Berkshire Theatre Highlights 2013

Reflecting on an Intense High Season

By: - Sep 09, 2013

Season Season Season Season Season Season Season Season Season Season Season Season

A harvest moon hovers over the Berkshires.

Our bumper crop of tomatoes is finally ripening  along with an abundance of fresh herbs.

After the frantic pace of the summer there are cool evenings on the deck with pesto, roasted corn, and grilled sausage from Guido’s.

The weekly calendar is not so frantic. Events and openings are well spaced. Not like the summer blur.

On many a summer night while driving to Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and the four major theatre companies, Barrington Stage, Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company and Williamstown Theatre Festival we count our blessings.

During high season nothing compares to the depth and quality of the arts in the Berkshires. There is the enveloping intoxication of nature and the seasons far from the hustle and bustle of urban congestion. The air is clear and fresh.

But de gustibus we quibble, fuss and feud.

It’s what critics do.

On drives home there are lively discussions. Mostly Astrid and I agree but there are nuances and gender differences. Since the launch of Berkshire Fine Arts in 2006 there has been a challenging learning curve.

In particular we cherish vists to Jacob's Pillow where highlights this season include L-E-V an Israeli comnpany, 3rd Etage from Paris, a series of duets between Wendy Whelan and male partners, as well as iconic and new works by the Martha Graham Company.

This summer Leanne Jewett joined us covering theatre in Vermont. Susan Hall bounced from New York to Europe and Chicago. Mark Favermann in Boston, Melissa Hall in Indianapolis, and Jack Lyons in San Diego are poised to cover the fall season.

The shoulder season continues with more to come at Shakespeare & Company, Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre Group. The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield has a schedule of one nighters. There are numerous concerts and events during the academic calendar of Williams College. Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow and Williamstown Theatre Festival, however,  are closed until May/ June of 2014.

This is when critics mull over the Best and Worst of the summer season. Which we pursue with caveats.

We prefer to discuss highlights. In the thick of it there are often conflicts. So we don’t get to see everything. We reviewed the entire seasons of Williamstown Theatre Festival and Barrington Stage Company, most of Shakespeare & Company, and just three productions by the Berkshire Theatre Group.

The reviews for Extremities, directed by Karen Allen at Berkshire Theatre Group, were strong but we never got to see it. We asked for tickets on opening night but were informed that it was sold out. Another night was suggested but not possible because we attended the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. There we saw five new plays including the world premiere of the Mark St. Germain play Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. It later had a “rolling world premiere” at Barrington Stage Company.

Being out of town for a week caused a scramble. It is particularly difficult because most shows have two week runs. If you fall off the pace it gets impossible to catch up.

Overall, accolades for the strongest programs was a dead heat between the ever inventive Julianne Boyd, for Barrington Stage, and Jenny Gersten’s balanced and evocative season at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Gersten’s third season was by far the strongest of her tenure.

With the exception of Shakespeare & Company, it was a summer dominated by musicals. Hands down On the Town at Barrington Stage was the five star winner. It ran head to head in Pittsfield with the problematic Oklahoma, which was poorly reviewed at the Colonial Theatre, and the zany Animal Crackers which launched the WTF Main Stage Season. Most folks liked Johnny Baseball at WTF more than I did. Southern Comfort, a new musical at Barrington Stage was poignant, compelling and insightful. The ambitious new musical Bridges of Madison County was a work in progress at WTF. It opens this season on Broadway. Although a one night benefit for Shakespeare & Company Broadway in the Berkshires was in a class by itself. That was pure entertainment at its very best.

The conventional Berkshire wisdom is that nobody does musicals like Julianne Boyd. I could have seen those sailors on leave, singing and dancing to a magnificent Leonard Bernstein score, at least twenty times. But we had other things to do. Let’s see if Boyd can do it again next summer with Kiss Me Kate.

Looking back at a season of theatre it seems less relevant to ask what did you like than what did you learn?

We applaud the companies for their ambition and risk taking. There were many challenges including demanding evenings that were hardly entertaining. Theatre can be tough love.  

Consider, for example, that we had two productions of works by Tom Stoppard. S&Co. staged the absorbing and complex Heroes revealing the great depth of the company. There was an astonishing, once in a lifetime production of Hapgood built around a commanding performance by Kate Burton. It was on a par with last summer’s stunning Elephant Man.

We will long remember and appreciate that S&Co featured two remarkable senior women of the theatre. Who will ever forget Olympia Dukakis dragging that cart around in Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children? Unfortunately, she became ill and a number of performances were cancelled. We have reviewed and reported on how much Tina Packer suffered through a physically and mentally demanding role in Beauty Queen of Leenane. (It runs through this weekend.) It proved to be the most widely debated and controversial play of the season. This was the first time we have seen Packer and Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who talked her into it, on the same stage together. We had a remarkable dialogue with Packer and the cast of the play.

A great benefit of being a part of the Berkshire theatre community has been the unique opportunity to know and form relationships with artistic directors, actors and directors. This ranges from “speed dates” during WTF press conferences through dialogues that are sustained over a number of years.

