Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

17 Summer Vacations in the Berkshires and Still Counting

by Shera Cohen
In the Spotlight

The common phrase "If it's Tuesday, it must be Belgium" easily relates to my whirlwind Berkshire vacation. Nine of us attended 44 arts and cultural events in 18 days last summer, and here's what we have to look forward to this July and August. Oftentimes, my Berkshire articles list venues in alphabetical order. This time around, we (the writers) took a poll for "the bests" which is what you see below. Admittedly, this is not a democracy, and I get the final vote.

Best Plays You Never Heard Of
First Place: Freud's Last Session, Barrington Stage, Pittsfield
Freud was such a hit at the start of Barrington's season, that it received encore performances at summer's end. It's no surprise that the play is making its third time around in 2010, not to mention en route to NYC.  Two actors, one set, a small theatre, Dr. Freud and author C.S. Lewis - doesn't read like much of a story. Yet it was the "sleeper" of the Berkshires' theatre. Don't miss it.

Runner Up: Everything, Berkshire Fringe, Great Barrington
For 21 days, a trio of young entrepreneurs mount the Fringe. I put this "best" under theatre, because that's the genre that I enjoy at Fringe. However, on any given day, all day, one can participate (yes, interaction is important) in drama, music, comedy, juggling - some separately and some together. Fringe is new, the works are new, and the audience is usually under 30. That's okay, they let me in.

Best Lecture by an Author
First Place: Brad Gooch's The Life of Flannery O'Connor, The Mount, Lenox
Edith Wharton's former stables is the setting for the Mount's lecture series. I hadn't read works by Flannery O'Connor, but now I intend to. Biographer Brad Gooch seemed to have done the famous author justice, describing her as a bright woman with a sense of humor yet skilled at writing macabre gruesome stories. Always delightful is the post-lecture repast of lemonade and scones.

Runner Up: Richard Guy Wilson's Harbor Hill, The Mount, Lenox
The rise and fall of the mansions of New York at the turn of the last century was the subject. We learned about owners and architects, riches and the Stock Market crash, families and scandal. While on Wharton's Estate, we viewed a photo and memorabilia exhibit of WWI; Mrs. Wharton was an active volunteer at the front. This year's topics include a novel about Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, among others.

Best Indoor/Outdoor Art Exhibit
Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge
It was Peter Rockwell Day, named after the artist's son. Sculpture is Peter's primary work and numerous pieces populated the lush grassy grounds surrounding the museum.  A plus was a free concert on the veranda by members of the Berkshire Choral Society, as they sang music from Simon & Garfunkle and the Beatles. Yup, choral groups don't always sing "old" music. I'll be seeing the cartoons of William Steig (creator of Shrek) this July.

Best Indoor Exhibit
Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield
Frogs inhabited the museum. Granted, they were in cases with lots of room to do whatever frogs do. The words "beautiful" and "frog" do not seem to go together. However, "Frogs: A Chorus of Colors" was one of the most inventive and delightful exhibits not only for Berkshire Museum, but any museum. And, I don't even like frogs! You can imagine how much kids loved them. Ribbit.

Best Movement on Two Feet (aka Dance)
First Place: Community Day, Jacob's Pillow, Becket
There were few parking spots left. By chance, we attended a performance at the Pillow on what happened to be their Annual Community Day, which included percussive dance, tap classes, workshops, and drums (plus lunch) on three stages - all free. Although I'm certainly not a kid, there was no age limit to enjoy the day.

Runner Up: Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Jacob's Pillow
This choreographer was called "a man who lived in the future." Indeed, he worked up to the week he died at age 90, which was the same week that we saw his final pieces. We learned the next day of that auspicious performance. Next door to the Barn Theatre is the art gallery. Its exhibit was "A Dance to Jules Feiffer," a legendary cartoonist whose art was as unique as Cunningham's dance. This summer's troupes come from nearly every continent.

Best Play about a Real Person
First Place: Freud's Last Session, Barrington Stage, Pittsfield
(See "Best Plays You Never Heard Of") I've got tickets for Art and Pool Boy at Barrington Stage this summer. Again, you have one more opportunity to Freud.

Runner Up: The Einstein Project, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge  
The story of the atomic bomb during WWII took its focus from the point of view of Einstein and his contemporaries in this heavy duty drama. The struggle of science as merely a job in spite of its consequences was a challenge well-tackled in this new play. This summer I will see The Guardian and A Delicate Balance on BTF's Mainstage.

