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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review Love's Fire

Shakespeare's here, Shakespeare's there, Shakespeare's making news everywhere. It's not as if the big Oscar win for Shakespeare In Love made a little known or loved playwright suddenly everyone's darling. Shakespeare films and plays -- true to the Bard's setting and words or adapted into all sorts of flights of fancy. In the Berkshires we can boast a company, Shakespeare & Company, dedicated to the Bard's work which regularly presents several new productions each summer. The Williamstown Theatre Festival has gotten on the Shakespeare with big name stars bandwagon (With Gwyneth Paltrow in As You Like It and Bebe Neuwirth as the title character in The Taming of the Shrew).

And getting a head start on everyone, we have the Berkshire Theatre Festival with a re-staging of the Acting Company's unusual tribute to Shakespeare's sonnets, Love's Fire. It's well suited to the Unicorn Theater since it enables the still unknown actors who perform in its cutting edge productions to hitch their wagons to seven stars: in this case seven well-known playwrights who accepted the Acting Company artistic director's challenge to write their own playlet based on a sonnet deemed to be most suited to their particular talents.

The diversity of the responses (no one knew what the others were doing) was quite amazing . John Guare was assigned two sonnets, one with the line that provided all seven plays with a title that also serves as a connecting thread for the whole enterprise. My associate editor Les Gutman's comments about the degree to which the playwrights succeeded in making this conceit work apply to the BTF production as well as the one initiated by the Acting Company that he reviewed. Since I agree with his raves and rants (though if I had to pick my own cream of the crop selection, I'd opt for the one by Tony Kushner), I'll let that review stand (go here to read it ). and limit my comments to the elements particular to the Unicorn's ensemble and staging.

Director Jonathan Rosenberg has made no alteration to the text. One apt exception is the addition of Kosovo to the disasters cited by one of the students John Guare enlists to carry out his assignment to explain the meaninglessness of lines like "Love cannot be quenched." The reference to the Berkshires in Wendy Wasserstein's amusing Waiting for Philip Glass was not tacked on for the sake of a site-specific laugh. (Wasserstein's title whets my anticipation for BTF's upcoming new play by David Ives who also used the composer to title a hilarious playlet ("Philip Glass Bus Bread" in Mere Mortals).

The director's decision to the sequence of the playlets neither deflects from the strengths of the best selections or the weaknesses of the others. Eric Bogosian's Bitter Sauce and John Guare's double sonnet full ensemble The General of Hot Desire still serve as bookends to the other five plays -- the first being the most accessible to the broadest audience and the last the longest and most complex. At two and a half hours, it's a long evening and if Mr. Guare who was in the audience at the press opening I attended, could have been persuaded to make a few cuts his play would not necessarily be diminished. On the other hand, the tedium that sets in at several points of this otherwise smart and wordplay rich play, can also be attributed to the director and the fact that this is where the inexperience of some of the cast is most evident..

On the whole, the ensemble once again reflects the BTF's knack for selecting acting interns of high enough caliber that one can expect to see at least some of them move on to Broadway, Off-Broadway and other major regional theaters. (Jeremy Davidson, who performed so brilliantly in the Unicorn's Quills is currently in Manhattan Theatre Club's much praised La Terrasse ( our review). Christopher Swift's Herman in Bitter Sauce and Terminating, or Lass Meine Schmerzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or Ambivalence (aren't you laughing just reading this title?) has some of the same comic qualities displayed by Stephen De Rosa who went from that part to co-starring in The Mystery of Irma Vep. John Cooper displays great versatility as a pot-smoking, knife wielding biker (dressed to the last authentic detail by Mattie Ullrich) in the Bogosian piece and a much-married wheeler dealer in Wasserstein's comedy of Hampton manners and mores. Oh, yes, he also manages to play God in the final play. Enice Wong stands out among the women.

The Unicorn stage has been well utilized by Klara Zierglerova to create a bright and bookish atmosphere. A simple back scrim with an opening to accommodate the many entrances and exits is smartly lit (by Matthew Adelson) for occasional projections of text. The props consist of few chairs and stacks of books plus a giant orange bird suspended from the ceiling -- a colorful metaphor for the flights of imagination at play.

(For the original order of the plays, see the end of the Public Theater review
by Eric Bogosian, inspired by Sonnet 118 

by William Finn, inspired by Sonnet 102 

TERMINATING, or  Lass Meine Schmertzen Nicht Verloren Sein, or AMBIVALENCE  
by Tony Kushner, inspired by Sonnet 75 

by Ntozake Shange, inspired by Sonnet 128 
Original Music by Chico Freeman 
Choreography by Dyane Harvey 

by Wendy Wasserstein, inspired by Sonnet 94 

by Marsha Norman, inspired by Sonnet 140 

by John Guare, inspired by Sonnets 153 and 154 and The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Varagine  
Original Music by Adam Guettel 

Directed by Jonathan Rosenberg
With: Amy Bruce, John Cooper, Chanda Hartman, Caralyn Kozlowski, Erik Steele, Christopher Swift, Lance Williams and Eunice Wong
Set Designs by Klara Zieglerova
Costume Design by Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Designs by Matthew Adelson
Sound Design by Robert Kaplowitz
Choreography (Hydrolics etc) by Leslie Arlette Boyce
Running time 2 1/2 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Unicorn Theater/Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, MA (413/298-5536)
6/16/99-7/17/99 (opening 6/17):
Reviewed 6/18 by Elyse Sommer

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