Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 30, 2019

REVIEW: Jacob’s Pillow, Paul Taylor Dance Company & Caleb Teigher & Co.

Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA
Through July 28, 2019
by Karoun Charkoudian

Every Sunday afternoon at Jacob’s Pillow, aficionados have the choice between two performances. This Sunday in late July, the Paul Taylor Dance Company performed in the Ted Shawn Theatre. This was part of the Paul Taylor Legacy Tour, in honor of his passing in August 2018. This tour includes a performance of Taylor works from all phases of his career; one of his earliest works, one of his latest works, and one of his greatest works.

The highlight of the afternoon was “Promethean Fire” (2002) which is considered one of Taylor’s greatest works, the most evocative work of the day. Dancers were clad in black against an all black stage wearing dramatic unitards, women with an open back, showcasing musculature and lined with nude chevron-style v-shaped stripes. As all 20 dancers twirled across the stage, this striping created an additional element of movement and spin; the effect was mesmerizing. Memorable moments were when the dancers literally laid on top of each other, at one point aligning their bodies, and at another in an earthy pile of human forms -- unity and connection more deeply portrayed than any words possibly could. This, all set to Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor.” Break taking, awe-inspiring, mesmerizing, it felt like the entire dance took place in a heartbeat; one couldn’t tell that time was passing.
Photo by Grace Kathryn Landefeld

The other dances were not as memorable. “Aureole” (1962) mismatched Handel’s somber music with jubilant, upbeat movements. “Concertiana” (2018) combined a graceful, almost jungle-like theme to Eric Ewazen’s intense and fiery violin piece.

Photo by Christopher Duggan
Next-door in the Doris Duke Theatre, Caleb Teigher & Co. performed “More Forever.” Caleb Teigher began his professional career at Jacob’s Pillow. He was an alumnus of the Dance School of Jacob’s Pillow. Live piano music serenaded the audience with an energetic, jazz-like style in what was perhaps the highlight of the performance. The piece itself was reminiscent of a scene in Fred Astaire’s “Top Hat” (1935) when he dumps sand from a nearby ashtray on the floor, so that he can tap dance without the woman downstairs hearing him. After being regaled by 10-minutes of a beautiful piano solo, the audience then heard a confusing candy-wrapper-opening type sound. Next, the performers came on stage with sand and began to sift the sand from their hands to the floor. What followed was a tap-dancing performance that lacked unison. However, between the engaging piano performance and the uniqueness of the program itself, most of the audience enjoyed their afternoon.

REVIEW: Aston Magna Music Festival: Pachelbel/Vivaldi/Bach/Villa Lobos

Aston Magna Music Festival, St. James Place, Great Barrington, MA
July 27, 2019
By Karoun Charkoudian

This beautiful July evening at Aston Magna showcased virtuosic soloists against a varying chamber baroque orchestra. The orchestra included a mix of period instruments that changed throughout the program -- violins, viola, bass, harpsichord, flute, and cello. Though it’s not common to hear Baroque music performed with unique period instruments, this has been Aston Magna’s specialty for decades. Saint James Place with its vaulted ceiling and cushioned pews provided an ideal intimate setting for this concert.

The evening opened with Pachelbel’s Canon and Gigue in D Major. Though the Canon is so commonly heard, this performance was nothing like the average chamber group playing for a wedding. This piece was played by a beautiful combination of harpsichord, two violins, a viola, and a cello. The performance was passionate and lyrical.

Next, Aldo Abreu delighted the audience as the soloist in a Vivaldi concerto, on a sopranino recorder (small and high-pitched). He stood at the center of the six-person chamber orchestra, faced the audience squarely, and made eye contact while playing. Nothing like a third-grade recorder class, Abreu is a virtuoso, fingers flying, tonguing pristine, and in the Larghetto he brought out impressive tone and depth for such a small instrument. For an encore he played an even smaller recorder, reminiscent of a tin whistle; tonguing and fingering was fast and furious, and to perfection.