We first met with John Douglas Thompson when he was performing Othello several seasons ago at S&Co. Since then we have formed a collaboration, whenever possible, to have in depth dialogues about his roles. This often entails meticulous editing of transcribed texts. Remarkably, this summer, Thompson who is widely regarded as one of the finest classical actors of his generation, discussed taking a supporting role because of the unique opportunity to share the stage and get to know Dukakis.

Our first conversation with Mark St. Germain occurred when Best of Enemies premiered at Barrington Stage. That evolved into an ongoing  dialogue about the development of his subsequent plays. I read first drafts of Scott and Hem then attended its premiere at Shepherdstown. We discussed how CATF commissions and develops new works with artistic director Ed Herendeen. We reviewed the play at Barrington and discussed it with St. Germain. Recently, we attended the successful staged reading of Dancing Lessons, a work in progress, which will premiere at Barrington next summer.

Because the press conference at WTF was cancelled we requested an interview with Kate Burton. That resulted  in a phone conversation about Stoppard as well as memories of her father Richard Burton. Surely that experience was a stunning highlight of this or any summer.

The 2013 season was book ended by dialogues with artistic directors Julianne Boyd and Jenny Gersten. Some conversations you nab on the fly including a frantic ten minute speed date with the utterly charming Robert Sean Leonard who played Professor Higgins in WTF’s Pygmalion. Or a fun and witty, in your face, conversation with Treat Williams during the opening night party for Lion in Winter at BTG.

With now 35 years of  Shakespeare & Company Berkshire audiences have come to expect the best of the Bard. But there was a twist this year. Tony Simotes cast Rocco Sisto in the rarely produced Richard II. It launched the History Plays which will be presented over the next few seasons. Barrington for the first time staged Shakespeare in the perennial charmer Much Ado About Nothing. Purists quibbled but Boyd brought fresh energy and a delightful cast to the comedy hit of the season. Shame on you if you missed it.

A measure of the impact of theatre in the Berkshires is the number of new works which are being developed and how many of them move on to New York or regional theatres.  Last year S&Co. premiered Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout starring John Douglas Thompson. It opens in New York Off Broadway in the spring. Barrington’s Becoming Dr. Ruth by Mark St. Germain, with Debra Jo Rupp, opens Off Broadway this season. Bridges of Madison County from WTF opens on Broadway in January while its Far From Heaven played Off Broadway last season. St. Germain’s Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah moves to Florida after closing at Barrington Stage.

There was a lot of risk taking this season. It is admirable to present new works or remount topical and edgy plays but often with mixed and controversial results. Frequently new and provocative plays have rough edges and growing pains. Juri Henley-Cohn as an Algerian Refugee in Montreal was annoyingly cloying in Bashir Lazhar. Many found Muckrakers by Zayd Dohrn timely and topical but for me that did not equate to compelling theatre. On the other hand, I was more enthusiastic about American Hero, by Bess Wohl at WTF, than most of my colleagues.

Critics were fairly unanimous in praise of the superb production of The Chosen by Chaim Potok and Aaron Posner at Barrington Stage. Most agree that Annette Miller was the best aspect of the uneven Master Class at S&Co.

We go to the theatre for many reasons, to laugh, cry, think, dream and sleep. There are evenings we never forget and others that evaporate as rapidly as the bubbles in a glass of champagne. One measure of the depth of an experience is how it inhabits and lingers with us. Theatre fuels viral debates forcing us to grow and change.

Then there are nights of pure fun and escape. For that we thank Nicholas Martin for a sparking evening of Pygmalion another play we could see every night for weeks. Or the frothy magic of Boyd’s brilliantly witty Much Ado About Nothing. She definitely needs to do more Shakespeare.

Through the long hibernation of a Berkshire winter we sleep and dream with memories of great performances; Olympia’s Mother Courage, Tina’s wrenching Beauty Queen of Leenane, Kate’s brilliant and minimalist Hapgood, Annette’s Maria Callas. Who will ever forget the courageous performance of Jeff McCarthy in Southern Comfort and his remarkable co star Annette O’Toole? Robert Sean Leonard brought an entirely new interpretation to the venerable curmudgeon Professor Henry Higgins. We hope to see more of Treat Williams. Bravo to Rocco Sisto’s Richard II. What a rare treat to have experienced Richard Schiff in The Chosen.

Of the new works H2O by Jane Martin at CATF was just astonishing. Hopefully one day it will come to the Berkshires. Also in West Virginia there was lively discussion and debate about the dark comedy Modern Terrorism. Any new work by Mark St. Germain is cause for celebration. Scott and Hem was powerful and absorbing. Many think that Blood Play at WTF was an important new work. I didn’t. Perhaps I’m just too old and square to appreciate new directions in theatre.

Let’s end with apologies for fine works we missed. Hopefully, those worthy performances will be noted by our peers. While we wait for those reports to come in we are busy making travel and theatre plans for the coming months. Until then cheers.