Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

October 17, 2021

Review: WAM Theatre, Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story

Elayne Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA
through October 24, 2021 (streaming digitally November 1-7)
by Jarice Hanson
 
Photo by David Dashiell
WAM Theatre’s new production of “Kamloopa: An Indigenous Matriarch Story” is an important contribution to the burgeoning field of cultural stories that broaden our understanding of traditions of oppressed peoples and the perspectives of people who have systematically been undermined. The story weaves together themes of popular culture, self-awareness, critical self-analysis, personal expectations amid cultural stereotypes, and female relationships. Though the story addresses serious topics and issues, they are framed as a comedy. The balancing act is difficult, but successful.
 
Set in Canada on the traditional Syilx Territory, the spoken language that introduces the play and functions as a touchpoint throughout the two hour, two act play, is Nsylixcin. For an audience member who has little knowledge of northern tribal nations, the language is complex, beautiful, and redolent of historical richness. It draws the ear into listening closely, and that is part of the story’s mission—to honor indigenous people and reclaim identity. The three actresses and the production‘s creative team are all people who identify as persons of color, and many are members of Indigenous Nations.
 
Author Kim Senklip Harvey is a gifted playwright whose growing body of work focuses on Indigenous theater and storytelling. She is most definitely a playwright and author to watch, and in addition to her plays, she is the author of a book titled: “Love Stories from a Salish Plateau Dirtbag” (soon to be published), and she is working on an adaptation of the award-winning “Kamloopa” for television.
 
Director Estefanía Fadul has mined the joy in the script. As she states in her program notes: “This play invites us on a madcap adventure as three women work out the messiness of identity and what it means to belong, subverting all expectations and crafting their own path.” The three actresses, each of whom plays multiple parts, are Sarah B. Denison, Jasmine Rochelle Goodspeed, and Ria Nez. They play their characters with crisp differentiation. Carolyn Eng’s sound design is subtle, but oh, so effective, aided in part by original drumming by Ty Defoe.
 
WAM Theater is committed to building relationship with “Indigenous Tribes, Nations, and Peoples on whose land we live and work.” As part of the mission of WAM, which stands for “Where Arts & Activism Meet,” this show, and others, starts with the acknowledgement that “It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we are working, performing, and gathering on the Ancestral Homelands of the Mohican people, who are the Indigenous peoples of this land."

REVIEW: Shakespeare and Company, The Chairs

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA
through October 31, 2021
by Jarice Hanson
 
Photo by Daniel Rader
In his program Director’s Note, James Warwick compares Ionesco’s “absurd tragic farce” to life in general, since Covid. How right he is! 
 
Upon entering the lobby of the Tina Packer Playhouse, patrons are greeted with lively circus music which then carries them into the playhouse and provides the perfect immersion into the world of the “Old Man” played by Malcolm Ingram, and the “Old Woman” played by Barbara Sims. The two have been living as the custodians of a lighthouse for many years, and have developed a pattern of amusing each other with imaginary guests and conversations they make up in their heads.
 
Ingram and Sims work together like a well-oiled machine and the circus metaphor is liberally used throughout the 65 minute play. When the couple start bringing out chairs for imaginary guests, the choreography is like watching clowns in a circus disappear behind a set, only to emerge from another door with either a wheelbarrow or a baby carriage to establish a stage fully set for their “future” guests. When Ingram sings “Forty-seven Ginger Headed Sailors” while accompanying himself on a ukulele, Sims dances along—making the duet all the funnier with her physical interpretation of the music. They create a dynamic duo, complementing each other’s style and tone, and making it impossible not to be charmed by their high energy comical interaction.   
 
Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s wonderful costumes and John Musall’s elaborate multi-doored set continue the circus theme established by Amy Altadonna’s exceptional music choices, and James Warwick’s direction creates a seamless production of entertainment that emphasizes comedy rather than tragedy. The situation of the two old people alone, isolated from others and feeling cut off from the rest of the world, has now become a familiar feeling for many, but their spirit and silliness give us hope. 
 
How wonderful it is to find joy in an art form that has traditionally been called “absurd,” and how appropriate it is for Shakespeare and Company to revisit a classic of absurdist theater and find the humanity and joy in the work. As Warwick concludes in his Director’s Note, “Please join us, not in despair, but in the liberation of tears of laughter.”
 
Watching these fine actors and seeing the benefit of meticulously staged production craft, the audience is left with a feeling of buoyancy and hope, proving that even in absurd times, theater can help us connect to a broader world of art and human connection. 

October 12, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
October 10, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Gilbert Kalish
When the previously scheduled Juilliard String Quartet cancelled due to illness, these friends of South Mountain came to the rescue on short notice with an inspired cross-generational ensemble pairing 86-year-old American master pianist Gilbert Kalish with four string players five and six decades younger in an imaginative program of four varied works from three centuries. 

It opened with a sprightly account of Mozart’s 1786 Trio in B-flat Major, K. 502, by Kalish, American violinist Stella Chen, and Chinese-born cellist Sihao He. Though reflecting the emphasis of its time on the piano as major partner, Kalish gave Chen and He plenty of room to shine in a lively opening “Allegro,” a graceful slow “Larghetto,” and a charming “Allegretto” finale. 

This was followed by Bohuslav Martinu’s Duo No. 1 (“Three Madrigals”), written in 1947 while the Czech-born composer was living in New York. Modeled on Renaissance-era madrigals (unaccompanied songs for multiple voices with elaborate harmonies), the piece was lovingly performed by Chen and Taiwan-born violist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu. They were buoyant in the energetic first movement, enchanting in the mysterious second, and intense in the folk-flavored third. 

Next came Norwegian composer Johan Halvorsen’s 1897 arrangement for violin and viola of the Passacaglia (variations on a repeating rhythm) from Handel’s 1717 seventh suite for solo harpsichord. Korean-born violinist Kristin Lee and Wu met the work’s technical challenges with stunning virtuosity and an infectious sense of fun. 

The concert ended with a dramatic rendition of Brahms’s 1864 piano quintet, featuring a turbulent opening “Allegro non troppo,” a warm and flowing “Andante, un poco Adagio,” a ferocious “Scherzo: Allegro” (with a tender central trio), and a shattering “Poco sostenuto – Allegro non troppo” finale. Of special note were the seemingly ageless Kalish’s muscular yet mellow pianism and He’s dark, resonant cello, though the whole ensemble was polished and committed throughout. 

Introducing this final concert of South Mountain’s 2021 season from the stage, Executive Director Lou R. Steiger thanked the audience for their support through this difficult year and invited them back for a hopefully “more hospitable” post-Covid 2022 season beginning next September.