Another highlight of the evening was hearing the baroque flute, a rare instrument, in both the Bach Cantata and Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras. Christopher Kreuger’s playing added a contrasting sound, deep rich and woody, to the group made up of mostly string instruments. 
Kristen Watson, soprano

In the final piece, Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, the Cantilena movement began and ended with the soprano soloist singing without words. The violins played pizzicato, and the solo was handed between the vocalist, the violinist, and the cellist. At the conclusion of the Cantilena, the vocalist sang with her mouth closed, humming, but with greater depth. The sound was so ethereal -- it was hard to differentiate between the string instrument, and the voice -- disorienting and mystical. The audience sat in relaxed reverie throughout the performance.

REVIEW: Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy”

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, MA
through August 3, 2019
by K. Rogowski

“Tell Me I’m Not Crazy” by Sharyn Rothstein, is a fast paced and funny show that takes on a myriad of serious social and family issues that are straining the fabric of families everywhere; but nowhere like they strain the Koening family. The trouble starts when grandpa Sol (Mark Blum) buys a gun to protect the family, upsetting his now retired wife, Diana (Jane Kaczmarek), his son, Nate (Mark Feuerstein), a stay at home dad and sometime photographer, and his jet setting wife, Alisa (Nicole Villamil). And it’s all downhill from there.

Rifts begin to form as Nate and Alisa stop bringing the grand kids over for fear of what might happen with a gun in the house. Diana wants to bike through Italy, but Sol has lost his job, and is now obsessed with being at the shooting range in an effort to be ready for anything and everything. Nate and Alisa fight over her never being home for the kids. Sol belittles Nate for being a failure as a photographer. When this whole mess gets to be too much, Sol moves out. The question then becomes, “how do we fix all this?”

The pace and the intensity of this show is carried with precision by the cast, delivering pointed punch lines that cool boiling arguments one moment, and scenes of genuine caring and vulnerability in others. That combination makes for characters you care about.

To have the set changes match the intensity of the action, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel has the actors noticing, and reacting to, the walls moving and lights changing, as their world literally spins out of control. Briskly playing for one hour and forty minutes with no intermission is the best way for this show to run, because you’re caught up in the action, wondering what will happen next.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Shostakovich/Mozart/Ravel

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 26, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Before spending the rest of the weekend with the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra for a complete performance of Wagner’s “Die Walkure” spread over three concerts, Music Director Andris Nelsons led the BSO on a gorgeous Berkshire Friday evening in a varied program of little heard music by three other composers. 

It opened with Shostakovich’s second symphony, “To October,” commissioned by the Soviet government in 1927 to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the “October Revolution.” Reflecting the state’s openness under Lenin to experimentation in the arts, the first of the twenty-minute piece’s two movements begins, in Harlow Robinson’s words, with “a riot of conflicting rhythmic patterns, building to a cacophonic din.” The second movement features a chorus singing proletarian verses by Alexander Bezymensky and shouting “October, Commune, Lenin” at the end. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, prepared by their conductor, James Burton, were spirited and rousing, with colorful backing from Nelsons and the BSO. 

Paul Lewis
English pianist Paul Lewis, a frequent guest at Tanglewood since his BSO debut in 2012, next played Mozart’s twelfth piano concerto. Written in 1782, its major key signature (A) and modest orchestration make it a sunnier piece than many of the composer’s later and better-known concertos. But he intended it as a vehicle for his own virtuosic playing, and Lewis met the technical challenges of its three movements handily, while conveying its emotional content through delicate phrasing and clear articulation. Nelsons and the BSO were warm accompanists.
The chorus returned after intermission to join the orchestra and conductor in a brilliant account of Ravel’s complete 1912 ballet “Daphnis and Chloe.” The ballet is rarely danced, and its vivid full score is less often presented in concert than the second orchestral suite Ravel derived from it. The chorus’s wordless vocals in many of the ballet’s twelve sections enhance the already lush orchestration to diaphanous effect.

