2012 Theatre Highlights

Berkshires and Beyond

By: - Dec 29, 2012

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In 2001 we bought a home in Adams and planted roots in the Berkshires. We left Boston and moved here full time primarily because of a combination of natural beauty and the arts.

During the summer season, which starts in May and winds down in October, the Berkshires are a national destination for world class dance, music, theatre and the fine arts.

We think of the Berkshires as a state of mind. The New Yorker, for example, is not just about New York.

Our coverage of theatre extends beyond Western Massachusetts. Astrid Hiemer and I cover the Berkshires. Mark Favermann writes on theater as well as design and architecture from Boston. Jack Lyons reports from California. Susan Hall primarily reviews classical music in New York, but also travels regularly to Chicago, Denver and Europe where she also writes on theatre. Nelida Nassar trots the world with seven league boots posting a range of features. Astrid has worked with and edited contributors including the German/ American critic Angelika Jansen. A New York based critic with a global reach, Edward Rubin, writes on theatre and the fine arts. David Bonetti covers opera in Boston.

In any given week there are likely to be several fresh theatre postings including reviews, features, and in depth interviews. We like to think about theatre and probe deeply into the creative process.

Given remarkable access and opportunity we also treasure evenings at Jacob’s Pillow and Tanglewood. We keep pace with the fine arts in the Berkshires, New York, Chicago, Boston, and Europe.

Considering the depth and variety of coverage I prefer the approach of noting highlights rather than a “best of” list. During the summer there are conflicts so we do not get to see all of the shows. This differs from colleagues who only cover theatre and see more than we do.

Often shows we have reviewed on Broadway are later produced by regional theatre companies. When our correspondents write about these shows they bring another perspective to the experience.

A highlight of 2012 occured when Astrid and I attended the American Theatre Critics Association annual meeting in Chicago. As a group we attended a number of performances, lectures, and panel discussions.

The keynote speaker was Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout. During August I met with him in Lenox for an extensive interview while he was developing his first play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, for Shakespeare & Company.

We traveled to Chicago prior to the ATCA meeting to catch the final performances of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The cast included John Douglas Thompson who also starred in Teachout’s Satchmo. John and I worked together to create an overview of African American roles in O’Neill’s plays. Previously he has starred in The Emperor Jones off Broadway.

The Robert Falls production of Iceman at the Goodman Theatre, with Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, was more than a year end “best of” it was an epochal game changer. Unfortunately, with a running time of more than four hours, it was too unwieldy for Broadway.

In Chicago we attended a variety of theatre from established companies like the Goodman- Iceman and Immediate Family- Steppenwolf for E. L. Doctorow’s The March, a new musical Eastland at Lookingglass, a titubating musical about Marvin Gaye at Black Ensemble Theatre, as well as fringe including Tigers Be Still

The greatest benefit of the ATCA convention was the opportunity to hang out with colleagues. There were lively and divisive conversations about what we saw, particularly Iceman, which colleagues either loved or hated. We spent quality time with our friend Edward Rubin. Subsequent to Chicago, delegates Jack Lyons and Angelika Jansen have joined us as contributors.

In two trips to New York we managed to see several Broadway and Off Broadway plays- two by Theresa Rebeck, both so so, Seminar, and Dead Accounts, which is closing in a week cutting its scheduled run by seven weeks. Clybourne Park which won Tony’s was for me just mediocre. I loved Other Desert Cities while Lyons in LA didn’t. It opens at Speakeasy Stage Company in Boston on January 11.

During the Holidays I found merit in Mamet’s The Anarchist which was blasted by critics and closed fast. I didn’t think much of Dead Accounts which also tanked. Off Broadway I didn't care for Zelda at the Oasis but loved Layon Gray's Black Angels Over Tuskeegee.

Overall, for the four major Berkshire theatre companies- Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group (Colonial Theatre and Berkshire Theatre Festival), Shakespeare & Company, and Williamstown Theatre Festival, 2012 was a successful season. We'll keep an eye on the emerging WAM company.

There was evidence of gradual recovery from the setbacks of the economic downturn of the past few years. Shakespeare & Company has become stabilized from seemingly insurmountable debt. Barrington Stage had made significant progress in retiring its mortage from the acquisition and build out of its Main Stage, administrative office building, and recent acquisition of the former VFW for multiple use. The recently formed Berkshire Theatre Group is still working through finding a balance in programming both the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield as well as its Stockbridge campus.

The first season of Jenny Gersten as director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, in 2011, was book ended by natural disasters, winter damage to its scene shop and props storage, then, after moving to another facility, a flood of storage caused by Hurricane Irene. Gersten’s initial programming received mixed to harsh reviews.