October 6, 2021

Review: Berkshire Theater Group, Shirley Valentine

Berkshire Theater Group, Stockbridge, MA
through October 24, 2021
by Lisa M. Covi

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell
Corinna May showcases an ability to both captivate an audience and illustrate a transformation as Shirley Valentine, the solo-actor in "Shirley Valentine." This is the first time May has tackled a one-woman show.

The playwright Willy Russell takes the audience from a claustrophobic flirtation with madness to self-actualizing exhilaration. The titular middle aged housewife's empty nest and precarious marriage spur her sudden break to discover new and positive ways to express herself in the world; a world that she knew existed for other people.

Berkshire Theater Group's Unicorn Theater is a perfect setting for this one-woman show. The theater's intimate size makes the convention of breaking the fourth wall seem natural and seamless. The scenic backdrop of a row of roof lines in her Liverpool neighborhood in Act I contrasts beautifully the azure coastline of the Greek Isles in Act II.

Although the heroine's journey is relatable and timeless, the play's text at times seems dated in a way that limits its impact because of the choices for setting and exposition. One example, particularly for American audiences, is the consistent and authentic Liverpool accent May adeptly executes. The British terms and pronunciation are not as confusing as figuring out that Shirley Valentine's “Wall” was not the name of her husband (Joe) but the term of address she uses for the unresponsive kitchen wall with whom she converses.

The narrative includes many other unseen characters in Shirley's life. The director might have included vocal cues into Shirley's impersonations, but instead relies upon verbal and emotional characterizations in her dialog. Nonetheless, the plot and personality of May's acting skills give the play emotion and humor.

The plot suggests that her home, like her marriage, is in need of renovation. However, a little transformation on the part of May's role comes about slowly, as intended. The initial tension in landing Valentine's humor eases as the character gains confidence.

One wonders if the rut Shirley finds herself facing in the mid-1980's is out of step with today's audience. For instance, Shirley struggles with the definition of myriad of feminist and self-deprecating descriptions; i.e. Shirley uses the term “silly bitch” to refer to herself and others, and a humorous discussion involving the mispronunciation of an anatomical term involved with her sexual re-awakening. 

Shirley Valentine personifies the delayed coming of age of women in a particular societal role. Certainly there are still women today who are directed or make life choices that result in a feminine mystique-type consciousness-raising. Nevertheless, as a play, Shirley Valentine showcases a kind of character development and journey that is both a cautionary tale and inspiring call for action. Willy Russell's story is a literary ancestor of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" and Cheryl Strayed's "Wild." Corrina May's Shirley Valentine brings fresh aplomb to this cheeky British woman.

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Beethoven 7

The Bushnell, Hartford, CT
October 1-3, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

After a twenty-month Covid-induced hiatus, the HSO’s first weekend of three live “Masterworks” series performances at the Belding Theater surrounded a 2019 novelty with two favorite pillars of the standard classical repertoire and introduced a promising guest conductor and a multi-talented composer/soloist to Hartford audiences.

Joseph Young
Following a rousing all-hands-on-deck season-launching national anthem, no better welcome-back opener could be imagined than Rossini’s iconic 1829 “William Tell” Overture, whose themes are familiar to generations of “Lone Ranger” and Looney Tunes cartoons viewers. Joseph Young, Music Director of the Berkeley Symphony and Artistic Director of Ensembles at the Peabody Conservatory, led a dynamic account, from a radiantly quiet beginning played by five cellos, through a turbulent brass-dominated mid-section, to a triumphal closing march. 

This joyful mood continued with Brazilian-American composer Clarice Assad’s “E Gol! (“Goal!”) for Orchestra, Vocalist, and Audience Members,” featuring Assad herself as vocalist. Its six short movements depict Brazilian female soccer star Marta Vieira da Silva preparing for a big match. Following instructions projected above the stage and coached by Assad, the audience gamely scatted, slapped their legs, and otherwise joined the musicians in sounding out the colorful score. Highlights included a spooky “Nightmare,” a serene “Meditation,” and an energizing percussion-driven “Samba Party.” Assad’s vocal improvisations were often jazz- inspired and always fun.    
 
The concert ended with a vibrant rendition of Beethoven’s seventh symphony. It can be hard for a conductor to bring new insights to such a familiar masterpiece, but Young did just that with the HSO. Their measured approach to the first movement’s “Poco sostenuto” opening gave its “Vivace” main theme a rare and exhilarating grandeur; their stately tempo in the “Allegretto” made it sound dreamier than usual; they revealed a playful, almost Mendelssohnian grace in the “Presto” scherzo; and their visceral power in the “Allegro con brio” finale brought the piece to a thrilling climax.   
 
Their next weekend “Masterworks” program, “Bernstein & Copland,” will feature HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan and HSO concertmaster Leonid Sigal on November 5-7, 2021.  

The HSO requires proof of vaccination and a valid ID for entry into the Bushnell and masking at all times in the hall. 

October 5, 2021

Review: Barrington Stage , A Crossing: A Dance Musical

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through October 16, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Remember all those times when you choose to skip a play because was new? If it hasn't yet gotten the thumbs up from the critics and scuttle butt from past audiences, you've never heard of it or the names of anyone in the cast, how good can it be?

Photo by Daniel Rader
I urge you to take a risk on "A Crossing: A Dance Musical.” Opening night always brings
excited audiences full of anticipation. The icing on the cake was the play making its world premiere. For the good and for the bad, the timing of the presentation could not have been more opportune; this is a journey of a dozen ragtag men, women, and children, each trying desperately to make their exodus from Mexico to the United States.

With no spoken words, this "dance musical" could have easily been called "musical" or "opera". In any case, the lyrics of mixed English and Spanish played throughout. Each artist from the Calpulli Mexican Dance Company sang with beauty and meaning, primarily to the music of guitar and drums in the background. Although, most of the songs did sound alike. The quintet of master musicians was tucked away in the mountainous terrain setting.

While not a human character, per se, the scenic design by Beowulf Boritt spoke volumes. Giant moveable cardboard cutouts of several uneven precipices with a clock-like black 'n white circle in the rear gave the audience clarity of the characters' hardships and endurance. 

Director Joshua Bergasse's work was difficult, especially in one particularly lengthy scene. Bergasse, along with choreographer Alberto Lopez made the unreal, real. All onstage and backstage pulled off the actual "Crossing" of the river from Mexico to the US exquisitely. Twelve-foot-long colored ribbons were held at each end, swishing and rippling constantly. Without a word, spoken or sung, this excerpt made "A Crossing" worth the trip. A rope of garments created a make-shift unsteady line in order for the characters to make their journey to America. 