Nelsons carefully balanced the enlarged orchestra with the voices so that even the softest passages, some for chorus alone, were fully audible in the vast Music Shed. The result was an exhilarating triumph for all the musicians, with special kudos to principal flutist Elizabeth Rowe for her distinguished solo work.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Stefan Jackiw, Jeremy Denk, Hudson Shad

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 25, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

Stefan Jackiw
The four sonatas for violin and piano by Charles Ives constitute a unique sound world. All written between 1914 and 1917, they quote from hymn tunes which this insurance-executive-by-day and church organist on weekends wrote or arranged for church services, as well as from various patriotic songs and marches.

In an imaginative program on Thursday, violinist Stefan Jackiw and pianist Jeremy Denk played them in reverse order by number, which the loquacious Denk explained in droll spoken introductions to each piece reflects their order of difficulty. He also indicated which hymns members of Hudson Shad (tenor Mark Bleeke; baritone Eric Edlund; bass-baritone Peter Becker; bass Wilbur Pauley) would sing before the quartet in which they’re quoted.

The fourth sonata, which opened the program, is subtitled “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” as it depicts a child’s view of an outdoor religious ceremony. While all four sonatas are in three movements, their tempo notations vary considerably. A raucous piano interlude in the central slow movement is humorously marked “Allegro con slugarocko,” but the ragtime-influenced finale ends with a quiet fragment of “Shall We Gather at the River?” The slow outer movements of the third sonata surround a jazzy, foot stomping “Allegro” with mystical reflections on “Beulah Land” and “I Need Thee Every Hour.”

The second sonata, which followed intermission, is the most exuberant and lively of the four. Its dancelike middle movement, titled “In the Barn,” quotes “Turkey in the Straw” and the “Sailor’s Hornpipe.” Denk called the first sonata, which concluded the program, his and Jackiw’s favorite, for its visionary tone and elaborate writing for both instruments. Jan Swafford calls it “the grandest and most expansive” Ives sonata in his eloquent program notes.

Though offset by many passages of serene beauty, lengthier sections of this groundbreaking repertoire require great virtuosity of its performers, and this duo met these demands head on. Their kinetic energy, with Jackiw in almost constant motion on his feet, and frequent eye contact with each other reinforced their deep engagement with the music to the enthralled audience. Hudson Shad’s stirring accounts of the hymn tunes provided startling and welcome contrast.

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Emerson String Quartet

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 24, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

For the second time in four days, soprano Renee Fleming headlined a major world premiere at Tanglewood. After singing Georgia O’Keefe in Kevin Puts’s “The Brightness of Light” with the BSO last Saturday in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, she joined the Emerson String Quartet and two other guests at Ozawa Hall Wednesday in Andre Previn’s final work, “Penelope,” written just before his death this past February and edited for performance by David Fetherolf.

The subject, chosen by playwright-librettist Tom Stoppard, is the wife of Odysseus, king of Ithaca, who waits faithfully for twenty years in Homer’s “Odyssey” for her husband’s return from the Trojan War. In the resulting “monodrama,” a soprano and a narrator alternate in singing and speaking Penelope’s words, accompanied by string quartet and piano.

Previn’s eclectic music comfortably supports Stoppard’s alternately ribald and poetic text. The narrator at one point curses her long absent spouse: “Bastard! What are you doing all this time?” But on his return the soprano intones “while the goddess held back the coming day we wove together the threads of time…”

Fleming ardently wrapped her caressing voice around his notes and Stoppard’s words. Appearing in Ibsen’s “Ghosts” at the nearby Williamstown Theater Festival, Uma Thurman was an elegant and intense narrator. Simone Dinnerstein played the piano with luxurious tone. Quartet members (violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer; cellist David Watkins; violist Lawrence Dutton) displayed their trademark poise and virtuosity.

The first half of the program featured selections by three other American composers. Leading off was George Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” originally the slow movement of his 1946 first string quartet. The Emersons played this “lament” for the composer’s grandmother, who had died the year before, with great sensitivity, in what could also have been a tribute to this dean of African American composers, who himself died last year.

This was followed by Richard Wernick’s tenth string quartet, written for the Emersons a year ago and premiered in March 2019. The piece’s three short movements are played without pause, and the dedicatees met the technical and interpretive challenges of this dissonant yet accessible score with finesse. The 85-year-old composer signaled his delighted approval from the audience.

