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Back Story
The Porches Inn

'What's the character's back story?' This question is a familiar one for actors working to build a psychologically complex role out of the clues provided in a dramatic text. . .  But consider what would happen to the way we think about creating characters if this process were reversed: what if a richly detailed character history . . .  became the imaginative impetus for not just one, but a multitude of playwrights and their texts? And what if these varied perspectives could come together to make one theatrical event?
--- Amy Wegener and Michele Bigelow Dixon, dramaturgs introducing Back Story at the Actors Theatre of Louisville which commissioned and first presented this experiment in collaborative playwriting.
The concept, as described above by the dramaturgs of the Humana Festival's premiere production of Back Story, sounds a bit gimmicky, right? Well so it is.

Yet Joan Ackermann and the writers to whom she turned over her "back story" about the relationship of a brother and sister culminating in a turning point in their lives in the year 2000 did manage to bring Ainsley and Ethan Belcher of Pittsfield to often laugh aloud and poignant life. What's more it did so not as a Tower of Babel of divergent voices but as an integrated theater piece.

The experimental flavor and strong Berkshire connection (Ackermann is a Berkshire author and Ainsley and Ethan's story is chockfull of local color) also make Back Story an ideal Summer 2002 season opener for the Berkshire Theatre Festival's smaller and always adventurous Second Stage. Besides showcasing a local talent and referencing names and places that are especially meaningful in this setting, it also introduces local audiences to some of the company's acting interns. If this sextet is any indication, audiences once again have an opportunity to see some noteworthy careers in the making.

To give Back Story a tighter focus and adapt it to the small Unicorn stage, director Michael Dowling scaled down both content and cast, eliminating some of the original pieces and opting for six actors instead of the twenty-two who performed at Humana. The result is a well-paced, intermissionless hour and forty-minute play. If the opening night performance is any indication, Ainsley and Ethan will endear themselves to all who come.

The back story for the whole enterprise is bookended with Ackermann's own opening and closing scenes with her fellow playwrights filling in the space in between. The actors segue between acting out scenes as in a "regular" play and reading the back story with notebook in hand. Victor McQuiston's simple set serves these needs perfectly. A few props are periodically moved from upstage where all the actors are visible throughout, to the playing area where a particular reading or scene unfolds. Two wooden racks hold the various items of clothing donned by the actors to accommodate their center stage roles.

The story spans two decades, beginning with Ethan's birth during a blizzard. His toddler sister's attempt to clear his path also lands in the hospital having a toe severed by a snow shovel re-attached. The Everyman-woman saga culminates in a crisis in Ethan's life as a young adult.

Dowling orchestrates the shifts from reading to acting out the last read segment are without a missed beat. From Ryan O'Shaughnessy's amusing entrance to Ainsley's making Ethan's turning point, the pregnancy of his girl friend, a family affair, our understanding of the family dynamic deepens. The loss of the father (he went for a two-week fishing trip to Alaska and never came back) clearly left an indelible mark on the psyche of each sibling, but just as clearly it also intensified the bond which will give them the emotional strength to move on with their lives.

Ainsley's compulsion and frustration with her role as the protective older sister is most movingly summed up when she says " I wonder how it came to be that I have a supporting role in my own life? You're supposed to be the star of your own life. You, Ethan, are the star of mine." Despite fights and frustration, the brother and sister buffer each from the pain of their shared and individual experiences and the elements of their stories are a smooth blend of the multiple authorial voices. While Dowling was able to cut and rearrange the original anthology, the individual pieces would probably not hold up as independent playlets. United within the back story framework, each writer's contribution gains considerable cumulative power that, while not profound, is consistently entertaining, funny and touching.

My own favorite segments included Ethan's stint as a tour guide at such local museums as the Norman Rockwell, Chesterwood and Arrowhead -- the last ending with a pink slip when he departed from the script about Melville's inspiration for Moby-Dick. Also hilarious is a scene in which Ainsley gets drunk on nine bottles of beer.

In a neighborhood that comes alive with the sound of music during the Tanglewood season, Ainsley's love affair with the clarinet, fostered by Reuben, the Belchers' tenant and a former first clarinetist with the Boston Symphony will have special resonance. As eleven-year-old Ainsley's introduction to Leonard Bernstein sends her home from Tanglewood dreaming of having him conduct her in "Ode to Joy", Ackermann has given the Unicorn audience that extra sense of being geographically in synch with her and her fellow playwrights' ode to sibling loyalty.

Back Story
Based on characters created by Joan Ackermann
Opening and Closing Scenes, Time to Think and Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving in 2000 by Joan Ackerman
Other Scenes and Back Story Readings: Good Morning to the House by Craig Lucas; What Became of the Polar Bear by Mayo Simon Ethan's Got Get by Edwin Sanchez; The Reluctant Instrument by Neena Beber; Maid of Athens by David Rambo; Turn Down by Shirley Lauro; Misadvenutre by Donald Margolies; Or Maybe Not by Adele Edling Shank; The Deal byJane Martin; Blackfish by Courtney Baron; Star Skating by John Olive; Introducing Dad by Susan Miller.
Note: The anthology originally included pieces by Constance Congdon, Jon Klein, Eduardo Machado, Tanya Palmer and Val Smith.

Director: Michael Dowling
Ainsley variously portrayed by Amanda Byron, Erin Gorski, Janice Rowland
Ethan variously portrayed by Ryan O'Shaughnessy, David Polanski, Brian Sell
Scenic Design: Victor McQuiston
Costumes: Luke Simcock
Lights: Lily Fossner
Running time: 1 hour and forty minutes without intermission
Berkshire Theatre Festival/Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA. 413/298-5536 www. berkshire
5/23/02-6/08/02; opening 5/24/02
Thursdays-Saturdays 7:30, Sundays at 2pm -- $20
Reviewed by Elyse Sommerbased on April 24th press opening
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