One character stood out as "a wow moment" or "TMI". Neither or either is correct. This occurred at what seemed a strange place in the story for an intermission because BSC's Executive Director specifically stated, "No intermission". I am guessing that a historically dressed ancient god named Quetzalcoati decided to put on a majestic one-man dance. An entire evening of Quetzalcoatis could have been a rockin' show. That was hardly what "A Crossing" was about.

October 1, 2021

Preview: Playhouse on Park, Two Jews Walk Into A War

Playhouse on Park. Hartford, CT
www.playhouseonpark.org
through October 10, 2021

Rehearsal photo by Nina Elgo
"Two Jews Walk Into A War" is the first production of Playhouse on Park’s 13th Main Stage Season. This production is directed by David Hammond. The cast includes Mitch Greenberg (Ishaq) and Bob Ari (Zeblyan).  The show is produced in partnership with The Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. 
  
Ishaq and Zeblyan are the last remaining Jews in Afghanistan. They share the only remaining synagogue that has not been destroyed by the Taliban. They share a mission to repopulate the Jewish community in Kabul. But they also hate each other. Can this Middle Eastern odd couple commit to one incredible act of faith to keep the diaspora alive without killing one other? A modern vaudeville full of schtick, sorrow, and survival. 

Tickets are now on sale and range from $40-$50. Student and Senior discounts are available. Student Rush is $10 (cash only), available 15 minutes prior to curtain. 2pm matinees are on Tuesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Evening performances are at 7:30pm on Wednesday and Thursday, and at 8pm on Friday and Saturday.

COVID-19 Policy: All patrons must be fully vaccinated. Vaccination card, government issued ID, and masks are required for all patrons. For Playhouse on Park’s full COVID-19 Policy, please visit www.PlayhouseOnPark.org.

September 21, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Emerson String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 19, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Less than a month after they announced their retirement from public performance in 2023, the Emerson String Quartet  – violinists Eugene Drucker and Philip Setzer, violist Lawrence Dutton, and cellist Paul Watkins – made their35 th appearance at this venerable chamber music series. A memorable concert and rapturous audience response suggested that they’ll end their 47-year career in top form. 

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s first published string quartet, dating from 1829, when the precocious composer was a youthful but mature twenty years old. The Emerson’s tender but bracing account built from a lively “Adagio non troppo – Allegro non tardante” first movement, a gracious “Canzonetta: Allegretto” (including a delicately fleet mid-section), and a passionate “Andante espressivo,” to a fast and furious “Molto allegro e vivace” finale.
 
Next, in sharp contrast, came Bartok’s 1927 third string quartet. Reflecting both the influence of Hungarian folk music and the composer’s interest in avant-garde musical techniques, it still sounded strikingly modern in the Emerson’s tightly coiled performance. Their legendary seamless ensemble intact throughout, they brought laser clarity to the thorny first section, controlled energy to the manic second, haunting sensitivity to the eerie third, and intense focus to the frenzied closing “Coda.” 

The concert continued with Tchaikovsky’s popular 1871 first string quartet. From a gentle “Moderato e semplice” opening movement, a heartfelt “Andante cantabile” (famously arranged later by the composer for string orchestra – Drucker’s first violin solos were meltingly beautiful), and a mercurial “Scherzo,” to an exuberant folk-dance-flavored “Finale,” the Emersons played every note with exhilarating warmth. 

That quality was even clearer in the deep affection they brought to their encore (a rare occurrence at South Mountain), George Walker’s lovely 1946 “Lyric for Strings.” Setzer movingly recalled the Quartet’s happy working relationship with the noted African-American composer during the last twenty years of his life (Walker died in 2018 at age 96).
 
South Mountain requires proof of Covid vaccination and masking inside the hall. Chamber music lovers can still catch three more Sunday afternoon concerts here by world-class musicians (including former Emerson cellist David Finckel) through October 10.

September 17, 2021

Review: Majestic Theater, The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On

Majestic Theater,West Springfield, MA
through October 17, 2021
by Konrad Rogowski

By starting off their season with “The Marvelous Wonderettes: Dream On,” the Majestic is giving their audiences what we all need after 15+ months of social distancing; a lively, fun show as the four Wonderettes reunite for an evening of popular songs from the 60’s and 70’s that folks can identify with and hum along to.

Like its predecessor "The Marvelous Wonderettes" which was performed last season “ The Marvelous Wonderettes,” current show, "Dream On" chronicles the loves, losses and rivalries of Cindi Lou (Kaytlyn Vandeloecht), Betty Jean (Tina Sparkle), Missy (Kait Rankins) and Suzy (Mollie Posnik) as all four actresses reprise their roles in a real-life reunion. 

Act I takes the audience through the 60’s on the date of the quartet's 10th year reunion, and Act II leaps ahead to their 20th. Peppered with upbeat songs and strong vocals, each Wonderette is given the opportunity to shine with solos like “Love Will Keep Us Together,” “I Will Survive,” and a rousing show finish with “We Are Family.”

Greg Trochlil’s set design for Rockville High, with its classic yellow brick gym walls, basketball hoops and PA system speakers sets the scene. The musical accompaniment by Mitch Chakoura’s band is solid. If there is any oddity in the show, it is that, unlike the Wonderettes, the band is not costumed like a high school reunion band, nor does their appearance change as we move from decade to decade. The visual is distracting since they are part of the entire reunion/time has passed concept.

All in all, this installment of the Wonderettes’ adventures is definitely worth a trip back to Rockville High.

Note: Attendees must show both their proof of Covid vaccination, and a personal ID. Masks must also be worn during the performance. 

September 13, 2021

REVIEW: South Mountain Concerts, Calidore String Quartet

South Mountain Concerts, Pittsfield, MA 
September 12, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

A nearly full house warmly greeted the first live concert in this venerable series since October 2019 as the Calidore String Quartet – violinists Jeffrey Myers and Ryan Meehan, violist Jeremy Berry, and cellist Estelle Choi – took the stage at this storied venue. Formed in 2010 at the Colburn School in Los Angeles and named after the “golden state” of their origin (“dore” is French for “golden”), the ensemble has since earned rave reviews across the globe. 

The concert began with Mendelssohn’s second string quartet, written by the 18-year-old composer in 1827, partly in homage to the recently deceased Beethoven and his pathbreaking late quartets. The Calidore’s moving interpretation featured a grave opening “Adagio – Allegro vivace,” a passionate “Adagio non lento,” an elfin (and quintessentially “Mendelssohnian”) “Intermezzo: Allegretto con moto – Allegro di molto,” and a turbulent closing “Presto – Adagio non lento.” 