Samuel Barber’s 1936 first string quartet, featuring what the composer called a “knockout” slow  movement that soon took on a life of its own as his “Adagio for Strings,” completed the program in a riveting performance.

July 25, 2019

Review: Barrington Stage Company, “Gertrude and Claudius”

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through August 3, 2019
by Stacie Beland

Photo by Daniel Rader
Barrington Stage Company has created an absolute masterpiece with their presentation of “Gertrude and Claudius,” a new play by Mark St. Germain based on the novel by John Updike. The story takes place prior to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” wherein Hamlet plots to avenge the murder of his father, killed by his mother (Gertrude) and uncle (Claudius), who have engaged in a treasonous love affair.

“Gertrude and Claudius” allows us to see the characters as their relationship blossoms, and Hamlet is largely absent—though referenced frequently. It is a love story as only Updike could write:  A woman who goes through the motions of life, she becomes desperately bored by her husband and enthralled by his brother and feels particularly distant and removed from her son. Gertrude endlessly works on a tapestry of Hamlet, a monument to her dissatisfaction and the rote nature of her life. She finds true passion, a true awakening, in her relationship with her husband’s brother. Though they both try to deny themselves the relationship, they seem to only find joy in one another—first in writing letters, then engaging in flirtatious moments when Claudius visits Elsinore.

The production itself is a technical marvel: the scenic design, lighting, music, choreography, costuming, and puppetry are stunning. Julianne Boyd’s direction is clean and precise and allows the splendid acting of Kate Maccluggage (Gertrude) and Elijah Alexander (Claudius) to shine. As the title couple, the audience cannot help but fall in love with their evident passion, despite knowing how the story will end. Douglas Rees as King Amleth is tremendous as a man who is inherently good but recognizes and is devastated by the fact that his brother’s passion and zeal make for a better match to his wife. Nick Lamedica as both Hamlet and Yorick has little stage time (though it is nice to see Yorick alive and well, as opposed to his role as a skull in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”), but his presence is constantly felt throughout the show. Rocco Sisto and Mary Stout as Polonius and Herda, respectively, provide both comic relief and tender moments of understanding. Greg Thornton as King Rorick, Gertrude’s father, does a lovely job in setting up the general sense of foreboding and impending inevitable death.

To miss this show would be a tragedy on par with the one that we see unfold onstage.

July 24, 2019

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Elgar/Puts/Gershwin/Stravinsky

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 20-21, 2019
by Michael J. Moran

The energizing presence of the BSO’s young Music Director brings a special excitement to Tanglewood, especially when he’s joined by world-class vocal and instrumental soloists. All this and a major world premiere made for two memorable concerts this past weekend.

Andris Nelsons
On Saturday evening Andris Nelsons opened his program with a glowing account of Elgar’s masterful 1899 “Enigma” Variations on an Original Theme, which put the composer on the musical map at age 42. With varied tempos and virtuosic orchestrations, its fourteen variations suggest how different acquaintances of Elgar, from his wife to his publisher, might have played the theme. The BSO and their conductor probed its emotional depths with polish and conviction. 

Intermission was followed by the world premiere of “The Brightness of Light,” a cycle of twelve songs for soprano, baritone, and orchestra by Missouri-born composer Kevin Puts, whose first opera, “Silent Night,” won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. The text is drawn from letters between the American painter Georgia O’Keefe and her mentor-lover-husband, German-born photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, 23 years her senior. Their complex, shifting relationship, in which she gradually assumes the upper hand, is movingly conveyed by the colorful and evocative score.

Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming was radiant and vulnerable as O’Keefe, while Rod Gilfry was alternately avuncular and anguished as Stieglitz. Video projections by Wendall K. Harrington of works by both artists and their handwritten letters added powerful atmosphere. James Darrah staged and directed the presentation with sensitivity. Nelsons led a mesmerizing performance of a piece that should be widely heard. 

