Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 28, 2024

REVIEW: Chester Theatre Company, “The Thin Place”

Chester Theatre Company, Chester, MA
through June 30, 2024
by C. L. Blacke

Photo by Andrew Greto
Chester Theatre Company’s 2024 season opener, “The Thin Place,”, written by Obie Award winner Lucas Hnath, weaves a complex tapestry of psychological and supernatural elements. The minimalist stage design—a stark setting of two chairs, small table, and a single red light bulb against black walls—creates an intimate atmosphere ripe for the unfolding of a ghost story that blurs the line between reality and illusion.

Immediately breaking the fourth wall, Hilda, embodied by Tara Franklin with a childlike naivety and openness to belief, holds a haunting conversation with the audience about the bond she once held with her grandmother. Their relationship had been marked by an attempt at psychic communication that was met with disapproval and labeled as “demonic” by Hilda’s mother. Soon after, tragedy befell the grandmother (who remains nameless throughout) and a sudden mystery surrounding Hilda’s mother adds another layer of intrigue and unanswered questions.

As Hilda grapples with familial loss, she explains how she found solace in Linda, the cheeky (and foul-mouthed) medium to the thin place, portrayed by Diane Prusha. Linda becomes a friend and a replacement for the maternal figures Hilda has lost and offers comfort through supposed communications with the deceased grandmother. 

The story itself is told in a retrospective style with little action happening in the present time. Instead, characters come to life to deliver their dialogue at the appropriate intervals. And though the greater part of the play unfolds slowly, “The Thin Place” intensifies as conflicts arise during a dinner party. Linda and friends Sylvia and Jerry (played by Equity actors Syliva McKown and Jordan Bellow, respectively) argue about the morality of telling lies vs. the truth.

Director Gabrielle Farrah, former Directing Fellow at Playwrights Horizons and Producing Fellow at Clubbed Thumb, employs a splattering of classic horror conventions as the play progresses that heightens the suspense. Likewise, technical elements, such as disturbing lighting techniques and jarring sound effects, are also used to strike sudden bouts of fear.

The climax more than fulfills the play’s initial promise of a chilling atmosphere, and a feeling of unease sticks with the audience long after they have clutched the edge of their seats for the last time.

June 25, 2024

REVIEW: Shakespeare and Company, “A Body of Water”

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, MA
through July 21, 2024
by Jarice Hanson
As the Berkshire theater season begins, Shakespeare & Company (S&Co.) has opened its outdoor Roman Garden Theatre with a new twist on a script by the noted playwright, Lee Blessing. “A Body of Water” was originally produced in 2005 and was immediately compared to Ionescu’s “The Chairs” – an existential treatise on loneliness and alienation.
Photo by Ken Yotsukura
In this updated version of “A Body of Water,” two middle-aged people, Moss and Avis, awake in an unfamiliar house that is surrounded by water. The veranda of the house indicates comfort and the satisfaction of all creature needs, but something is wrong.  Moss and Avis don’t seem to know each other. Or do they?  As they seek to understand their identities and try to uncover the truth about their relationship, the water around the house ebbs and flows—changing all of the time, as does their sense of what is real and what is not.
The couple tries to find clues to their own identities and how they got to the house, when a young woman named Wren appears. Who is she? Why does she know them, and why is she so secretive? The play is described as a “comedic thriller” which is a pretty good description, that also leaves its audience with plenty of questions to ponder.
The couple are played by Bella Merlin (Avis) and Kevin O’Rourke (Moss), whose chemistry grows as they learn more about each other. As characters, both Merlin and O’Rourke are the real deal—they are natural, but complex; they speak like real people, but project their voices in this outdoor theatre, like the skilled actors they are. 
The young woman who stirs the pot of this pot-boiler is played by Caroline Calkins, a veteran of 10-years with S&Co. who looks to be the right age to be Moss and Avis’ daughter, adding to the unfolding mystery. Calkins is bubbly and energetic. She infuses the developing dynamics and drives the pace of this puzzle while charming each of the actors, and the audience.
This complex script would be hard to follow if it were not in the hands of a skilled director, James Warwick. His sense of playful mystery allows the humor to shine, while the undercurrent (pardon the water pun) is full of threat and secrecy. Warwick successfully directed the 2012 production of Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods” at S&Co. a couple of years ago, and it is clear that he understands the layers of depth Blessing writes.
“A Body of Water” gives the audience plenty to think and talk about. The story is not neatly wrapped up, but that’s not important. The point of this play is to question who we are at various stages of our lives, and accept what we can, while never having all the answers. In this reflective production, audiences will have much to think about. 