Next came a shattering account of Shostakovich’s powerful 1960 eighth string quartet, dedicated to the “memory of victims of fascism and war” while he was also writing a World War II film score in Dresden, Germany. Its five short movements (three of them marked “Largo,” or “Slow”) are played without pause and incorporate quotes from earlier Shostakovich works as well as the Russian revolutionary song “Languishing in Prison.” The dark colors of Berry’s viola and Choi’s cello were notably cogent and effective throughout.

A breif intermission was followed by a brilliant rendition of Beethoven’s mercurial 1825 fifteenth quartet, which helped inspire Mendelssohn’s second quartet in the same key - A minor. Its five expansive movements are built around the astonishing central and longest one, which Beethoven titled “Holy song of thanksgiving to the divinity by a convalescent.” The Calidore’s wrenching intensity here was overwhelming, but they were just as compelling in the surrounding four movements, from a bracing “Assai sostenuto- Allegro,” a gentle “Allegro ma non tanto,” and a stirring “Alla Marcia, assai vivace,” to a vigorous “Allegro appassionato” finale.
 
South Mountain requires proof of Covid vaccination and masking inside the concert hall. This essential 2021 Sunday afternoon concert series of chamber music performed by world-class musicians runs through October 10, 2021.

August 23, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, Falstaff

Berkshire Opera Festival, Great Barrington, MA
through August 27, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After opening their sixth season with Tom Cipullo’s somber “Glory Denied” last month, BOF closes it with something completely different, 80-year-old Giuseppe Verdi’s final opera and only successful comedy, “Falstaff.” Based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2,” Arrigo Boito’s libretto develops its literally larger-than-life title character more fully than any of those plays.

Sebastian Catana
A vain, boastful, and overweight knight, Sir John Falstaff begins the opera drinking at the Garter Inn with other lowlifes, but after his attempted seductions of two prosperous wives are humiliatingly foiled, he begins to change his ways. Romanian-born baritone Sebastian Catana is a hoot as the ne’er-do-well hero, moving with buffoonish grace and enunciating the Italian text with clarion gusto as he wins the audience’s sympathy long before he leads the opera’s exuberant final number, an astonishing “Fugue” on the words “We’re all fools!”

The entire cast seems inspired by Catana to the same level of commitment and excellence. Soprano Tamara Wilson and mezzo-soprano Joanne Evans are feisty and engaging as “merry” wives Alice Ford and Meg Page. Mezzo Alissa Anderson portrays the ringleader of their avenging schemes, Mistress Quickly, with comic glee.

Baritone Thomas Glass is poignant as Alice’s almost-cuckolded husband, soprano Jasmine Habersham exudes winsome charm as the Fords’ daughter Nannetta, and tenor Jonas Hacker is ardently persistent as her suitor Fenton. Tenor Max Jacob Zander’s Bardolfo and bass Jeremy Harr’s Pistola, Falstaff’s robbing henchmen, and tenor Lucas Levy’s Dr. Caius, their aggrieved victim, are laugh riots all.   

BOF Artistic Director and Co-Founder Brian Garman leads a vigorous account of Verdi’s brilliant score by an animated BOF orchestra in the Mahaiwe’s clear acoustic. Lively direction by Joshua Major, spare but elegant scenic design by Stephen Dobay and lighting design by Alex Jainchill, and imaginative costume design by Charles Caine, along with projections of Cori Ellison’s often hilarious English translation, keeps a tight focus on the characters and their antics.

This jubilant and life-affirming production is a happy ending for BOF’s sixth season and shouldn’t be missed by discerning opera lovers.

August 20, 2021

REVIEW: Berkshire Theatre Group, Nina Simone: Four Women

Berkshire Theatre Group, Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA
through September 5, 2021
by Michael J. Moran
 
This play by Christina Ham imagines a conversation between singer-activist Nina Simone and the four Black women she depicts in one of her best-known songs, “Four Women,” right after a 1963 church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four Black girls, aged 11 to 14 years old. The text interweaves performances by one or more ensemble members of 12 songs from Simone’s eclectic repertoire.
 
Felicia Curry
BTG’s powerful production is led by a fiercely committed Felicia Curry as Nina. When her sultry opening rendition (in elegant concert attire) of Simone’s first hit, the Gershwins’ “I Loves You Porgy,” is interrupted by a loud explosion, the set goes dark and shifts to the ruined church, with Nina writing feverishly at a piano. Three other women separately join her there: housekeeper Aunt Sarah (a blazing Darlesia Cearcy); light-skinned Civil Rights activist Sephronia (a fervent Sasha Hutchings); and prostitute Sweet Thing (a spirited Najah Hetsberger).
 
Through initial misunderstanding of each other’s different life experiences, Simone’s white-hot focus on the power of music to change the world eventually leads them to a measure of common purpose and hope for healing. Director Gerry McIntyre sensitively integrated the musical selections into this conversational journey, from a stirring traditional “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” to Curry’s shattering version of Simone’s anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” and a poignant climactic “Four Women” of almost unbearable intensity by the full company.
 
Vibrant musical direction by Dante Harrell ranged from delicate snippets of Chopin and Bach, recalling Nina’s training as a classical pianist, to the pounding blues of her “Old Jim Crow” and uplifting exuberance of her “Young, Gifted and Black.” Evocative scenic design by Randall Parsons and choreography by McIntyre, colorful costume design by Sarafina Bush, and haunting lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson and sound design by Kaique DeSouza ensured that everything was seen and heard to optimal effect on the intimate Unicorn stage.
 
This is must-see theater to understand the “High Priestess of Soul’s” singular role in advancing the status of African-American women artists.

BTG is requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination for this production and masks for all patrons regardless of age.

August 10, 2021

REVIEW: Boston Symphony Orchestra , Mazzoli/Tchaikovsky

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood, Lenox, MA 
August 8, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Yo-Yo Ma & Karina Canellakis
On March 13, 2021 Yo-Yo Ma gave an imapromptu solo concert at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield after receiving his second Covid vaccine shot there. So it was no surprise that the world’s favorite cellist got a hero’s welcome when he appeared Sunday afternoon before a much larger audience with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and guest conductor Karina Canellakis, making her BSO debut. 

The concert opened with Missy Mazzoli’s imaginative 2014/2016 “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres),” which the composer describes as “music in the shape of a solar system.” Harmonicas played intermittently by woodwind and brass section members add the earthy tone of the medieval hurdy-gurdy to the 12-minute piece’s overall ethereal sound. Canellakis led the BSO in a radiant account, with subtly shifting colors and a magical electronically-enhanced close.
 