On Sunday afternoon popular guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was right at home in idiomatic renditions of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto and Variations on “I Got Rhythm” for piano and orchestra. The French-born soloist’s high comfort level with this jazz-flavored repertoire came as no surprise to listeners who know his perceptive recordings of music by Duke Ellington and Bill Evans. Nelsons and the BSO were equally attuned partners, with particularly soulful work from principal trumpet Thomas Rolfs in the concerto’s blues-inflected central nocturne.

An exciting version of Stravinsky’s complete 1911 ballet “Petrushka” completed the program after intermission. Latvian-born Nelsons has the folk-inspired Russian contours of this music in his blood. Retiring bass clarinetist Craig Nordstrom, whose fluid playing was notable in several of the ballet’s four scenes, was honored for his distinguished 40-year career with the BSO.  

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Miloš and Ozawa Hall, a marriage made in heaven

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
July 16, 2019

by Carol Bousquet

Stupendous! The word is not enough to describe fully the innate artistry and experience of hearing Miloš Karadaglić’s debut of classical guitar in the Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood on a summer’s evening July 16. Extraordinary. Breathtaking. Phenomenal. We’re getting closer.

Miloš Karadaglić, 36 years old, frequently known just by his mononym Miloš, is an award-winning classical guitarist from Montenegro. He is dubbed by many to be today’s “guitar hero”, the most famous classical guitarist in the world.

Karadaglić first started playing the guitar at the age of eight. The 16-year-old Miloš successfully applied for a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music by sending a video tape he recorded at home. He moved to London in September 2000 to begin studying guitar seriously.

If I may, we were hearing two performers. While just one man and his lone guitar graced the stage, one is also experiencing The Seiji Ozawa Hall supporting the artist. Magnificently.

What a fantastic showcase on the 25th anniversary of the famed hall, a humble companion to Tanglewood’s five-thousand-seat Koussevitzky Music Shed constructed in 1938. It’s something to marvel at especially when hearing a performance such as this -- one man, one guitar and 1200 people in the concert hall listening, with no amplification—yet listeners able to savor every note and nuance. The Ozawa Hall, designed by William Rawn Associates / Architects with acoustics overseen by R. Lawrence Kirkegaard, is a magnificent example of award-winning architectural and acoustic design. “A survey of conductors and music critics ranked the Seiji Ozawa Hall as the 4th best American Concert Hall ever built and the 2nd best American Concert Hall built in the last 50 years.” (Source: Leo Beranek, Concert Halls and Opera Houses, 2003.) It’s reason enough to visit Tanglewood!

Miloš opened his program by expressing homage for the iconic talent that had performed on the Ozawa stage before him. Then he went to work demonstrating said homage via his performance.

He opened with J. S. Bach’s Suite No. 2 in C minor, BWV 997 and went on to Granados’ from 12 Spanish Dances: No. 5 Andaluza and No. 2, Oriental. He finished the first half with Albeniz “Asturias”, giving us, his rapt audience, a chance to catch our breath.

Post-intermission he opened with Five Preludes; a guitar piece written by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. The piece is subtitled "Homenagem à vida social" (Homage to Social Life). It is in the key of D major, and is the second of the Five Preludes, written in 1940. It was first performed, together with its four companions, by Abel Carlevaro in Montevideo in December 1942. This prelude evokes the waltzes danced by the upper classes of Rio de Janeiro in a bygone age.

Then came his Beatles tribute. He played Lennon/McCartney’s “Blackbird” (arr. Sergio Assad) and “Yesterday” (arr. Takemitsu) and Harrison’s “While my guitar gently weeps” (arr. Sergio Assad) from his 2016 “Blackbird: The Beatles Album.” It was glorious.

He finished with Mathias Duplessy’s “Cavalcade”.

My advice? Don’t ever miss a chance to hear Miloš play his guitar (he plays a 2007 Greg Smallman). If you haven’t yet been to a performance at The Ozawa Hall, go soon if you can. The season is short.