Best Concert in the Most Beautiful Venue
First Place: Tanglewood on Parade, Tanglewood, Lenox
In the giant shed and all about the pristine grounds is music. An exhilarating day of pomp & circumstance, Rossini & Tchaikovsky, trumpets & cannons, Lockhart & Williams, BSO & Pops is the annual "parade." Toss in "William Tell," "West Side Story," "1812 Overture" and fireworks on a lovely 75 degree evening to make Tanglewood THE place to be in the Berkshires. While I'll miss Parade this summer, I will not miss Film Night - always a huge music event.

Runner Up: Music of Shakespeare, Tanglewood
Tanglewood has two venues, so I include both. In the newer Ozawa Hall was "Music of Shakespeare" featuring F. Murray Abraham narrating readings between music for "Macbeth," The Tempest," and "Winter's Tale" from various composers. The performance, using ancient instruments, seemed straight out of the Elizabethan era.

Best Combination of Art Mediums
First Place: Art Exhibit & Music, Clark Art Institute & Aston Magna, Williamstown Clark hosted a tour of the works of Georgia O'Keefe and her mentor Arthur Dove in a sprawling multi-room exhibit. We took a break in mid-day, entering a refreshingly air conditioned auditorium to listen to the soothing music of Aston Magna performing Vivaldi and Bach. Picnicking on the grounds and overlooking the lily pond, we created out own Monet scene.

Runners Up: It's a tie between Lecture/Art Exhibit, The Mount, Lenox; and Art Exhibit/Film, Berkshire Museum & Little Cinema, Pittsfield. (See "bests" for The Mount and Berkshire Museum)

Best Outdoor Street Festival (well, that's redundant)
First Place: 3rd Thursdays in Pittsfield, Pittfield
I can't say enough about this event, so check their website. "Urban Beach Party" was the theme with Beach Boys' music, a gigantic sandbox for the kids, ice cream, crafts, window art, vendors, bike races (Tour de Pittsfield) filling ten streets in downtown Pittsfield. Advertised as: See, Hear, Taste, Play - it's all of that and more. Rain or shine.

Runner Up: Sundays at Six O'clock, Williamstown
The event is in its infancy, as Williamstown made a nice effort to provide families with free movies,
entertainment, food, and classic car shows in the town's center. Directly across the street from Williamstown Theatre Festival, the event is a pleasant after-show treat.

Best Shakespeare Plays That Everyone Can Understand
First Place: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
It's no wonder that this is often considered one of the Bard's best comedies. With the usual mistaken identities, women dressed as men, love triangles, slapstick, and a pompous idiot, the play had all of the elements down to perfection. Expertly directed and acted by this troupe's best of the best, makes "12th Night" #1.

Runner Up: Measure for Measure, Shakespeare & Company
"M4M" may be one of the first tragicomedies written in the English language. Serious themes of justice, loyalty, and power are balanced with the humor of Keystone Cops-like ridiculousness. While the actors were the Center for Actor Training Performance Internship troupe, they might as well have been Equity. Watch for these young talents in the future. Richard III, Measure for Measure are on my "to see" list this July.

Best Stuff for Kids that Adults Secretly Like
First Place: Toad of Toad Hall, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Performed by actors-in-training, Toad was full of froth, shenanigans, people who looked like animals (or tried), ridiculous costumes, physical humor, and fun. Adapted from The Wind in the Willows with spice, double entendres, and raucousness, the parents in the audience laughed along with their kids.

Runner Up: WordPlay, Shakespeare & Company
Written by and starring the youth troupe, this was a spunky, energetic, broad comedic revue on the hundreds of words coined by the Bard. The kids performed scenes from The Tempest, Hamlet, Shrew, and R&J as one weaved into the other to make for one long condensed play.

Best Outdoor Arts & Crafts Show
First Place: Church on the Hill, Lenox
For so many years that I've lost count, this small but prestigious show takes place on the grass of an equally small old white church. It's a mini-Paradise City Arts Festival with works in metal, fabric, wood, and gems. I can't help myself from purchasing at least one item each summer, usually a gift, but occasionally a gift for me. (July 24 & 25, town's center)

Runner Up: Sculpture Now, Stockbridge
Every summer through October, without fail, dozens or large - somewhat strange, somewhat whimsical - sculpture of many medium align the streets of downtown Stockbridge. I recommend a short walking tour. 

