. I could say the same about Hadden’s onstage personas of years ago. I hadn’t realized that Hadden could also portray comedy with a capital “C.” Together with his dog, Hadden has the best lines in the story. Winkles uses every cell in his body (well, it seems that way) to become whoever S&Co needs him to be, in this case the not too bright, somewhat bumbling, well-meaning Valentine. Winkles captures every verbal and physical nuance – anything that legitimately makes his character funnier. Winkles doubles as fight choreographer, earning extra kudos for some laugh-out-loud rumbles.

Of course, none of these talents, not to mention the others in the cast, could do pretty much anything without the Jonathan Croy’s director’s hand. Croy, like the others mentioned, is part of the tried & true S&Co team. My guess is that because Croy is one of the funniest actors on the S&Co stages, it is natural that he was chosen to direct this comedy.

For those who insist on Shakespeare “pure,” perhaps S&Co is not the venue for you. However, I think, and many agree that additions of shtick, 21st century puns, RAP music, and audience participation makes for fun theatre.

And No More Shall We Part

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 21, 2016
by Shera Cohen

It has been my experience, for the most part, that television and movie actors, while having name recognition and audience draw, do not necessarily shine on the theatre stage. This, thankfully, is not the case with “And No More Shall We Part.” The two-character play, packed into 70 minutes, in the smaller theatre at Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) could very easily and very quickly have slipped into cliché without the production’s consummate actors.

Photograph by Daniel Rader
A contemporary work by Tom Holloway, the subject is universal, and at the same time intimately focused. Pam is dying and sees no alternative than a medically-induced suicide. Her husband, Don, cannot cope with his wife’s decision. The story of a much-married, average couple unfolds, alternating the present with the recent past.

Jane Kaczmarek and Alfred Molina were, perhaps, married to each other in a former life. I can’t imagine finer casting choices even in physical appearance. The characters interrupt and finish each other’s sentences, are in synch in their movement in the setting of their home, remember and forget shared family experiences. Kaczmarek's Pam has had cancer for some time. There is no cure. The actress plays a strong woman, practical in her decisions, and supportive of her husband. Molina’s Don has lived with his wife’s cancer, yet lacks her strength and foresight. But this is not a stoic wife and pathetic husband duo, or as audience members might expect, the exact opposite. While there is a touch of “woe is me” sentimentality, the mood comes in spurts, and never at an increasing crescendo.

Kaczmarek and Molina define Pam and Don with trust and selfishness. Bravado keeps this woman alive for a short time, and the lack of acceptance keeps the man on track. Yet, the two actors are permitted, under the direction of Anne Kauffman to at times, crumble.

While the audience is positioned for the ending, all is not what seems to be, leaving those of us who care about Pam and Don, feeling somewhat disappointed.

No additional actors are necessary, although the couple’s two children are often mentioned. We don’t know where Pam and Don work or where they live, only that their very modest house – nicely separated by changing walls – instantly creates a bedroom, kitchen, dining room, and hallway, unadorned with “stuff.” The dialog and silences tell and show the picture.

“Sorry.” That’s the work used repeatedly by the characters to each other. Such a small word, always spoken softly, provides the umbrella of the story and its inhabitants.

August 12, 2016


Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 27, 2016
by Shera Cohen

“Constellations” is a challenging play to mount and to understand – all the more reason to experience this intriguing little story about life and love, time and space.

Like so many new plays presented at numerous venues in the Berkshires this summer, “Constellations” is one-act, approximately 70 minutes. Yet, the size of this drama (with several bits of humor), in a sense, covers the entire universe. Stars shine on the ceiling of the intimate Unicorn Theatre at the play’s start and at the end. Just as the stars are infinite, humans are finite. Two people confront their own place on this planet, separately and together.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The dialogue in Nick Payne’s play is exquisite, repetitive, fast, and non-linear. At one point, time is an eternity; next a quick moment. Simultaneously, space is the closeness of a woman and man first meeting at a barbecue; next distance of that same couple, now married. The plot? That’s a tough one. A short synopsis states that the woman is a scientist and the man works as a beekeeper. Each is smart, funny, vulnerable, and a master at communication. For example, essentially the lines are spoken three or four times. With emphasis on a single word, toss of a head, or stance, the discussion differs completely.

Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat (married in real-life) give and take their dialog at a swift pace, leaving no lulls. They discuss the mundane (including bees) and the universal (fate vs. freewill). It is somewhat hard to remember having seen this duo just last summer as the stars of BTG’s “Bells Are Ringing.” The musical was light, fun, and called for some nice vocal chords, but not the heavy duty acting in “Constellations.” Hopefully, Baldwin and Rowat keep bringing their talent to Berkshire Theatre.

