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Berkshire Summer '10 Retrospective
By Elyse Sommer
Another summer and as usual it was a mix of something old and something new. Typical of summer theaters the old predominated but the new included several attention-must-be-paid plays as well as an exciting musical.
Williamstown Theatre Festival Won the Something New SweepstakesThe Williamstown Theatre Festival's world premiere of Afther the Revolution was one of the best written, acted and staged dramas I've had the pleasur of reviewing for quite a while Review). Small wonder it's already scheduled for a production at New York's prestigious Playwrights Horizon, hopefully with every member of the superb cast on board.
On WTF's smaller stage, the Nikos, The Last Goodbye, proved to be a riveting retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, with most of Shakespeare's words intact but married to the late Jeff Buckley's songs. This impressive adapting achievement by Michael Kimmel (Review) had premiere had Broadway written all over it though economic considerations may result in some of the excellent Williamstown cast's being replaced with some bigger box office names. (Review).
Strictly speaking, A Funny Thing Happened to me on the Way to the Forum belongs in the revival category. But the production that launched Williamstown's Main Stage season turned out to be a case of something old made brand new again thanks to Jessica Stone's smart idea of staging it as the ancient Greeks would have done— a men only cast. (Review). With Stone's husband Christopher Fitzgerald to play the lead, Zero Mostel was surely smiling down from the heavens reserved for actors wishing for worthy successors to roles they created. Dont' be surprised if this one has a future life on a Broadway Stage.
Barrington Stage and Shakespeare & Company Both Had More Hits Than MissesBarrington Stage in Pittsfield and Shakespeare & Company in Lenox both earned bragging rights to more hits than misses. Barrington Stage joined in with the many 80th Birthday tributes to Stephen Sondheim by not only mounting a splendid revival of Sweeney Todd on its Main Stage. (Review). They also put on Into the Woods as part of its invaluable Youth Theater progam-- it was an outstanding showcase for the many talented students in the area's high schools. While not open for review, word of mouth made it one of the surprise hits of the season. (Feature).
Sweeney Todd was followed by several solid revivals. First up was Yasmina Reza's hugely successful Art. It was well acted and entertaining as ever — just the kind of light but intelligent comedy Berkshirites enjoy. Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular mixed hilarity with sadness and was actually a much more successful replay than its last Broadway outing. The middle and best act was still memorably buoyed by its pitch black humor. (Art Review and Absurd Person Singular Review).
The offerings at Barrington's Second Stage included a brief return engagement of Freud's Last Session before its move to Off-Broadway as well as a most intriguing new historical play, The Whipping Man. It was handsomely staged and well-acted. If you missed it, not to worry. Manhattan Theatre Club has announced its own production of the play, to be helmed by one of its top directors, Daniel Sullivan.
Barrington's worthy Musical Theater Lab continued to give young composers and lyricists a leg up the professional ladder, though this year's offerings were more misses than hits. The too cliche-riddled Pool Boy was followed by the too self-indulgent and depressing The Memory Play about a squabbling mother and daughter dealing with Alzheimer's. Audiences as well as critics responded more positively to this as a play than a musical; in fact, one crtic simply ignored the musical theater developmental connection and reviewed it as if it were a straight play.
Freud Review at Barrington Stage and Off-Broadway
Whipping Man Review
Pool Boy Review
The Memory Play Review
Shakespeare & Company stuck to what it's known for on its main stage, with two terrific Shakespeare offerings. A superb and lively Richard III, was another jewel in John Douglas Thompson's crown of achievements. But good as Thompson was, he was supported by a splendid cast and crafts team. The Winter's Tale, may not be the Bard's best and most psychologically sound play, but this season's production was certainly one of the best and most entertaining I've ever seen (Review). Tina Packer, the company's founding artistic director and a true force of nature was joined by Nigel Gore for a fascinating exploration of Shakespeare's women, aptly called Women of Will. (Review).
The Company's smaller second stage was devoted to contemporary plays. Elizabeth Aspenlieder's exuberant performance as the solitary star of Theresa Rebeck's Bad Dates went a long way towards breaking down my reservations about solo plays. (Review). I could not say the same for Mendleberg and Mahler, which attracted (and disappointed) a lot of devotees of Mahler's music who expected more than an occasional musical snippet and an actor who would know how to handle the several conducting scenes with a modicum of conviction. (Review). On the other hand, a two-person revival of Gardner McKay's Sea Marks was just the sort of romantic, touching fare, summer theatergoers enjoy. (Review).
Fortunately, Shakespeare & Company, kept its offering running longer than the two-week runs typical at most summer theaters.
The Berkshire Threatre Festival Wound Up With a Big WinnerIn Stockbridge, the venerable Berkshire Theatre Festival's Main Stage got off to an underwhelming start with a so-so production of The Last Five Years. (Review). An even less impressive musical was Babes in Ars at their Second Stage which I thought best not to review. However, this sent an unusual number of emails my way, divided between congratulating me on not wasting almost three hours of my time and complainits about t having been charged full price for what they considered an amateurish, badly directed and performed show. The decision to mount a major Shakespeare production with an outstanding and popular Shakespeare Company in the next town, also didn't go over too well, especially since Eric Hill who is well-respected, didn't do his usually outstanding work with the BTF's Macbeth. (Review).
I did like Hill's Endgame at the smaller venue though it is a play that tested Berkshirites' willingness to take on dark, dismal and puzzling works (Review). . I also enjoyed the second Main Stage offering, The Guardsaman, mostly for its terrific cast (Review). Happily, the company got its groove back in a big way with a splendidly directed and acted revival of Edward Albee's first Pulitzer Prize play, A Delicate Balance. (Review). With a new Albee play about to open at Playwirghts Horizon, this revival was as timely as it was interesting to revisit.
Like the other area theaters (WTF excepted), the Festival will continue to be open into Fall, with a world premiere, No Wake, opening at the Unicorn Theater September 4th and continuing through October's leaf season.
Berkshire Arts & Entertainment MiscellanyOne highlight of the season was the return of The Wharton Salon, launched last year by Catherine Taylor-Wllliams to bring back the wonderful adaptations that were part of Shakespeare & Company's season during the years they were in residence at Wharton's Lenox mansion, the Mount. The Mount has enthusiastically hosted this new series and this year's production of Wharton's Berkshire set novel, Summer, was a sell-out with even standing-room tickets grabbed up. Hopefully, the Salon will return to Lenox next year and for a longer run — and eventually more than a single production. ( Review ).
Besides all these plays and musicals the Berkshire entertainment scene also boasts Jacob's Pillow for dance enthusiasts and lots of concerts (the Tanglewood Music Festival being the big attraction) and cabaret nights. In the last category, top Broadway talent like Ute Lemper, Patty LuPone, Tyne Daly, Sutton Foster and Barbara Cook spent sold-out evenings at the Colonial Theater, Mahaiwe Arts Center, Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theater Festival. Some of the smaller area theaters we just didn't get to this year included a new enterprise on top of Pittsfield's recently opened movie complex, The Beacon, and a thriving Fringe Festival. And, oh, did I mention the wealth of outstanding museums? — The BerkshiNo Wakere Museum in Pittsfield, the Norman Rockwell in Stockbridge, The Clark and the Williams College museum in Williamstown and MASS MoCA in North Adams All this and a chance to enjoy the gorgeous scenery, sports, shopping and dining facilities. How lucky can a theater critic get to call the Berkshires home each summer.