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CurtainUp in the Berkshires
Summer 2004 -- a Look Back At the Season
By Elyse Sommer
Cranwell Resort

As always I'm overtaken by a sense of oh, gosh, I can't believe another summer's gone by. As always, I'm in awe of the actors who memorize all those line and the designers who mount sets that for the most part average ten days of stage time, occasionally a bit longer.

This year all this effort has been part of a season that has been unexpectedly disappointing for Berkshire businesses. Rooms at area hostelries, usually booked solid from the Fourth of July through Labor Day, went begging for visitors. Home rentals and sales were sluggish. This scenario did not exempt the local arts and entertainment organizations, with even the Tanglewood Music Festival, the lynchpin of the Berkshire's summer season, heavily papering even some fine concerts. One theater which doesn't participate in the half-price ticket booth offered area residents two-for-one admission and at one point called all its volunteers to come and fill the empty seats. Even the Williamstown Theatre Festival which usually sells tickets like the perennial hotcakes had plenty of availability for its Main Stage events -- though the smaller Nikos Stage, was, as usual, sold out, underscoring how desperately needed its expansion to a 250 seat venue in 2005 is.

The season's one really hot ticket, the delightful world premiere of the William Finn musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, raises a chicken and egg question. How much of the soft ticket sales were part and parcel of the " it's the economy, stupid" factor and how much was attributable to questionable judgment on the part of area artistic producers?

The economy can't be discounted, especially in the case of Shakespeare & Company which, like the Berkshire Opera Company, discovered that a big property can be something of a monster eating up large chunks of money and human resources needed to expand and enrich content. At the end of the 2003 season the company's cash shortfall led to furloughs for otherwise fully employed company members and putting a large chunk of the money-eating property on the market. It also meant a slimmed down summer 2004 season. No more tea and cookies served with new one-acts in the Springlawn Mansion. Fewer opportunities for adding much needed new actors to the Company's loyal actor-managers to build S&C's reputation as a first-class company to present the Bard's works and also develop new plays. The importance of the new play development is best illustrated by the company's nurturing of the solo version of William Gibson's play about Golda Meier which, albeit as a new production with a different actress, moved from Lenox to Off-Broadway and Broadway.

Happily, the belt tightning has worked to the advantage of S&C's bottom line and the season was a crowd pleaser. At the Springlawn Mansion, the charismatic artistic director Tina Packer starred in a long running revival of Lettice & Lovage which proved delightfully suitable to the venue; Annette Miller turned from the plain Golda Meir of Golda's Balcony into the glamorous fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland for a revival of Full Gallop -- and for the leaf peeping season, the company will reprise last year's excellent production of Vita & Virginia. At the Founders Theatre it was tickle the funny bone time with As You Like it and a gorgeously staged version of Shakespeare's screwball farce, Comedy of Errors.

Even the above mentioned hit at Barrington Stage raised the specter of misjudgment -- in this case for not realizing that Spelling Bee would draw larger audiences than Mark St. Germain's worthy but too TV-ish The God Committee. Artistic Director Julianne Boyd is to be commended for establishing long-term relationships with playwrights like St. Germain, but his latest play would have worked better in the smaller theater where his Ears On a Beatle did well enough last season to transfer to Off-Broadway. Between uniformly excellent reviews and word of mouth (a major factor in all summer theater box office sales), The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee could easily have filled the larger venue and given a big boost to the Barrington Stage bottom line. Ms. Boyd's staging of Sweet Charity, despite less uniformly ecstatic reviews, gave audiences the well-staged, high-stepping new look at a popular musical that audiences have come to expect from her company. Barrington Stage ended its season with splendid finales for both its venues. The smaller stage mounted a splendid production of Lee Blessing's Thief River. On the Main Stage, a newly adapted version of Cyrano de Bergerac proved to be a delightful throwback to the era of swashbuckling romances.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, made good use of the young student actors who dominate the casting of the Festival's smaller theater for mounting Adam Guettel's contemporary folk opera, Floyd Collins.

The BTF Main Stage season also got off to a splendid start with a play that premiered at the Actors' Theater of Louisville, Blues For an Alabama Sky. Unfortunately this excellent production didn't draw the audiences it should have and here again we came up against a question about where and when to best present a show. Blues For an Alabama Sky might have had a better chance to reach the audience it deserved if it had been scheduled later in the season and artistic producer Kate Maguire had moved The Miracle Worker, her second season in a row tribute to William Gibson, into the first in line slot as was the case last year with Gibson's rarely seen American Primitive. The Miracle Worker also continued a trend on Maguire's part of mingling BTF's mission for its Main and Unicorn stages, which in this case provided the questionable novelty of having a twenty-five year old Pittsfield High School graduate play the six or seven-year-old Helen Keller. The sense of BTF as something of a family affair was underscored by the Unicorn's second production of Herman Hesse's Siddartha. It was adapted and directed by Maguire's husband Eric Hill, featured his University of Connecticut students (for a number of whom it was part of their master's thesis), his stepdaughter and his and Maguire's young son. While Siddartha had the cutting edge feel we've come to expect from the Unicorn generally and Hill in particular, it ultimately came off a bit like an ambitious acting school production.