Director Greg Edelman and lighting/scenic designer Alan Edwards meld what appears simple – after all, it’s just a round stage with some altering lights against a flat rectangle – to set countless small scenes. A single spot light creatively and effectively alters the present from the future, or the present for one character with the past of the other.

“Constellations” is not your typical play. Starts and stops, forwards and backwards, up and down and sideways; the script is void of chronology. Yet, it all makes sense.

August 9, 2016

The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare & Co., Lenox, MA
through August 21, 2016
by Joan Mento

On a bare stage in the round, Shakespeare & Company’s “The Merchant of Venice” starts with a bang not a whimper. Masked players enact stylized movements that rapidly transform to gyrating hip-hop. The limited set pieces are creatively unitized, and costumes as well as actors interacting with the audience suggest Elizabethan stage practices.

Photo by John Dolan
In past productions, Shakespeare & Co. played comic episodes skillfully and hilariously funny. Yet, in this  “Merchant” the clowning seems forced and overextended. Few laughs accompany the Old Gobbo and son antics. Instead, it is the women’s subtle comic expressions in the casket scenes that delight and amuse the audience. A moment of sustained laughter erupts when the Prince of Aragon chooses his casket to reveal the message of “blinking idiot” and, instead of a mirror, holds up a picture of Donald Trump.

Venice, at Shakespeare’s time was a cultural and financial capitol, populated by various ethnic and religious groups. Yet, prejudice of the ruling class dominated. I believe that “Merchant’s” issues make it more of a “problem play.” The poignancy of Shylock’s plight proves too powerful. Sympathy lies with Jonathan Epstein’s lead character. The cruelty and violence toward him outweigh the infrequent redeeming quality of laughter. Despite the romantic comedy of the rings in the last scene, the audience is left with a stage image that reinforces the tragic dimensions. Juxtaposed to the merrymaking couples (except for Shylock’s daughter, now disillusioned in her mixed marriage) is the isolated Shylock, bereft of his kin, his money, and his religion as he is forced to endure a conversion to Christianity. In the end, he sings a mournful dirge echoing his impending death, not only literally as is written in his will, but also spiritually in his death as a Jew.

Congratulations to Tamara Hickey for her excellent portrayal of Portia and to Epstein’s outstanding Shylock.

An American Daughter

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 21
by Jarice Hanson

Wendy Wasserstein’s plays sometimes try to do too much; they blend politics and social values, examine gender relations and family dynamics, and treat serious issues with humor that sometimes makes people uncomfortable. In Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “An American Daughter,” director Evan Cabnet leaves no ambiguity in crafting a revival that shows how prescient Wasserstein was when this play was written twenty years ago.

Photo by Daniel Rader.
The story begins when Dr. Lyssa Dent Hughes (Diane Davis) is nominated for the post of Surgeon General. She is a working mother who has it all and can do it all—and her American pedigree as the daughter of a Senator and a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant seem to confer status upon her that the public, and the media like. When Timber Tucker (Jason Danieley), an ambush-style television interviewer uncovers a secret about a misplaced jury summons she never answered, Lyssa’s credibility as a public servant is called into question.

The parallels to today’s Presidential campaign are uncanny. The script, inspired by the “Nannygate” incident when Zoë Baird was nominated for Attorney General, shows how powerful media are in influencing public opinion. When Lyssa dons a headband to look “softer,” the audience’s recognition of the irony of past juxtaposed with today’s criticism of a woman in politics leaves no doubt that Lyssa is in part, channeling Hillary Clinton.

The characters in the play are all strongly defined and walk the line between familiar “types” and the people Wasserstein knew, loved, and reviled. The cast is made up of fine actors who clearly “get” the play’s meanings, though some were still struggling with their lines so early in the run, but there is no doubt this production will grow and become stronger.

Derek McLane’s detailed set design is a perfect backdrop for a play so solidly crafted. It is a metaphor for tradition and political ideology, and the changing roles of women in the home and in the public eye. The complexity of Wasserstein’s approach to “An American Daughter” tells us how much women have changed, while politics have not. I think Wasserstein herself, would be pleased, but perhaps dismayed, to see how relevant this work remains today.

August 8, 2016

sister play

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through August 14, 2016
by Mary Fernandez-Sierra

There’s lots of fine theatre happening in the Berkshires this summer, but “sister play” at Chester Theatre needs to be top on everyone’s list.