One of Tanglewood’s most regular and beloved guest artists since 1983, Ma was next featured in Tchaikovsky’s rarely heard “Variations on a Rococo Theme” for cello and orchestra. Besides “The Nutcracker,” playful and light-hearted are not words usually associated with Tchaikovsky, but they perfectly describe this 20-minute 1876 commission for cellist Wilhelm Fitzhagen. Ma captured the elegance of the theme written in the style of Tchaikovsky’s idol Mozart and the virtuosity of the Fitzhagen-amplified variations with unerring poise and finesse.
 
After hailing “Tanglewood’s own” Canellakis (she was a 2014 TMC conducting fellow), Ma dedicated “to all those we’ve lost” an encore which he called music “of our time and for all time” – one of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s 1973 “Lamentations” for solo cello – and which he rendered with his trademark warmth and soulfulness. 

Canellakis and the orchestra concluded the program with a blazing performance of Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous fourth symphony. From a forceful opening brass fanfare evoking fate, through a mercurial first movement, a flowing “Andantino in modo di canzona,” a high-spirited pizzicato “Scherzo,” to a thrilling “Allegro con fuoco” finale, her flexible tempos and dynamics, along with playing of deep conviction by the BSO, never let the tension slacken. 

The audience’s enthusiasm for the work of two American women who are rising stars (Mazzoli and Canellakis are both forty-ish) suggested that the future of classical music is in good hands.

Review: Shakespeare & Company, “Art”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 22, 2021
by Stuart W. Gamble

Yasmina Reza’s play “Art” won the Tony Award back in the late 90’s and featured Alan Alda as one third of an articulate, well-educated group of middle-aged men who comprise the cast of this thought-provoking dramedy, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton. Now more than 20 years later, this at times savagely funny play, is a welcome revival performed at one of the Berkshire’s finest theatrical venues.

Director Christopher V. Edwards has staged the show simply, in the open-air Roman Garden Theatre at Shakespeare and Co. in Lenox, Massachusetts. Patrick Brennan’s black wicker sitting room chairs with white cushions and a wood paneled bar suggest an upper-middle class apartment that could be any urban setting (in Reza’s original, it was Paris.)

Photo by Nile Scott Studios
Into this minimalist, chic apartment, appears a plain white canvas, purchased by dermatologist and art connoisseur Serge (Michal F. Toomey). His closest friend Marc (“ranney”) is appalled that Serge would spend an exorbitant amount of money on what Marc calls “a white piece of shit”. The third member of this close-knit group, Yvan (Lawrence L. James) is the ultimate diplomat, alternating between praise and condemnation of this controversial piece of art. Their informal gatherings also give support to each man and his particular love life. Serge is bitterly divorced, Marc’s girlfriend is despised by Serge, and Yvan’s fiancée is described by Marc as a “gorgon.”

All three men give standout performances. Toomey’s controlled rage and “ranney”’s cut to the bone criticism finally erupt into fisticuffs that smacks more than a bit of Abbott and Costello, adding to the absurdity of their shouting match. Lawrence L. James, however, delivers the finest (and funniest) performance of all three. James’ tour de force re-creation of a three-way telephone conversation between himself, his fiancée, and his Jamaica-accented mother earned laughs and applause from the audience.

Why did Reza make all her characters in “Art” men and why three men who all seem so diametrically opposed to each other? I believe that Reza, like the characters in her play, is exploring male relationships and how men relate to one another: they fight, they compete, they belittle each other, but often they fail to be honest and just with each other. A catharsis is achieved, and they try to reconstruct the rubble of their broken relationships.

Stella Giulietta Schwartz’ linen jackets and pants, pastel-hued oxford shirts, a vibrantly colorful matching shirt and short combo worn by James, and various Panama hats, offered (I’m sure) ease of movement and comfort for the actors performing in the outdoor heat.

Performed for 90-minutes and intermission-free, this“Art” is a funny and thought-provoking production, which shows how sometimes we have to destroy what we love and rebuild it again, in order to come to a deeper understanding and appreciation of that object of our affection (family, friends, art, etc.). Like the blank canvas that is a catalyst to the play’s action, we must add color, form, and nuance to our lives through experience, love, humor, and acceptance.

August 9, 2021

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Chamber Music Concert, TMC Fellows

Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA 
August 2, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran

Though Tanglewood’s annual Festival of Contemporary Music had ended a week earlier, more adventures in modern music were offered in a recent Koussevitzky Music Shed chamber concert by TMC musicians, with three of the four pieces written in the 21 st century.   

Percussionists Ben Cornavaca, David Riccobono, and Jack Rutledge opened with Boston-based composer Steven Snowden’s 2015 “Van Gogh from Space,” in which an array of vibraphone, metal bowls, and woodblocks evoked the swirling images in the painter’s “Starry Night.” The trio rendered its vibrant colors with nuance, rhythmic balance, and a palpable sense of fun. 

TMC violinists Emma Carleton and Helenmarie Vassiliou, violist Brandin Kreuder, and cellist Ethan Brown, with TMC faculty member Stephen Drury on piano, next played Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s 1976 piano quintet. Written in memory of his mother and mixing a range of musical styles, its five short movements are mainly elegiac, but the closing piano chords also convey a poignant note of hope. The powerful TMC performance met the piece’s frequent technical challenges and captured its clashing moods with haunting sensitivity. 

The percussion trio returned with a vivid account of American composer and Yale School of Music faculty member Hannah Lash’s 2011 “Glockenliebe” for three glockenspiels, fully realizing her instructions that the three short movements should respectively be “somewhat muted,” “ring out,” and sound “loudest and fullest.” 

Gabriela Lena Frank
The program closed with an exuberant reading by TMC violinists Evan Pasternak and Paul Halberstadt, violist Elizabeth Doubrawa, and cellist Benjamin Maxwell of Gabriela Lena Frank’s inventive 2001 “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout,” whose six short movements draw on the Peruvian roots of the California composer’s mixed ethnic heritage. From a lively opening “Toyos,” a forceful “Tarqueda,” a sensuous “Himno de Zamponas,” a fleet “Chasqui,” a mournful “Canto de Velorio,” to a festive “Coqueteos” finale (which Frank describes as “a flirtatious love song sung by gallant men known as romanceros”), the crack quartet played with fearless imagination. 

On this afternoon, with a diverse range of composers writing such a variety of exciting music and with so many performers of this high quality just beginning their careers, the future of classical music looked very bright indeed.

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Taconic Chamber Ensemble

The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 11 - August 15, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Taconic Chamber Ensemble
On August 1 this beloved family-based music festival presented the fourth of six programs in its 2021 schedule of live Sunday afternoon concerts in the rustic comfort of the Academy at Worthington in the idyllic central Berkshires. It featured string quartets of four varied composers played by this flexible Vermont-based ensemble. 