The major joys of the BTF Main Stage season were both helmed by Anders Cato: Heartbreak House, by a playwright who never disappoints, George Bernard Shaw and Moliere's The Misanthrope, -- the Moliere was probably the best and most beautifully staged classic not just at BTF but anywhere in the Berkshires.

The world premiering Eugene's Home, while worthy in its mission and with an impressive performance by Arnie Burton, simply wasn't up to par in terms of playwriting competence. Furthermore, whether intentional or not, having plays about devastating disabilities run simultaneously at the BTF's theaters seemed a bit of inspirational overkill.

It remains to be seen if Williamstown Theatre Festival's larger Nikos stage will eliminate the frustration of having to be the earliest of early birds to nab tickets. This year's early birds were treated to four world premieres, all of which did indeed fit the " in development" label, though Rodney's Wife was already scheduled for Playwrights Horizons' fall season before its Nikos premiere and is most likely to be seen Off-Broadway as is. The most original and most likely to show up at a major New York non-profit organization like Lincoln Center was Michael John La Chiusa's R Shomon. The few local critics allowed to review these shows in their final week weren't particularly kind to any, which prompts me to speak up on an issue that's a sore point with me. This late-in-the-run, limited reviewing policy goes counter to giving playwrights and directors to test their work before an audience but free from critical appraisal at this stage of a play's life. These last-minute reviews serve no purpose. It's immaterial that a review in a local paper becomes tomorrow's fish wrapper while a review at CurtainUp remains on archive. If you want feedback from critics, open it up to everyone. If not, make the No Reviews rule a hard and fast one.

The WTF's Main Stage productions, like other venues, reflected some misjudgments. Even with tables and little candles (shades of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret at New York's Studio 54) the much hyped Cabaret on Main didn't feel quite right in a conventional theater. While Lewis Black is a funny man, this show called for an MC to deliver the sort of chatter one of its stars, James Naughton, would have provided. In the first Main Stage "regular" play, Nicholas Martin's concept of incorporating the new construction visible all around the Adams Memorial Theatre into A Midsummer Night's Dream didn't go over too well with most audiences or critics.

The revival of Design for Living was gorgeous to look at. Given that it was not apprecialy better than the fairly recent Broadway production, it made one wonder if this particular Coward was just one of those trendy comedies whose time has passed. For sure, two intermissions, each almost as long as the first and last act, were a bit much -- unless audiences had been given a chance to watch the shifts in the spectacular sets.

Chekhov, long a favorite at the Festival, closed the Main Stage season with a revival of The Cherry Orchard. I thought Michael Greif's direction made for a rather de-chekhovized production, yet I could understand how and why some viewers could come away smitten with Greif's and his actors' interpretation -- a case in point being the rave by the chief critic of The New York Times, which is likely to give this production another and longer life in New York, and afford this critic an opportunity re-evaluate it.

I would be remiss not to mention one of the lesser known and more modest local venues, the Miniature Theatre of Chester, which quietly and with a very modest budget and staff brings one or two well worth seeing plays to the Berkshires. My review of their production of Craig Wright's Pulitzer-prize nominated The Pavilion drew an unprecedented number of e-mail thank yous for recommending it.

It was also heartening to see the long closed Public Theater in Pittsfield reborn as the Berkshire Music Hall. Its mission is to serve as a home for a variety of entertainments -- from revues, which are today's version of the vaudeville shows originally put on at this venue, to new and old plays and musicals, concerts and operas (with its orchestra pit and large seating capacity, this would be an ideal rental home for some of the Berkshire Opera Company's summer offerings). With the even longer defunct Colonial Theatre still raising funds for its ambitious renovation, the Union Street venue hosted that organization's presentation of the rarely revived musical They're Playing Our Song with its Neil Simon book loosely based on the real life romance of its musical collaborators, Marvin Hamlish and Carole Bayer Sager. As directed by James Warwick, and with Chip Zien and Amanda Watkins as the leads, it was easy to see why this well characterized chamber musical ran on Broadway for two years.

With these mountains a veritable cornucopia of cultural delights, I started a diary for brief ruminations about some of the concerts and dance programs that are available to Berkshires residents and visitors. The response has been positive so my 2004 diary will probably become a regular feature.

In looking back, this Berkshire theater season, like a theater season in New York or anywhere-- it didn't add up to a perfect score but it did come through with enough surprising pleasures and enjoyable moments to compensate for the disappointments. It's those magical surprises and moments that keep audiences and critics alike coming and applauding that indestructible "invalid." also known as live theater.

Editor's Note: For reviews of all the shows mentioned see CurtainUp's archives.

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