Charming, persuasive, skillfully acted and staged, theatregoers will enjoy watching four fine performers steal the show, all at the same time.
A glimpse of the plot: Two sisters join up at the lonesome Cape Cod home of their deceased and rather famous writer father. Anna, the older sister, wants to mother her younger and somewhat wilder sibling Lilly, and keep her from harm. Anna’s husband Malcolm, a writer himself, is also in attendance. He holds the duo together, quite cleverly with wit and wisdom, until Gentleman Caller William appears. William woos Lilly with his own brand of worldly wisdom; but the big question is, will she succumb to his charms, though Sister Anna disapproves?

Anna, portrayed by Tara Franklin, is the totally believable and nurturing, nervous sister. Her travails and nearly savage will to protect Lilly are fiercely and sincerely enacted. She gives extraordinary energy and truth to the role. Lovely Lilly is stunningly performed by Therese Plaehn. (She introduces herself to hopeful beau William, saying: ‘I’m Lilly.’ William responds: ‘I’m not surprised.’) Neither is the audience; this actress is winning and wonderful from the word go.

Justin Campbell brings just the right level of charm and on-the-street sagacity to the role of William. He engages the audience with simplicity and sincerity, and hits all kinds of emotional chords with straight-shot delivery. James Barry is merry and marvelous as Malcolm, the husband of Anna. It is a joy to hear him deliver long monologues that he makes short. His superb timing, as well as the touching tenderness he shows for his wife and sister-in-law, make this play’s world go ‘round.

Add to the fabulous John Kolvenbach script: stunning scenery designed by David Towlun, beautiful costumes by Elizabeth Pangburn, and lovely lighting by Lara Dubin. Some nice musical touches were created, too, by sound designer James McNamara. Daniel Elihu Kramer put all the elements together to create some kind of wonderful theatre... bravo to all!

August 2, 2016

The Emperor of the Moon & Ugly Lies the Bone

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
Moon through Aug., 20; Bone through Aug. 28, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Not so coincidentally, Shakespeare & Company (S&Co.) presents a story about playwright Aphra Behn as well as a play by Aphra Behn. Never heard of her? Neither did I. Apparently, Behn was a famous prolific woman writer in her day – her day being the mid-17th century. Behn, who moonlighted as a spy, was noted as being one of the few people of her sex on the Who’s Who list in 1650 England.

Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier
Behn penned “The Emperor of the Moon,” currently staged under the Rose Footprint Tent as a world premiere adaptation by Jenna Ware. A large ensemble troupe of student actors (any age – you’re never too old to appreciate acting) run about, speak loudly (no mics), sing, dance, wear ridiculous costumes, double and triple role, and have a super time mounting this comedy.

“Oh, just students,” you, the reader and/or future audience member, say. True, but S&Co. pupils are masters at Elizabethan language, physical comedy, and clowning. I would stack most of the lot up to the skills of Equity actors.

The set is solely three doors. This same stage and set is the home of all S&Co. student productions. What can be done with three doors? A lot! Add the theatre’s aisles, tent-high beams, and the field of grass, and not much more is needed to please all-age members of the audience.

Photo by Ava G. Lindenmaier
“Ugly Lies the Bone,” produced simultaneously as “Emperor” at the Bernstein Theatre, could not be more different than the earth to (well) the moon. Prepare for drama with a capital “D.” A returning wounded veteran – it is central to know the soldier is female – replaces her past life with excruciating pain, disfigurement, adjustment, rebellion, loneliness, and surprisingly even hope.

Christianna Nelson dives deep into the character of the veteran. She becomes Jess on all levels of being – physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Nelson gives a brave performance. It is hard to imagine any other actress being more passionate.

“Bone” is not a fun play, although there are many laughs coming from the characters of the two men. It is, however, a contemporary work with great importance.

Note that both plays are one act.

August 1, 2016

The Stone Witch & Talkback

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA 
through August 20, 2016
by Shera Cohen

Talkback? This is the half-hour or so when the audience is invited to stay after the conclusion of the play to, well, talk; i.e. Q & A. In the case of “The Stone Witch,” the three actors, playwright, and director sat on the stage (complete with all set furnishings) as they answered questions from the audience. They, in turn, often asked questions of the audience as well as to their peers on the stage.

Photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
The world premiere of “The Stone Witch” starred actor Judd Hirsch. Television, movie, and stage star, Hirsch played the lead character Simon, an elderly artist struggling with the burden of success simultaneously with the failure of creativity. Hirsch is a pro, displayed by his skills of contrasting madness with genius. At the talkback, Hirsh repeatedly commented that he was amazed that so many people “stuck around” after the play. Hirsch seemed to have had a great time, not so much in his role, but as himself providing the “A” part of Q & A. Relaxed, still in costume, Hirsch spoke of “The Stone Witch” development, give and take, constant changes, and even multiple endings. Talkbacks are casual and most often fun.