July 23, 2019

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, The Skin of Our Teeth

Berkshire Theatre Group, Stockbridge, MA
through August 3, 2019
by Shera Cohen

It’s a common phrase, “the skin of our teeth.” There are probably numerous similar definitions like, “in the nick of time.” What this title tells the audience about the play is slim. In contrast, this is a big play: sets, subject matter, cast, and even volume.

Thornton Wilder picked up the Pulitzer Prize for “Skin of Our Teeth” in 1943. The year is significant, as WWII was in progress and the role of the U.S. began in 1941. The play is whitewashed as soberly funny; at the same time thought provoking on colossal issues of mankind.

Your average American family of four, who happen to live in New Jersey, are the focal point. This quartet is not happy, always bemoaning their plight. While not a spoiler, the Antrobus family somehow manages to survive despite themselves.

Mr. and Mrs. Antrobus are a team, married for 5,000 years. Actors Danny Johnson and Harriet Harris make a smart team as well. If we don’t recognize Harris (from TV’s “Frasier”) her voice is a unique give-away that epitomizes disaster and humor simultaneously. Their maid Sabina, portrayed by Ariana Venturi, steals the show. Never upstaging, Venturi is outstanding; coquettish at one point and an all-knowing seer at another. Her role is flighty, then somber, and the actress carries off the instant changes in demeanor in a flash.

Everything in this play is big; bigger than real life. After all, the set must accommodate the size of a prehistoric woolly mammoth, Noah’s ark, the Ice Age, the Depression, and WWII.

It’s up to Mr. Antrobus to save the human race. A man with the skills to invent the alphabet and the wheel, why not fix everything else while he’s at it; obviously a black comedy.

Plays oftentimes use the text and/or characters as metaphors. In this case, the entire play is a series of metaphors. Theatergoers must put in a lot of work to “get it.” The use of so many brain cells to fully comprehend “Skin of Our Teeth” is asking a great deal of its audience, especially on a very hot night in the Berkshires. However, summer theatre need not be funny, romantic, or a musical.

July 22, 2019

REVIEW: Goodspeed Musicals, Because of Winn Dixie

Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam, CT
through September 5, 2019
by R.E. Smith

Photo by Diane Sobolewski
As in Pollyanna, Anne of Green Gables and, yes, Annie, Winn Dixie tells the story of how one kind, well-meaning character unites a community. The difference being, while there is a young girl involved in this modern story, it is her dog that actually brings everyone together. It is that canine character and the “actor” portraying him that make this show unique.

That dog is played by Bowdie, “a poodle crossed with something big” that is owned and trained by Bill Berloni, who was the animal director for the original “Sandy” in the original “Annie”. So it goes without saying that Bowdie knows how to command an audience. His “performance” is what elevates the show from just a “nice story” to something unique. See the show for the dog alone because rest assured no community theatre group would ever be able to pull this one off!

Based on a popular book and movie, “Winn Dixie” tells of young Opal and her preacher father moving to a small town in Florida. Opal finds and adopts a stray dog. Lonely Opal and lost dog meet and bond with the slightly broken, but well-meaning citizens of the Town, bringing everyone closer together. The overall story is simple; it is the back-stories of the characters that are complicated, and often sad.

The melancholy undertones are reinforced by the music of Duncan Sheik. As those familiar with his Tony winning work on “Spring Awakening” know, Sheik’s style is not typical, straightforward Broadway. Befitting the southern setting, there are influences of gospel, blues, and country western, but all, like the characters, are slightly askew of what’s expected. There are audience-pleasing favorites like “Bottle Tree Blues”, “Offer It Up” and the very amusing “Sulking”. But there is also the devastating “No One Watching”, quirky “Thirteen Things” and peculiar “Awoo”.

Josie Todd as Opal has the tricky task of having to act, sing and dog wrangle and she has pre-teen sass nailed down tight. Chloe Cheers, as the young girl with a family secret, deftly handles the pathos of “No One Watching”. But sometimes Sheik’s sophisticated melodies seem a bit much for the young characters to handle. The adults, like J. Robert Spencer as Preacher, when he sings “Offer It Up” and Roz Ryan as Gloria, better engage with their performances. The clear audience favorite, however, is David Coe, a veteran performer, as pet shop employee Otis, who slowly becomes the Greek chorus of the piece with his folksy “Searchin” and “You Can’t Run”.