June 20, 2024

Review: Barrington Stage Company, “La Cage aux Folles”

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
June 11-July 6, 2024
by Shera Cohen

Father’s Day was the perfect date to see “La Cage aux Folles”. The heart of “La Cage” is love, sacrifice, and trust; all qualities of the best of dads.

Yes, it’s glitzy, bold, funny, and charming. BSC has, again, created an exceptional season opener musical in their 30th year.

Central characters Georges and Albin, long-time married, are still in love with each other and with life. The characters are self-described near-opposites – one gay and the other a drag-queen. To their world on a cabaret stage in Saint-Tropez, France, they are the epitome of family. To outsiders, not the case. This musical’s question might be, “Who set the rules”?

Photo by Jeremy Daniel
Tom Story (Georges) and Alex Michaels (Albin aka ZaZa) give equally balanced
performances; Story emphasizes his acting talents with vocals secondary (“Look Over There”), and Michaels the reverse. Although Michaels exceedingly dramatic skills punctuate his songs with either pizazz or heartbreak. The latter, likely featured on the list of Top 10 Emotionally Powered Songs, is “I Am What I Am”. 

Central to the plot is Georges’ son Jean Michel (an accident that happened 20+ years ago) and his engagement to a girl. Yes, a girl. The actors in this straight family have little to do, which is probably why each (except mom) is rather stiff. 

Perhaps equal in emphasis, importance, and stage-time are Les Cagelles; the shocking, motley, and hysterically dressed and quaffed 10 drag-queen dancers/singers featured in the cabaret show within the play. Choreographer Paul McGill is obviously having fun, which is delightfully imparted to the audience, at the same time never forgetting precision. 

Kudos to costumer Rodrigo Munoz Benjamin Weigel, make-up artist Kyle Krueger, and the backstage, quick-changing dressers.

The audience cheers and laughs through the cabaret numbers, yet a suggestion would be some snips and tugs to save 10-15 minutes. Leave them wanting more. That said, some individual scenes are “must saves”; the acrobatics of the solo dancer in the elevated birdcage, and the macho grunts of the Village People.

One sign of a talented director is that no one notices the direction. Mike Donahue has done his homework and sets his large cast exactly where and when everyone should be.

The same theory essentially holds true for the orchestra of eight. The audience is oblivious to its professionalism.

“La Cage” clocks in at over two and a half hours (includes intermission). Yet, at no point did the production drag (pardon the pun). Success can be giving the audience what they want, or don’t know what they want until they see it.

Composer/lyricist Jerry Herman, of “Mame” and “Hello, Dolly” fame, in many ways replicates his own formula, lead-character exuberance, and plot. 

BSC’s opening show audience held back nothing. The matinee patrons whooped & hollered, laughed & shouted accolades throughout the performance. No shock that the musical’s end received an instant full house standing ovation. 

June 11, 2024

Review: Great Barrington Public Theater, "Dog People"

Great Barrington Public Theater, Great Barrington, MA
June 7 - 16, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

Photo by Kat Hume
Great Barrington Public Theater unleashed its summer season with a barking success,
premiering “Dog People,” written by the talented Leigh Strimbeck and directed by Judy Braha. This play is a tail-wagging triumph that will have audience members rolling over with laughter and begging for more.

“Dog People” is a comedic romp through the park that explores the complex dynamics between pets and their people. John Musall’s scenic design transforms the stage into a dog lover’s dream; an urban park that’s the ultimate sniffing ground for four-legged friends.
The story follows the lives of two dogs, Betty and Atilla, and their humans, Jessie and Avery. Sheila Bandyopadhyay and Chris Tucci deliver paw-formances that are both fetching and fur-tastic.