No question was untouched, particularly those to writer Shem Bitterman. Some spoke of the ambiguity between characters and with the audience. I am in this category of “the unclear.” Basically, the play’s purpose and ending were too vague to be of any importance. Was the subject portrayed as semi-biographical or pure fiction? Does it even matter?

At one point, children’s book artist/writer Peter (Rupak Ginn) doesn’t seem to know exactly what he has gotten himself into with his relationship with Simon. Unfortunately, I had a similar feeling.

That said, whether the play was the next best thing since “Hamlet” or a fledgling straight out of the computer experiment, I urge you to stay and participate in the Q & A mini-lesson. You never know what you might learn. And you might meet a movie star. What does a talkback cost? Free, included in the price of admission.


Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 6, 2016
by Shera Cohen

“Mean Girls” meet “Macbeth.”

Photo by Justin Allen
The crux of the story, somewhat in the language of playwright Jiehae Park and her two lead characters, might go like this…Yeah, it’s like, you know, well, a play in a high school, an anywhere high school, doesn’t matter. And, oh, it’s crucial, I mean vital. Yes, vital. It’s so absolutely necessary that we – you know, both of us – I mean, it’s our plan. It’s just so perfect. The scholarship. T.H.E. one. Nothing, I mean nothing ‘n no one will mess it up.

Twins L and M (hmm, might they be Lady and Mr. Macbeth?) are determined seniors who will succeed in their goal at all costs. Laura Sohn and Sasha Diamond are exceptional young actresses who portray the shallow, cunning, evil, and smart duo. They speak like teens (see paragraph above) in a machine-like stance and volume, each at warp speed. No worries, however, as their enunciation is as clear as the school bell. The production’s other three actors echo “Macbeth” characters. Knowing this might give an edge up to appreciate the story, however, it is by no means necessary.

The playbill describes the play as “a comedy until it isn’t.” So true, but no spoilers. Louisa Proske directs Park’s one-act black comedy with assurance. Tight – every word of dialog, scene change, and music is tight, with a distinct purpose. The audience can almost “see” the wheels spinning in the school girls’ brains; planning, altering, and acting on their mission.

The minimal sets tell us just enough. Green lockers – ah ha, it’s a school. This is important as numerous scenes appear and disappear at a pace that mirrors the rapid speed conversations. Kudos to Ryan Winkles, fight director. This is no cat fight as the sisters get down ‘n dirty.

More and more, theatre venues are producing one-act pieces, oftentimes by new (usually young) writers; better yet are world or regional premiers. Barrington Stage takes the lead in hosting some of the best original works, not only in the Berkshires, and not only in the summer months, but throughout the region and the calendar year.

Jar The Floor

New Century Theatre, Northampton, MA
through August 6, 2016
by Konrad Rogowski

“Jar The Floor,” New Century Theatre’s latest production, takes on the universal themes of family values, shifting social and cultural morals, and the hopes and regrets of mothers and their daughters as they strive to resolve their sometimes rocky pasts, and to understand the shifting values that drive their divergent futures.

Author Cheryl West examines the ongoing struggles of five women whose lives span four generations, and each of whose relationships carry the burden of past and present family expectations, and their disillusionment with life’s unfulfilled and unshared promises. For Madear (Johnnie Mea) it is life at 90, with a failing memory of what life was. For her daughter Maydee (Shannon Lamb) it is a life to be lived to the fullest and fastest. For daughter Lola (Maggie Miller), it is living a life of professional propriety, and upward mobility. For daughter, Vennie (Toni Ann DeNoble) it is to be a free spirit and follow her dream wherever it leads. And as a non-family member, Raisa (Brianna Sloane) lives through a broken marriage, cancer, and what may come next for her.

At first, it seems that all these characters can do is to complain and to snipe at one another, firing off accusations of who failed whom, and why there is no understanding of why life’s promises fell short. But as the action progresses, there are unexpected alliances formed, and old secrets, hurts, and hopes are revealed. There is then the start of an understanding among these women that family and love can survive in sharing lives that we may not fully understand or agree with, but which are the lives of those for whom we care.

Barrington Stage’s Summers of Musicals

The Pirates of Penzance
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield
through August 13, 2016
by Shera Cohen

“Pirates of Penzance” is #10 – that’s ten musicals which I have had the wonderful pleasure of seeing at Barrington Stage Company (BSC).

