Stage

Playing Catch-Up

Our theater critic samples the season so far and what's in store.

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Thursday, August 09, 2012
Kevin Spague Photo
Tod Randolph as Dorothy Thompson in Cassandra Speaks, Shakespeare & Company

This is a little embarrassing. I usually see just about everything on our region's summer theater circuit, but this year I got a late start, missed some of the early shows and am still catching up. So far, I've managed to at least sample the seasonal fare at almost all the summer theaters in the Valley, the Berkshires and in between. I've been enchanted, tickled, intrigued and occasionally disappointed. Here are some snapshots from a half-full scrapbook of theatrical memories, some of which I've already shared in these pages, with new catch-ups and some looks ahead.

Love & Laughter

Comedy has been surprisingly scarce in what is traditionally considered a soufflé season. In fact, only five of the two dozen shows I've seen so far were unabashed comedies, and three of those were productions of the same play, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. What's more, two of those three were back-to-back condensations performed in the same program. This year, Hampshire Shakespeare's Young Company divided in two to present separate one-hour takes on Shakespeare's romantic comedy of pretense and pretention. Directors Toby Bercovici and Jeannine Haas each scissored the script to emphasize different themes and thrusts, and both teenage casts romped delightfully through the tangled tale. HampShake's adult company performs another romantic caper, As You Like It, through this weekend.

In June, the August Company gave us a loose-limbed, bare-bones Twelfth Night, developed through close textual study and an open rehearsal process, which afforded an up-close look at Shakespeare's dramaturgy and an adventurous ensemble's chops. Another classic comedy, Molière's Tartuffe, performed in a high-energy, high-decibel barrage of slapstick and rhymed couplets, plays through this month at Shakespeare & Company. There's more comedy in store, with the slam-bang 1940s farce See How They Run opening this week at Barrington Stage and, at Williamstown Theatre Festival, the world premiere of the season's most mischievously titled play, Whaddabloodclot!!! in which a sudden stroke has culturally and linguistically chaotic consequences.

Stars & Solos

Summer's crowds give many theaters the opportunity to muster (and afford) massed troops for musicals and large-cast plays. But a few shows have invited us to focus more closely on a single performer. At Shakespeare & Company, Tod Randolph is performing a mesmerizing one-woman tour de force in Cassandra Speaks, which traces the eventful career and turbulent private life of the controversial journalist Dorothy Thompson.

Of the four solo artists who visited the Ko Festival of Performance, the only one I caught was Deb Margolin. Her work-in-progress, Hello, Anita Hill..., takes its cue from the infamous 2010 voicemail from Justice Clarence Thomas' wife and reflects, in rather ramshackle fashion, on questions of morality and motherhood, truth and tragedy. Margolin was also represented in Pauline Productions' staging of her penetrating seriocomic meditation on the wayward subconscious, O Yes I Will, performed touchingly and hilariously by Jeannine Haas.

Within larger ensembles, there have also been some remarkable individual performances—three of them from established stars straying from their comfort zones. At Williamstown, Bradley Cooper, People magazine's "Sexiest Man Alive," portrayed Joseph Merrick, the grotesquely deformed subject of The Elephant Man, with a poignant and unselfconscious transparency.

Also at WTF, Tyne Daly, whose credits include Mama Rose in Gypsy and half of Cagney and Lacey, became a haughty Mafia godmother in a surrealistically odd translation of Oscar Wilde's mannered comedy The Importance of Being Ernest into 1930s gangland. And Olympia Dukakis, whose default screen persona is wisecracks with a wink (see Moonstruck and Steel Magnolias), plays a majestically pissed off female Prospero in The Tempest at Shakespeare & Company through next weekend.

Song & Dance

I missed the summer's leadoff musical, Fiddler on the Roof, that bittersweet elegy to Jewish culture in the Russian stetl, at Barrington Stage Company. But I caught up with the season's offerings at the Berkshire Theatre Group and Williamstown Theatre Festival, none of them totally cheerworthy. BTG's A Chorus Line, the audition-based dissection of the gypsy dancer's life, sparkled with ebullient professionalism but stumbled in one key aspect. As Cassie, the aging hoofer who just missed the star wagon and is starting over at the bottom, Nili Bassman just wasn't a strong enough dancer to convince us that she's too good for the anonymous line. A Class Act, based on the life and songs of A Chorus Line's lyricist, was an engaging glimpse into the world of musical theater but wasn't strong enough musically to justify its creators' faith in the subject's underappreciated talent.

WTF (yes, Williamstown does exploit its acronym's double meaning—this summer's festival T-shirt reads "WTF: Are You Going?") premiered a new, movie-derived musical—not derived from Disney, for a change, but from Todd Haynes' 2002 film Far from Heaven. The musical is an almost literal recap of the movie, focused on the outwardly ideal but hollow life of a housewife who discovers that her husband is gay and that her black gardener is simpatico and hunky. The hit movie garnered several Oscar nominations, but I thought at the time it would have had real impact had it been made in the 1950s, when it's set, but instead came off as a weepie with socially conscious pretentions and period clothes. Which is what I also felt about WTF's "preview production" of this New York-bound musical. The songs, expanding on moments in the screenplay, are an uneasy mix of Sondheim-ish tunes and jazz-inflected numbers. The performances, led by Broadway star Kelli O'Hara, are well-acted and -sung, but I couldn't help thinking, "What's the point?"

Paper & Pool

Aside from Shakespeare, only one playwright is represented more than once in this year's regional lineup—and that includes those hardy perennials Arthur Miller and Neil Simon, whose All My Sons and Last of the Red Hot Lovers, respectively, crossed Berkshire stages last month. Rajiv Joseph is the spectacular young dramatist whose Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a Broadway sensation and a 2010 Pulitzer finalist. He's the author of two shows on area stages, my personal show-of-the-year-so-far, Animals Out of Paper, which opened Chester Theatre Company's season, and The North Pool, now playing at Barrington Stage.

Both works create collisions between contrasting personalities, striking sparks that singe away defenses and illusions. They are plays of ideas that ride on caustic humor and dramatic excitement and, most intriguingly, include as key protagonists young men of color—from the Subcontinent and Middle East, respectively—who are struggling to come to terms with this alien America.

*

Almost half the theaters I've visited this summer have already ended their seasons, or will by next weekend. New Century Theatre rang down the curtain last week on a rewarding quartet of plays that delved into the odd ways humans connect—or don't. Those thoughtful dramas got a morning eye-opener during NCT's season when PaintBox Theatre invaded the same Smith College stage with its ingenious, madcap deconstructions of children's stories.

Though the season is winding down, several theaters are still up and running, including the Big Four Berkshire houses and Chester Theatre Company, whose season of "Uncommon Love Stories" continues through this month. Double Edge Theatre of Ashfield performs its epic walkabout spectacle, The Odyssey, through next weekend, and the Berkshire Fringe closes out its fascinating international season of on-the-edge performances on Monday in Great Barrington. So I'll continue to play catch-up through Labor Day and beyond. I can't wait.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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