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.