My journey began in 2004 at a high school basement/auditorium somewhere in the middle of a pastoral oasis in Great Barrington. Getting lost en route, I called (pre-cell phones) the helpful box office volunteer for directions. We ultimately arrived five minutes late. I hate coming late; it is so rude to the actors and audience. Little did I know that the house manager (bless her or him) actually held the curtain just for me. Me?! At the time, I was publisher of Bravo Newspaper. That title gave me a little sense of importance, and I was always proud of Bravo; however, this was not the New York Times, not even close. BSC staff were so courteous to myself and Bravo writers that seats were held. Unknowingly, both the writer and composer of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” sat in my row. Rather, I sat in their row. The world premiere of this lovely, poignant, and hilariously funny musical was destined to become a Broadway Tony Award-winner.

Frankly, I am running out of superlatives as I reread my reviews of BSC’s musical productions. “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and “Guys & Dolls” earned complimentary adjectives: fabulous, superb, first rate, respectively. As the summers passed and with each year another musical, came fresh compliments, besting those previously written; i.e. “On the Town” (perfect), “Man of La Mancha” (splendid), and “Kiss Me Kate” (setting the benchmark). And, I don’t even like “Kate,” or so I thought.

When BSC announced the selection of its 2016 musical, I sighed, “Oh well, they can’t win them all.” This would be an operetta. I do love opera, but to me, operetta was a cheapened lesser-class genre. Adding to my lack of enthusiasm were the creators, Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, the duo is the personification of the art form. However, it takes a certain appreciation of the gentlemen’s talents that I lack. Again, I will say, “or so I thought.”

Here’s a little task for you, the reader. Make note of all of the accolades written above in paragraph 2; mix them up; next add equal amounts of joy, whimsy, and panache; the result is the spectacular creation of “The Pirates of Penzance.” Spectacular, as in stunning to see and remarkable to experience.

Photo by Kevin Sprague
The handsome swashbucklers, pitch-perfect damsels, rock-speed lyrics, colorful palette, playful plot, and crinoline and puffy shirts form the structure of “Pirates.” The precariously situated (trust me, you have to see it) pit orchestra, ship’s staging that fills the entire theatre (not just the stage), choreography to “knock your socks off” (okay, I’m running low on kudos), high-speed clip of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” (the show-stopper that warranted an encore), and audience participation (bravo to Queen Victoria) are just some components that make “Pirates” dazzling, both visually and aurally.

If you only have the time to see one play or musical this summer (I would safely say, this year), sail with “The Pirates of Penzance.”


Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 4, 2016
by Stuart Gamble

In the opening prologue of “Or,” Aphra Behn (Tod Randolph), the first woman playwright in the English language, explains the possible meanings of the play’s rather ambiguous title: “We all embody opposites: spy or poetess, virtuous or whore, wrong or righteous, lust or love, now or then, male or female.” Indeed, Behn and the other colorful characters that inhabit this intriguing new play embody these dualities.

The story begins as Behn is serving time in a debtors’ prison. A masked man arrives who woos her and reveals himself to be England’s King Charles III (Allyn Burrows). He tells her, “I’m a one woman man—at a time.” But Behn, gently rebuffs his advances, claiming that she is determined to be a playwright, at the expense of a pampered life. It is important to know that Behn, in fact and fiction, was also a spy.

Matters become quite complicated as Behn tries to compete a play and, at the same time persuade her presumed dead lover, the roguish William Scott (also played by Burrows) not to kill the king. Her only allies are the tart-tongued actress Nell Gwynne (kittenishly played again by Nehassaiu deGannes and her loyal housekeeper Maria (also deGannes).

The performances are exuberant. DeGannes proves to be the most dynamic of all, changing her characters quickly and believably in a blink of an eye. Burrows comes off best as the dastardly Scott displaying the intensity of a man who has seen a lot of ugliness in the world. His Charles III is sweet, but a bit too wan. Tod Randolph has the most difficult role of all, as an artist whose creative work is both influenced by and interrupted by the extraordinary events in her life. She meets these challenges by showing the passion beneath her cool exterior and by her ability to stand up to any opponent, man or woman.

At times, the play’s storyline becomes a bit convoluted, but its themes of freedom arising from oppression come shining through. The dramatic tone of “Or,” however, shifts rather abruptly from witty comedy to dark drama as does the unevenness of the play’s language which perfectly echoes 17th-century rhetoric, but often resorts to contemporary vulgarity. Still, the simple set designed by Sandra Goldmark and the richly colorful, authentic costumes designed by Govane Lohbauer suggest a long ago, fascinating time.