As Betty, a young, hyper, and somewhat neurotic goldendoodle, Bandyopadhyay captures the essence of puppy love, energy and curiosity, as she grows to becoming a well-rounded cuddler. Bandyopadhyay’s portrayal of Jessie, an overly disciplined individual, is equally compelling as she navigates the rough terrain of vulnerability and honesty.

Chris Tucci, in a dual role as Avery and Atilla, is simply “paw-some”. Avery’s sentimental and nurturing nature shines as he learns that life, much like a game of fetch, sometimes gives permit a second throw. Atilla, the misunderstood, easygoing, and lovable mutt, discovers that a little self-assertion mixed with kindness can transform a solitary existence to a pack life. Tucci’s performance is so spot-on, one might suspect he had a tail in a past life.

For humans who ever found themselves wondering what an alter-ego canine companion is thinking, this is a must-see play. “Dog People” is a story that reminds us that, whether on two legs or four, we all yearn for connection, understanding, and unconditional love. Plus, it’s a howling good time!

REVIEW: Hartford Symphony Orchestra, "The Planets"

The Bushnell, Belding Theater, Hartford, CT
June 7-9, 2024
by Michael J. Moran

Melissa White
Their ninth “Masterworks” program ended HSO’s 80th anniversary season on a festive note,
featuring an HSO premiere, the return of HSO 2023-2024 Joyce C. Willis Artist in Residence, violinist Melissa White, and a beloved sonic spectacular.

HSO Music Director Carolyn Kuan opened the concert with an exuberant account of rising composer-educator Carlos Simon’s 2019 “Amen!,” a 14-minute tribute in three continuous parts to the music of his family’s African-American Pentecostal Church. Kuan and the orchestra captured the jazzy flow of the opening call and response, the soulful blues of the mid-section, which quotes the gospel song “I’ll Take Jesus for Mine,” and the exultant “Amen” spirit of the closing hymn.  

After her stunning HSO debut last October in Florence Price’s unfamiliar first violin concerto, White next soloed in a cornerstone of the standard repertoire, Max Bruch’s enduringly popular 1866 first violin concerto. With stellar support from Kuan and the ensemble, White skillfully shaded her tone from lean and silken for the haunting first chords, nimble and virtuosic for the following “Allegro moderato,” rich and full-bodied for the ravishing “Adagio,” to earthy and bubbly for the jubilant “Allegro energico” finale. 

Price's contrasting encore was a poised and graceful reading of the lively “Gigue” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s third partita for solo violin.  

The program closed with an electrifying performance of Gustav Holst’s 1917 suite for large orchestra, “The Planets.” The musicians leaned into the astrological significance of Holst’s descriptive subtitles for the seven movements, yielding: a shattering “Mars, the Bringer of War;” a magical “Venus, the Bringer of Peace;” a frisky “Mercury, the Winged Messenger;” a noble “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity;” a brooding “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age;” a mischievous “Uranus, the Magician;” and an eerie “Neptune, the Mystic,” whose wordless offstage chorus was evocatively voiced by seven distinctive locally-based singers: five sopranos and two altos.      
One measure of the capacity audience’s full immersion in the program was spontaneous applause and a loud “Woohoo” after “Jupiter,” to which Kuan turned and gamely replied “I agree,” with the crowd’s approval.

Next up for the HSO is a free “Symphony in the Park” concert on June 15 at 2pm in the Bushnell Park Pavilion.

June 5, 2024

Review: Goodspeed, "A Complicated Woman"

Goodspeed, Terris Theatre, East Haddam, CT
through June 2, 2024
by Suzanne Wells

“A Complicated Woman” is a moving story of the life of John Kenley presenting at the Terris Theatre. “Complicated” is the perfect adjective to describe this musical. This show will open the eyes of theatregoers to the social stigmas of the mid-20th century, the overwhelming isolation of being “different,” and the beautiful bonds that can be formed with “acceptance.”