For 2012 Gersten put together an ambitious season with a balance of reconfigured classics- The Importance of Being Earnest, A Month in the Country- as well as a New York bound new musical Far from Heaven- a new comedy by Katori Hall, Whaddahbloodclot, and a sold out run of Elephant Man with a brilliant performance by Bradley Cooper and a strong co star Patricia Clarkson.

Not that every WTF show knocked it out of the park but Gersten had her game face on. There was also improved media access with a series of press conferences and opportunities to interact with stars including Cooper and Clarkson as well as Tyne Daly, David Hyde Pierce, Blythe Danner and the creative crew of the remarkably ambitious but not well received reworking of Richard Nelson’s Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. And let us not forget the brilliant and hilarious Brooks Ashmanskas in Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers an incredibly entertaining comedy.

At the end of the season Gersten was sanguine during an interview. Based on a compelling and adventurous second summer let’s hope that three’s a charm.

What was most exciting about 2012 was the element of risk taking with lots of new shows. It can be quite boring seeing all those Broadway retreads in regional theatre. Uniquely, the Berkshire theatres strive to put their own stamp on programming.

Including Shakespeare & Company even when they produce the Bard. A founder of the company, Dennis Krausnick, offered a commanding lead in King Lear. One of the hot tickets of the season featured Olympia Dukakis as Prospero in The Tempest. She is slated to return this summer in Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children.

In addition to traditional theatre S&Co. produced several new works. Parasite Drag received rave reviews which translated into a strong box office. As always it was fascinating to see the company taking on new challenges. The performance by Elizabeth Aspenlieder was particularly courageous. Cassandra Speaks, a one woman show featuring Tod Randolph, was well received as was Annette Miller in Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.

The greatest accomplishment of S&Co was Teachout’s first drama Satchmo at the Waldorf which moved on to Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven then a production in Philadelphia. John Douglas Thompson is a board member and MVP of S&Co. We also much enjoyed his reading of The Misanthrope for WTF at the Clark Art Institute during the winter. Following a New Yorker profile Thompson is much in demand and it is difficult to predict when he will return to the Berkshires.

While we are shying away from making a best of list clearly "the male performance of the 2012" would be a tough call between JDT as Satchmo and an astonishing Cooper in Elephant Man. Curiously, both these plays which received rave reviews and sold out runs, failed to make the annual tally of the Berkshire Eagle. Hmm.

The season opened with a battle of musicals going head to head in Pittsfield. Barrington Stage opened earlier then ran longer with the perennial, audience pleasing Fiddler on the Roof. I found the lead of Brad Oscar problematic but the musical was utterly trashed in an Eagle review by Jeffrey Borak. It led to bad blood between the critic and the company. The negative review provoked numerous letters to the editor by fans who disagreed with Borak. Fiddler set a box office record for a musical by the company.

Critics are like so overrated.

Because it takes time to settle the summer interns on campus Chorus Line opened at the Colonial after the all important tourist influx of the Fourth of July weekend. It was a smashing production which earned rave reviews. One may second guess artistic director Kate Maguire by speculating that the musical might have run for up to two weeks longer. On the other hand, the Colonial is a big house and Chorus Line was an expensive show with a large cast and pit band.

At Williamstown we were treated to a musical under development Far from Heaven which was adapted from a classic film. It was evident that the project has issues which hopefully will be resolved by the time it reaches New York this spring.

As a sidebar to Chorus Line, in the intimate Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group mounted a thrifty, mostly non equity musical A Class Act about the quirky Edward Kleban, a collaborator on Chorus Line. Other than an outstanding performance by Ross Baum as Kleban it failed to impress. BTG’s premiere Edith about the wife of Woodrow Wilson was well received. I had mixed feelings about the premiere of Brace Yourself by David Epstein.

With mixed feeling about Fiddler, overall, Julianne Boyd never fails to assemble compelling and well balanced seasons for Barrington Stage. The musical On the Town will launch the Main Stage season in 2013. The production of All My Sons was simply marvelous. The vintage British farce See How They Run was side splitting fun. For its fall production Barrington presented the juvenile Lord of the Flies on its Main Stage. In September Astrid wrote about Barrington's Brel in the Berkshires a wonderful evening of cabaret at Spice Dragon with Amanda McBroom and George Ball.

Barrington Stage enjoys a unique relationship with playwright and board member Mark St. Germain. Over the years Boyd has premiered a number of his plays including Freud’s Last Session which went viral globally. His Best of Enemies is now playing Off Broadway in New York. Last summer he mounted Dr. Ruth All the Way with Debra Jo Rupp in arguably the season’s strongest female lead. In 2013 he returns with Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. We frequently weigh in with St. Germain for updates on his many projects.

Today it is snowing in the Berkshire adding to the foot we endured a couple of days ago. But it is never too soon to think of spring and the return of theatre to the Berkshires.