Performers on this occasion were: Bulgarian-born violinist Joana Genova; Boston-based violinist Heather Braun; American violist Ariel Rudiakov; and Belgian cellist Thomas Lanschoot. In a pre-concert Zoom discussion, Taconic co-founders, artistic directors, and core members Genova and Rudiakov described the “alchemy” they strive for in selecting their repertoire by mixing familiar and lesser-known pieces, older and newer, that they “love to play” and that “audiences will enjoy” hearing. 

They opened with Rachmaninoff’s virtually unknown two-movement first string quartet, dating from 1889, when he was a 16-year-old student. Foreshadowing his maturity, the melancholy “Romance” was played with wistful affection, and the Mendelssohnian “Scherzo” with playful exuberance. Next came the 30-year-old Beethoven’s early but much better-known first string quartet, published in 1801. The Taconics played the opening “Allegro con brio” just so (“with vigor”), the “Adagio” with flowing drama, the “Scherzo” with Haydnesque humor, and the closing “Allegro” with passion and flair. 

Two much newer pieces completed the program. For sheer energy it would be hard to beat rising star Jessie Montgomery’s popular 2012 “Strum,” which put this young African-American woman on the musical map. The Taconics played its strumming pizzicato rhythms with driving conviction. And for a crowd-pleasing closer, it would be tough to equal the two-movement 2009 18th-string quartet by prolific Williamstown-based composer Stephen Dankner. In the pre-concert Zoom he said everything he writes is “as long as it needs to be.” This appealing 12-minute score was performed with loving good cheer. 

The warm, intimate acoustics of the Academy’s hall ideally flattered the Taconic’s rich, mellow sound. The hour-long Covid-friendly concert (Sevenars requires masking and recommends distancing) allowed time afterward for concertgoers to safely enjoy the venue’s signature refreshments and conversation with the artists and their genial host, pianist Rorianne Schrade of the festival’s founding family.

August 4, 2021

Review: Ct. Shakespeare Festival, “Snow White”

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT

through August 22, 2021

by Tim O’Brien

 

Got kids? Grab them and go see this show. Got no kids? Go see this show anyway. You’ll leave the theater happy.

 

Director Moira O'Sullivan has hit a legitimate all-ages home run here, taking an already charming script, adding two terrific young actors and complementing them with a talented on-stage musician/live Foley-ist. (Is that a word? It should be.) You heard it right; just TWO thespians handle all the parts, with a little help from a friend, and it’s a downright blast.

 

This script hews closer to the original Grimm than the animated Disney film of the 1930’s. When Snow White meets the dwarves, they take her in as an equal, not so much as the maid-like domestic of the movie. A prince eventually shows up, but it’s clear she doesn’t need him for validation, or much else.

 

Harvey & Mishina
Part of the big fun lies in the gleeful destruction of the fourth wall. From the jump, Snow White (a radiant and confident Resa Mishina) and Dwarf #4 (rubber-faced cutup Patrick Harvey) realize “the others” aren’t coming to help “tell the story.” Acknowledging they’ll be hard-pressed to accomplish that goal properly as a duo, the pair push on gamely.

 

Game afoot, Harvey provides a comic tour de force, interchangeably portraying a narrator-like Dwarf #4, the huntsman, the six other dwarves, the put-upon castle page, the evil stepmom, most of the magic mirror and prince moments, and at times, Snow White herself. During one segment, his character changes come at a furious pace, recalling Robin Williams at the peak of his zany powers.


Mishina, while clearly older, perfectly presents “Snow” initially as the innocent 11-year-old of the book, and later as a strong young woman who knows her mind. She earned some good laughs taking her own turn as some of the other characters, as well.

 

The “secret sauce” of this so-tasty production is the accompanist, Katrien Van Riel. Her in-the-moment sound effects and musical interjections were spot-on, and this reviewer especially enjoyed her Greek chorus-like facial expressions, which helped the littler ones understand some of the emotions on stage. And, as Sullivan explained later, Van Riel wrote several clever original song snippets (which well deserve to be expanded, if possible.)

 

The set is adorable but spare, by necessity; it “belongs” more to the simultaneous run of “Into the Woods.” But it’s not even necessary. This production of “Snow White” could be held in a stark black box without losing a drop of its whimsical sweetness.

 

Get thee hence, pronto.

July 29, 2021

REVIEW: Barrington Stage, “Eleanor”

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through August 7, 2021
by Shera Cohen

It’s no wonder that Barrington Stage Company has named one of its theatres after recurrent
playwright Mark St. Germain. Each summer for at least the past decade, BSC and the writer have partnered in giving birth to a new play. Many of these stories are biographies; most are snippets of the lives of famous men and women in history books.

A sweeping panorama of the life of one of the most inspirational, intelligent, and influential women in America describes St. Germain’s premiere play “Eleanor [Roosevelt]”.

It is never a surprise when a theatre designers take an essentially bare set and mold it into numerous indoor and outdoor scenes, in a process invisible to the audience, but with significant impact just the same. Include one of the exceptional actors of our day and a tight well-versed script, and “Eleanor” has become St. Germain’s most exceptional biographic play to date. That’s not just me spouting accolades at BSC. I know of what I speak, as I have seen ten St. Germain bios.

Harriet Harris
photo by David Dashiell
Remember “Frasier,” a successful comedy of several years ago? Well, Dr. Frasier Crane hired Beebe, an agent whose flattering descriptions would be obnoxious, aggressive, egotistical, and loud. Actor Harriet Harris’ nasal shouting at lightning speed seemed to be her trademark. I hated Harriet. One benchmark of a good or superior actor is to forget all prior roles, only to see the character in front of the audience. Not to be factious, but it was only because Harris “looked” like Beebe, that I “recognized” her.

Harris portrays Mrs. Roosevelt as wise and cunning, ready to roll up her sleeves to do whatever it takes to support her belief in human rights, as well as rights for herself. Harris balances a woman with a large physical presence, with a naivete that seemingly belies her strength. Not that Harris creates a perfect First Lady, but rather a female mirroring her husband's ideals and intellect, which the U.S. of the 40's needed.

For 90 uninterrupted minutes, Harris recreated Eleanor’s life from teenager to widowhood. What a feat to memorize an entire one-woman play, while at the same time act in another play at another theatre in the evenings. Director Henry Stram has a keen eye for posturing and moving Harris along with the script. Bah humbug, I say to those audience members who demean single-character theatre. 

Ms. Harris received an instant Standing O, and my guess is that Mrs. Roosevelt did as well in her day.