Best Classic Play (meaning, written a long time ago)
First Place: Ghosts, Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge
Drama with a capital "D" was Ibsen's Ghosts. Updated in the 21st century and set on a stark stage, it's a strong and dark play about characters with dirty secrets, innuendo, and lies. Not your typical summer offering, BTF took on a challenge and won.

Runner Up: Twelfth Night, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
The antithesis of Ghosts was the comedy of this Shakespeare treat. (See "Best Shakespeare Play")

Most Pleasantly Unexpected Surprises
First Place: The Groovebarbers, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
Four guys without instruments called themselves "acapella royalty." We had one open evening to fill, never heard of this quartet, and gave it a shot. Who'd a guessed that this would be "the" highlight of the vacation? Ballads, rock, oldies, opera were melodic and, most of all, funny. "Doowopera" combining oldies & opera (think Dion sings Puccini) was the concert's climax.

Runner Up: The Wild Turkey Family, Stockbridge
Not an exhibit, but a feathered family exiting from the tall grass, crossed the dirt road directly in front our car. "Mom" walked out a few steps, looked both ways, gave us a "stop your car or else look," returned to the grass to then prance across the road with her four chicks in a straight line. No website provided.

This Best Old House
First Place: Merwin House, Stockbridge
What luck! Not until arriving did we know that the house was only open two days of the year - in July and December. One of 36 properties owned by Historic New England, we learned about the house and its residents from 1825 on. A plus was the walk directly across the street to the Stockbridge Cemetery, where most of the who's who of the Berkshires were buried. I want to know more, so I'll return. (Please Google, there is no website.)

Runner Up: The Bidwell House, Monterey
A tour guide makes or breaks a visit such as this. Ours was a college gal - smart, well spoken, with loving care for "her" house. The large home, its pristine antique contents, and 196 acres date back to 1750. Reverend Bidwell was the first of 100 years of Bidwells living here. The visit makes for a wonderful journey to old New England.

Best Free Stuff
First Place: Director's Lecture, Shakespeare & Company, Lenox
Every week there are at least two different talks to attend. The Director's Talk on "Hamlet" started by asking, "Do you believe in ghosts?" This was not a rhetorical question. Another talk the following week - another director on another play. So much to learn. So much to enjoy.

Runner Up: Barn Gallery at Stonover Farm, Lenox
Exhibits run during the summer, changing every six weeks or so, featuring eclectic forms of art from modern to classical, Judaic to red, white & blue. Take a short ride or long walk across the street from Tanglewood to the Barn.

Best Single Venue with Best Variety (but not simultaneously)
First Place: The Temptations, Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield
The nostalgia of the Temptations set everyone in the house tapping, drumming, and swaying in place. The group, now "age" 48, boasted one of the original members. It was so tempting to sing along to "My Girl" and "Just My Imagination," but we were no match for these guys. "How Sweet It Is (Was)."

Runner Up: James Naughton in Concert, Colonial Theatre
Two days later, we enjoyed the laidback intimacy of stories and crooning by James Naughton. Calling himself "an actor who happens to sing," was self-effacing. Naughton is one of those actors who you see on TV, movies, live theatre, but most don't know his name. Well, Colonial is making a name for itself in choosing a wonderful cadre of talent. 

Most Fun Things to Do
First Place: Capitol Steps, Cranwell Resort, Lenox
Seeing it once is enough? Not. Capitol Steps' comedy changes as the months on the calendar. CP is as up to date as Jon Stewart (although not as sophisticate) and Saturday Night Live but with music. Octomom, John McCain, and Susan Boyle were "big" last summer, but chances are they won't be in this summer's repertoire. The current president is a constant, and Bill & Hillary always show up.

Runner Up: Candide, Berkshire Theatre, Stockbridge
Not everyone enjoys operettas, let alone those based on the work of Voltaire. However, set in the 21st century with a jungle gym set of multi-colors, a cast of 20 effervescent young actors, 22 songs, strange characters, and satire galore, Leonard Bernstein's Candide was a romp in "the best of all possible worlds."

Best Vacation Spot in USA - The Berkshires             
Even though I schedule at least three activities on each of the 18 vacation days, we still miss a lot of wonderful performing and visual arts which make the Berkshires my "go to" place each summer. We don't do much else other than attend concerts, museums, comedy, art shows, theatre and theater ("re" or "re" - whatever way you spell it, we go). Well, we do have to eat, so we dine in ("dine" is fancy for what we really do), swim when the temperature goes above 90, shop at the Lee Outlets, and watch the Weather Channel.