The play is based on pioneering legend John Kenley, born bi-gender, he is known for managing the Ohio summer stock premiers of the biggest Broadway shows from the 1900's, as well as his alternate life as Jean. Nora Bridgid Monahan is inspiring in the role of John; an ambitious, successful producer, as well as Jean, a fun-loving, sexual woman who desires a loving family. 

Nina May, portrayed by L Morgan Lee, represents everything Jean desires. A liberal, free-thinking, trans-gender woman who finds love and a family. Lee’s singing of “In the Light of Day” and “When I Chose You”, accompanied by Christian Brailsford as Oscar, Arewa’ Basit as Diamond, and Zachary A. Myers as Muhlaysia, is mesmerizing. 

Klea Blackhurst plays Myrtle “decidedly” well. Myrtle is the opposite of Nina Mae, representing the conservative mindset.  She presumes to be responsible for much of John’s success as long as he complies with the bible-belt’s social conditioning.   
Music and lyrics by Jonathan Brielle preverbally make toes tap and when combined with the vocals of L. Morgan Lee, become almost spiritual like a gospel choir. Set designs, by Tobin Ost, consist of an arch which transforms from bedrooms to offices to restaurants; and a billboard one can easily envision along a highway that transforms into a panoramic series of advertisements seen on the streets of New York.

The Terris Theatre is a small venue within a glammed-up industrial building. The lobby is a mixture of painted cement blocks and duct work with chandeliers, bistro tables and upholstered sofas. Within the theatre, half the view is of the stage, and the other half of the wings. While intimate, the stadium seating ensures that the audience will have a clear view and may even feel in the thick of the action.

From the location to the performance, nothing is uncomplicated in this poignant tale of diversity and inclusion.

June 3, 2024

Review: Playhouse on Park, “Toni Stone”

Playhouse on Park, West Hartford, CT
through June 16, 2024
by Shera Cohen

Temptation was to skip a play about baseball, albeit a potentially interesting subject matter of a woman, a black woman, in the 1930’s – 50’s, in a man’s world of the great American pastime. “Toni Stone” is testament to cease prejudging.

Toni Stone, the first woman player on an American major-level professional baseball team -- a regular for the Indianapolis Clowns in the Negro American League -- is the central character, who stands onstage from the opening scene caressing her baseball to the last scene a few decades later, trading in her apron for a return to baseball. Not to worry; this is not a spoiler.

Photo by Meredith Longo
Constance Sadie Thompson portrays Toni as a plucky young gal who knows early-on that baseball will be her life-time career. More than that, it will be her self-described mission to prove to the world and to herself that she is the best. Thompson, a non-Equity actor, creates Toni as a spitfire who is full of bravado; yet in many cases is scared and sensitive. 
Thompson is a young actress who seemingly, easily, carries the play’s weight on her shoulders. She is literally in the center of the stage and dialog throughout the 2.5 hours; a herculean role.

A suggestion to Director Jamil A.C. Mangan might want to cut several scenes and trim others. While almost reading like a beautiful poem to baseball, the opening five minutes introduce the play to its audience at such a slow pace that the actors are burdened with a stagnant start to launch action. The play is in its infancy, written in 2019, so there is time edit if needed.
The story is a biography of Toni Stone. The majority of the other cast members, all black males, become the ballplayers of the team; also cast in double and triple roles. The director distinguishes each player as a singular person, not merely one among many.

Branden Alvion as Millie, the woman of the night, gives the audience a personification of drama and commentary on men of that era, when congregated, can be cruel to women. Millie and Toni become friends; each at diverse ends of the definition of female. Their story is heartfelt and lovely, primarily because of Alvion’s talent.

Costumes are period baseball uniforms, primarily 1940’s. Even when actors portray roles that are not in the world of baseball, the costumes never change, yet all is clear to the audience.
At two points, “Toni Stone” pumps up the action with music and dance; quite fun at first. Later on, choreographer Maurice Clark gradually turns the baseball players/dancers 180 degrees; a joyful movement segueing into slaves’ lament in the fields of the America. The play becomes dark and raw; no longer fun and “games”.

This venue (POP) has a reputation of producing atypical, new, and/or relatively unknown plays. “Toni Stone” is among them. Those who don’t care much for baseball might become fans of POP and Toni’s near homerun.