July 28, 2021

PREVIEW: Berkshire Opera Festival, "Falstaff"

Berkshire Opera Festival, Mahaiwe Theatre, Great Barrington, MA
through August 23, 2021

Newcomers to Berkshire Opera Festival include Joanne Evans and Max Jacob Zander, who will perform in the mainstage production of "Falstaff" this August. They shared a few thoughts with ITS about the opera and the roles of these talented artists. 

Joanne, have you ever performed in Falstaff or other Verdi operas before? 
I've never performed in a Verdi opera , but I've seen Falstaff countless times. It is my favorite Verdi opera by a country mile.

What do you find most challenging about your role as Mrs. Meg Page? What do you look forward to most about your role?
Despite what was said about Verdi before he composed Falstaff, he was a brilliant comic writer. The comedy in the music comes from these fast and wordy passages, as well as certain opposing times signatures piled on top of each other. These are absolutely the most challenging moments of the role, but also the most exhilarating. What I like most about Meg is her biting humor. 

What gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career? Who are your opera heroes?
Honestly, the Spice Girls were my first musical heroes, but when I eventually came around to opera, the person who really set the bar for me was Maria Callas. My heroes now are Mirella Freni, Beverly Sills, Anita Rachvelishvili and Erin Morley. I am a huge Tamara Wilson fan and have watched her YouTube channel for years, so working with her in Falstaff will be a real "pinch-me" moment.

Joanne, do you play any instruments?
I get by as a pianist. I studied jazz piano for a time, and occasionally venture into writing my own songs.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
Only for my audition. I live in nearby Catskill and the drive was absolutely stunning!


Max, have you ever performed in Falstaff or in other Verdi operas before?
The first role I sang professionally was Borsa in Rigoletto back in 2014This production will mark the fifth time I’ve done Falstaff. My first production was at Indiana University in 2013 and I sang Bardolfo. I went on to sing Dr. Caius with Opera Saratoga in 2017 and, later that year, made my debut in the UK singing Bardolfo to Sir Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. During the pandemic, I recorded Dr. Caius for the Social Distance Opera project, and I am beyond thrilled to be returning to Bardolfo for my debut with Berkshire Opera Festival this summer! 

What do you find most challenging about your role as Bardolfo, what do you look forward to most about your role?
I know the obvious answer is definitely the fugue, but I’ve done this show enough times to not freak out about it anymore. If I had to choose a most challenging part, it’s probably rattling off Bardolfo’s machine-gun-of-a-line in Act 2, Scene 1.

As far as what I most look forward to from Bardolfo, I would say he is super likable and such a joy to play.  ut more than anything, I am looking forward to making music with and for people again. This production’s opening night will mark my first performance in 17 months, and I cannot wait to be back at it, telling stories and making music for people again.

Max, what gave you the spark in your life to pursue singing as a career?  Who are your opera heroes?
My initial exposure to opera really came when I was a sophomore in high school. I went on a class trip to the Metropolitan Opera to see Le Nozze di Figaro. It was hilarious and I loved it. After the performance, someone told me that opera singers don’t use microphones and it blew my mind wide open! Later that year, someone donated tickets to my high school to take ten students to go see the Richard Tucker Gala. The two pieces that really stuck with me that day were the Pearl Fishers Duet and the Te Deum from Tosca. It felt so powerful and I had no idea opera could be THAT!

As far as my opera heroes, I may have to go with Charles Anthony. If that’s an unfamiliar name, you might be surprised to know that he sang almost 3,000 performances with the Metropolitan Opera. Anthony sang almost exclusively comprimario/character roles at the Met, and I think that he is one of the greatest examples of someone in that repertoire who sang beautifully, treating the music and text with the integrity it deserves.

Do you play any instruments?
I mainly play piano and guitar, but I also have a working knowledge of the string, woodwind, and percussion instruments. Before getting into opera, I wanted to conduct and compose. I conducted my first orchestra when I was 16 years old and spent a lot of time learning how the various instruments work.

Have you ever been to the Berkshires before?
I have, but it’s been a VERY long time. I’m super excited to be coming back!

REVIEW: Festival of Contemporary Music, Fromm Concert

Festival of Contemporary Music, Tanglewood Music Center, Lenox, MA 
www.bso.org 
July 25-26, 2021 
by Michael J. Moran 

Looking for some summer fun? Try a Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music concert. While that might not be everyone’s first instinct, there was no cooler place to be on a warm recent Berkshire afternoon than the Koussevitzky Music Shed.

Named for longtime new music patron Paul Fromm, this year’s annual Fromm Concert showcased a wild variety of music by six living composers from five countries, played and led mostly by talented student musicians of the Tanglewood Music Center. It opened with Danish composer Per Norgard’s brief 1988 tribute “Hut Ab!” [“Hat Off!”] (which “must not exceed one minute,” he cautioned) to a Danish new music festival director, exuberantly played by TMC clarinetists Jakob Lenhardt and Sangwon Lee.

A five-piece ensemble next presented African-American composer Jeffrey Mumford’s shimmering 2008 suite of eight short (one-to three-minute) movements, “a garden of flourishing paths,” honoring his teacher Elliot Carter and reflecting the West Garden Court of Washington’s National Gallery of Art, with sensitive leadership by TMC conducting fellow Adam Hickox. This was followed by Englishman (and Festival Director) Thomas Ades’s multi-layered 1994 “The Origin of the Harp,” impeccably rendered by nine players under the sure hand of TMC conducting faculty head Stefan Asbury.

The last three pieces on the program featured two pianos. Five selections from Hungarian Gyorgy Kurtag’s “Jatekok” (“Games”), written since 1973, were brilliantly played by TMC pianist Mathilde Handelsman and New England Conservatory faculty member Stephen Drury (joined hauntingly in one piece by TMC offstage hornist Xin He). Handelsman and TMC pianist Barry Tan performed Scottish composer Judith Weir’s rhapsodic 1990 “Ardnamurchan Point” with color and flair.
Andrew Norman

American Andrew Norman’s riotous 2015 “Frank’s House” (evoking the angular designs of architect Frank Gehry) brought the house down, so to speak, as TMC percussionists Ben Cornavaca and David Riccobono nimbly tore into a daunting array of instruments while pianists Drury and Yukiko Takagi playfully mixed quotes from Brahms’ “Liebeslieder Waltzes” with suggestions of Bartok and Messiaen. Rarely have musicians had so much visible fun on stage.

Three of the composers (Mumford, Ades, and Norman) were present and happily acknowledged the audience’s joyful applause.