Unfortunately, the Goodspeed's historic structure does not make for clear modern sight-lines and this is a problem when the “main character" spends a good deal of the time sitting or lying on the stage. Many members of the audience spent a lot of time craning their necks in an attempt to watch Bowdie perform. So be sure to get the kids a booster seat.

The book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Mean Girls) take a refreshing approach to the people of faith who populate the story, treating their trials and tribulations with gentle dignity. “Winn Dixie” makes a good case for people to try and understand and connect with each other despite their differences. Author George Eliot said that “Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms” and the same can be said of Opal and Winn Dixie.

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, “Time Flies, and Other Comedies”

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
through July 27, 2019
by Shera Cohen

Five actors + six short plays = an evening of continuous laughter and delight courtesy of playwright David Ives. The quintet of players depicts the characters of each play, and the plays’ scripts are disconnected from each other.

To some degree, Ives might be the Neil Simon of the 21st century. Except Ives’ work is funnier, edgy, and strange, with no audience investment in his characters; Simon is far more verbose, and his characters portray the guy next door. On second thought, Ives and Simon are quite dissimilar except for two commonalities: their immense popularity and copious volume of excellent work.

Four of the five actors are Barrington Stage (BSC) “regulars”: Debra Jo Rupp, Jeff McCarthy, Carson Elrod, and Cary Donaldson. Equally talented is newcomer Ruth Pferdehirt. The ensemble work is clean and smooth, as executed by director Tracy Brigden.

The Barrington Stage’s audience found each of the six plays hilarious, although the last vignette, an Agatha Christie spoof titled “The Mystery at Twicknam Vicarage,” is rather cliché, and not up to par with Ives’ other works.

Photo by Tracy Brigden
Debra Jo Rupp, a standout at BSC for the past several years, is a breath of fresh air. Rupp is petite but mighty, using every second onstage as an opportunity to shine. She never stands still, always buzzing around this way and that. It’s no surprise that she portrays a mayfly (yes, an insect) in “Time Flies.” Rupp and her bug boyfriend portrayed by Cary Donaldson are a hoot as they meet, court, marry, get pregnant, and die. After all, the lifespan of a mayfly is only one day.

BSC is purposely cheap on costumes and props, adding to the humor, especially in “Variations on the Death of Trotsky.” For the duration of the play, one actor sports an ax plunged into his head.

“Enigma Variations,” the funniest of the six, presents a play on words of words that mean other words. No, I am not being repetitive or redundant. Ives has invented two sets of doppelgänger women and doppelgänger psychotherapists all of whom treat their conversations as a fast and furious ping-pong match.

The only recommendation to be made that would upgrade “Time Flies” from 4.5 stars to 5 stars, would be to switch the order, ending with “Enigma”. Everything else is perfect.

July 21, 2019

Guiding Your Way Through Berkshire Arts

by Shera Cohen

A tour guide can make or break your visit. That long-awaited trip to Museum XYZ or the homes of the rich, famous, and deceased can be a boring visit. You’ve paid admission and hope for an enlightening and fun experience. Following the tour, you mumble, “I’ll never recommend this to anyone.”

Don’t underestimate the value of a good guide. However, I don’t know how to remedy this situation, because once you’re on the tour, it’s too late to slink out. I welcome any ideas that you have on this dilemma.

However, on last week’s trip to the Berkshires, I had the pleasure of taking part in several tour experiences. While learning about the information, I thought about one common denominator among these venues; each guide was a dynamic storyteller.
I created my own “Best Tour Guide to Do List”. In the case of each venue listed below, the person who led our little group possessed these skills.

  • 1. Know the subject very well.
  • 2. Be in love with your venue or exhibit. This is your baby.
  • 3. Realize that no one in the group knows more than you do and let them know so.
  • 4. Speak relatively slowly and articulately.
  • 5. Avoid jargon or explain it clearly.
  • 6. Answer questions and/or make it clear that you will respond eagerly and shortly.

Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
I returned to the Museum to finish viewing the Leonardo Da Vinci “Machines in Motion” exhibit that I had first seen this winter. Trust me; give yourself a few hours to study the 40 true-to-design models of Leonardo’s Renaissance inventions. While not a bona fide tour guide, we caught the attention of two security men who told us the story of the intricacies of transporting and assembling the thousands of wooden and metal components to replicate airplanes, bicycles, machinery, farm equipment, safety devices, and a giant tank to hold four people, complete with cannons. The men gave us personal stories of their huge job to give life to the exhibit. Both were obviously proud of the outcome.

Chesterwood, Stockbridge, MA
I brought a friend who had never seen Chesterwood. Being my fourth visit, I pretty much knew the drill, I thought. Chesterwood was the home of Daniel Chester French, America’s foremost public sculptor. His most noted figure is Abraham Lincoln in Washington, D.C. The guide’s job is to bring approximately 12 people (usually tourists) through French’s home, studio, and exhibit/welcome center. There’s just so much one can say about the size of bedrooms, what chisel instruments French used, for example. Our docent, who told us that he had been a volunteer for 13 years, didn’t merely point to plaster horses and masks of Lincoln’s face; his comments were that of a storyteller.

St. Francis Art Gallery, South Lee, MA
You’d think it is a church of worship, and once upon a time, this small yellow building had a good number of parishioners. The pews still stand, strewn about the first floor. Once St. Francis Church on the edge of Lee, is now an art gallery of every genre of art imaginable. Even though we were a party of two, the guide offered a full tour, telling us the story of many pieces or group of pieces of paintings, sculpture, and portraits drawn by children. This gentleman was especially proud that most artists lived locally. He travels annually to purchase authentic Nigerian art. The guide knows his subject matter, whatever the field. His special “friends” are life-size sculpture of Henry VIII and Jack Benny. In fact, Mr. Benny stands in front of the gallery, welcoming guests inside.

Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, MA
Without a doubt, it is obvious that the docents at NRM revere Mr. Rockwell. In fact, some knew the artist personally. Again, more stories. The cookie cutter tour focuses on the well-known pieces; i.e. Four Freedoms, Four Seasons, and Rosie the Riveter. Our guide told us some secrets; look for Rockwell in many of his works because he often put himself in crowd scenes or imaged some characters in his own likeness. The Q&A session of the tour was where the guide showed her stuff. Nothing stumped her, even questions about the minutia of a relatively obscure painting or background of the era represented. NRM docents are among the site’s best promoters. Once the tour is complete, guests are urged to take a trek up a short hill on the property to step into a replica of Rockwell’s actual studio; its interior looking as if the painter had taken a break and would shortly return.

Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, Lenox, MA
On a warm day at the end of a heavy rainstorm, we looked for an indoor site of culture. Few have heard of Susie Frelinghuysen and George Morris, wife and husband pre-emanant abstract painters in the United States in the 1930’s. Their friends who stopped by the couple’s home and studio included other modern artists; Picasso, Miro, and Braque. A lovely recently graduated college student, art history major, in pursuit of her master’s degree served as our guide. Although her discussion was somewhat on script at the start, she smiled and loosened up, permitting interjections from her audience of approximately 12. While some guides act as if they are the be-all and end-all of the intricacy of their venue, our young lady admitted that she was not aware of some stories told to her by the guests, yet eager to learn as much as we were prepared to learn from her.

While not tours, per se, self-guided tours abound in the Berkshires. For example, Mark Morris’ dance performance at Jacob’s Pillow was thrilling. With time to kill before the concert’s start, it was an opportunity to view the Pillow’s grounds and gardens, visit The Barn filled with photography and art, check out other buildings on the property, and visit Outside/Inside free performances across the street.

In the upcoming week, I will venture to Naumkeg, the Red Lion Inn (tours given for the first time ever, this summer), DeVries Studio, and Ventfort Hall. My guess is that the tour guides will be pleasant storytellers as well.