July 26, 2021

REVIEW: Sevenars Music Festival, Jiayan Sun

Sevenars Music Festival, The Academy, Worthington, MA 
July 11 - August 15, 2021
by Michael J. Moran

After the Covid-19 pandemic cancelled their 2020 season, this beloved family-based music festival has resumed its full schedule in 2021 of six live Sunday afternoon concerts in the comfortably rustic Academy at Worthington in the heart of the Berkshires. They are recommending that patrons maintain a three-foot distance between parties and that unvaccinated patrons wear masks in the hall.

Jiayan Sun
On July 25 rising Chinese-born pianist Jiayan Sun played Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas. Now a music faculty member at Smith College, Sun said in a pre-concert Zoom interview that he enjoys playing them together not only because they comprise Beethoven’s “final statements in the genre” but because the “intimate experience” of performing them while he was a Juilliard student on a fortepiano made for the composer had given Sun “a deeper understanding” of “Beethoven’s sound world” at this late stage of his life. 

The sonatas Opus 109 and 110 have similar structures, with two short movements leading into a longer climactic finale. Sun’s approach to each was flexible in the volatile opening movements, turbulent in the fleet “Prestissimo” and “Allegro molto” second movements and striving for maximum contrast within both groundbreaking finales (a theme and variations in Opus 109, and two versions of an “Arioso” and “Fugue” in Opus 110). Omitting an intermission, Sun tackled the dramatic first movement of Opus 111 with a vengeance, then the extended, visionary “Arietta” finale with energy and nuance.

Most striking about the pianist’s take on this trilogy is that it’s a young man’s view (Sun is 31) of Beethoven’s late work, emphasizing its boldness and innovation. His technical control was flawless, and his emotional grasp of the music compelling. It will be interesting to hear how his interpretation may evolve ten or twenty years from now, perhaps into more reflective, even spiritual terrain.  

No Sevenars concert would be complete without the assortment of homemade refreshments normally served at intermission but here offered as a festive post-show opportunity for enthusiastic concertgoers to thank their gracious host, pianist Rorianne Schrade of the founding Sevenars family, and to complement their charismatic soloist.

REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theatre "Mr. Fullerton"

Great Barrington Public Theatre, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington
through August 1, 2021
by Shera Cohen

Ever heard of Morton Fullerton? Neither did I. Is a play titled "Mr. Fullerton" enough to base a long two-act play on? Initially, I would have replied, "no". But the play's posters of a woman wearing Gilded Age garb, and mere mention of the name Edith Wharton were draws for me to see the premier of a play by area playwright Anne Undeland at the new Great Barrington Public Theatre.
 
One can learn about Edith at visits to the Mount, nearby in Lenox. which I highly suggest. At the very least, most are aware of Wharton's prolific and exemplary writing of novels and short stories. Realizing that at a certain age and pushed by her mother, it was mandatory that she marry, Teddy Wharton's money, charm, and good looks would be sufficient for the loveless match. It's no wonder that Edith had so much time to spew out novel after novel.
 
Yet, in mid-life she met the handsome, charming, and experienced lothario Fullerton. For a time, Edith put her writing career on hold; penning love letters and journals instead. The play has no buildup of  plot and dénouement but draws a segment of Edith's life that many readers have been curious about, but few knew. Undeland has filled in the blanks of Edith's love life, penning her play so purposefully that audience members would have no question between truth and fiction. 
 
Dana Harrison (Edith) and Marcus Kearns (Fullerton) create a flirtation and affair with fun and gusto. Harrison gives a quality performance that shows her school-girl giddiness growing into deep love, ultimately into betrayal. For a woman who was so bright and educated, Harrison’s Edith in this play is first a woman seeking love. On the other hand, our man with a past and the proverbial little black book, Kearns is not up to the standards of Harrison, partly because he has far less stage-time. 
 
Glenn Barret as the ever-present author and Wharton confidant Henry James adds comic relief. Yet, I would have liked to have seen the man who wrote great novels like "The American" with distinction, not as  comic relief. However, maybe that was James' personality and Barret did a tip-top job. My guess is that the playwright well-researched her characters, presenting the man who she assumed to be James.
 
In a four-character play, it is difficult to name one actor as “the star.” That said, Myka Plunkett, as Wharton’s maid Posy, stole the show. While never upstaging other actors, Plunkett sunk her smile, demeanor, and even calisthenics into the sprite Posy. Yet, Plunkett’s Posy is not all fun and frolic; the actress tells the audience a bit about the character’s unpleasant past. Posy became an extremely important character, segueing from background maid to Wharton’s dear friend.
 
Moliere-like quick comings and goings from one room to another on a small stage purposely styled the play as shorter than it actually was. Not a single word or action was overspent, unnatural, or unnecessary; all signs of an excellent playwright, director, crew, and cast.

REVIEW: Shakespeare & Company, “King Lear”

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through August 28, 2021 
by Shera Cohen
 
The presentation of “King Lear,” one of The Bard’s well-known tragedies, was a wise decision on the part of Shakespeare & Company to launch its post-pandemic (hopefully) summer season. The play combines two dramas, although not equally; one on a global scale and the other at the home front.
 
Christopher Lloyd
For the most part, unless labeled as a comedy, war is often the backdrop of most Shakespearean plays. Lear is king of one of the factions in conflict. Yet, the real chaos is between the King and his three daughters, and the daughters against each other. Paramount to Lear’s wars is the one within his own mind. Twenty-first century observers might call Lear’s disease Alzheimer’s or at the very least senility.

Allyn Burrows, executive director at Shakespeare, Nicole Ricciardi, director of “King Lear,” along
with cast and crew, took on a challenge bigger than they could handle. Their ace card was hiring actor Christopher Lloyd for the lead role. Those who remember Lloyd from TV’s “Taxi” and/or Doc in the “The Back to the Future” series, immediately think of his physical humor and booming comedic voice. Neither quality was needed to create Lear. This is not meant to judge Lloyd, but to say that the actor was out of his element in this intense lead role.
 
The New Spruce Theatre, built on the grounds to accommodate Covid-19 rules, has pluses and minuses. The design for the actors and audience is superior to most outdoor theatres, somewhat reminiscent of the Globe in London. The minuses were sound problems. Just as in the 1500’s, the voice was the sole means of communication between actors and patrons, many of the newer company members couldn’t fully succeed without microphones.

Ricciardi’s direction sometimes left characters wandering off aimlessly. Unplanned and misplaced  comedic bits included times when a wheel barrel carried a dying or dead character onto the stage; sadly evocative of “Spamalot”.
 
Ted Hewlett was the violence designer for this production and the fight sequence toward the end of the play was the brilliant segment that “King Lear” needed. Hewlett and two character adversaries put on a realistic show that lasted at least five minutes, putting the audience in awe of the skills of all three.