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A CurtainUp Report
A Look Back at the 2006 Berkshires Season
By Elyse Sommer
(Note: All references to shows are linked to the reviews. Links to shows reviewed during the season but not mentioned can be found in our seasonal archive.)
The brightest stories of this Summer 2006 in the Berkshires revolved around real estate. The biggest of these is an example of how a city once dependent on a big name brand business might just find its way back to prosperity thanks to two arts enterprises, both restorations of theaters -- the Colonial, on Pittsfield's North Street, a theatrical grand dame from 1903 to the early 1930s that was turned into a movie house and rescued from demolition by paint store entrepreneur George Miller; and, on a nearby side street, a former vaudeville house which, after failing as a movie house and theater, stood, shabby and neglected waiting for a rescuer.
For Barrington Stage, the successful move of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to Broadway as well as a generous board and a hefty cash grant from Pittsfield helped to finance the move out of a rented high school auditorium. Not too surprisingly, the new home being an old venue required extensive renovations that were still ongoing at the beginning of summer. So the company which had over the years resourcefully availed itself of various locales to extend its reach, spent most of the summer putting on its shows at temporary venues. The new home was, however, ready for the final Main Stage production, even though a balcony with an additional two hundred and twenty seats (for a total of 470 seats) and finding a permanent Second Stage venue are still on its to do list. (Pittsfield's eagerness to have Barrington Stage succeed was further evident via the Library's donation of its small auditorium for this summer's Second Stage and productions).
But buying expensive real estate is never problem free which brings us to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. A few seasons ago this Berkshire theatrical institution also became proud owner of its own permanent home but the undertaking proved so costly that the company had to retrench and sell off the beautiful but restoration dollar gobbling Springlawn Mansion where it had been putting on its second stage productions. Fortunately, this company too is as resourceful as it is energetic and its focus has never been on fussy scenery. Consequently they managed to sandwich two plays which would normally play in their second and smaller theater onto their main stage -- and to have a profitable season. The still far into the future Rose Print put on a free play, The Servant of Two Masters. The Kemple Street property is large and there's a building in place that's already earmarked to be renovated as a second stage, so that there'll be less juggling and more plays next year.
Contrary to Barrington Stage and Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge has long basked in the luxury of owning its own theaters on a spacious chunk of land that includes two parking lots; and a bit further north, the Williamstown Town Theatre Festival has already gone through a major real estate change with the former Williams College auditorium re-designed as an opera style main stage to which a modern, larger version of the tiny Nikos is attached.
Not to be left out of the real estate game, one of the area's smaller theaters, the Miniature Theater of Chester, decided to put the location-location-location mantra to work As part of this the company re-christened itself Chester Theater and extended the run of its first two plays, Duet for One and Two Rooms, beyond their initial run at the Chester Town Hall for an additional week at the Consolati Arts Center in Sheffield, Connecticut (the high school auditorium that lost its previous summer tenant, Barrington Stage). Fortuitously, these plays also happened to be the highlights of their season.
But, as you can't judge a book by its cover, ultimately a physical space is only as good as the shows it produces. So, how was the Berkshire season in terms of plays chosen and the way they were presented? To go back to each of the theaters mentioned in the order they appeared in our real estate "prelude". . .
While Ring Round the Moon, the premiere show at the new BS theater was not a perfect choice, the similarity in style and cast to the company's 2005 much praised The Importance of Being Earnest added to the overall good will from all who have watched this little company become a major artistic force in the Berkshires. The show itself was out-starred by the excitement of seeing it in its new home.
Of the three BS main stage shows, the most popular in terms of critical reception and word of mouth was David Lindsay-Abaire's Wonder of the World. To this critic, the most interesting was Boyd's revival of Follies which had New York critics trading concrete for grass, The Human Comedy came and went without similar brouhaha.
Except for one show, the BS Second Stage season was somewhat disappointing. A double bill The Collyer Brothers at Home& Period Piece was basically a curtain raiser for an eagerly awaited new musical theater development Lab under composer William Finn's guidance. This program got off to a terrific start with the well rehearsed, fully staged Burnt Part Boy which is more than likely to be developed further and have another life elsewhere. Unfortunately, two other scheduled musicals had to be cancelled and the replacements were consequently not ready for review (the actors performing with script in hand) or on a par with the initial show. Interesting as the musical lab concept is, with the New York Music Festival in its third year and getting enough attention to draw not just New York musical theater enthusiasts, but suburbanites and tourists, it might just be best for Ms. Boyd to go back to focusing on the fully staged, well acted and directed plays the company's second stage audiences have come to expect and make one of them a developing musical -- which is exactly how the Twenty-Fifth Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee began.
This 700 plus seat restoration grand dame will be mainly a rental house for all manner of entertainment enterprises, I'm pleased that they began the Colonial's new life with Rent which represents trend-setting contermporary musical theater. This particular road company arrived at a time when there is much talk about the difficulty of selling shows that have been around for years, especially in areas with a vibrant theaters able to produce their own freshly minted productions (e.g. Barrington Stage which hopes bo be a year-round presence and the many theaters that burst into activity during the summer). But with everyone eager to be present at this new-old theater's new life, the big house was packed right through the sky high second balcony. This is a big house to fill and half empty and too many dark periods are the big hurdles to overcome in order to make Pittsfield's dream of renewed glory come true.
BERKSHIRE THEATRE FESTIVAL (BTF) This venerable and charming theater had a terrific Main Stage season featuring a variety of revivals. This being the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth made the well received season opener, Amadeus, an especially apt choice. The excellent, outstandingly cast concluding production of Wendy Wasserstein's Pulitzer Prize Winning The Heidy Chronicles was a fitting tribute to the playwright, who died earlier this year. One couldn't help thinking how pleased Wasserstein would have been to note that not only Berkshire Theatre Festival, but Barrington Stage and Jacob's Pillow have women in charge.
BTF's revival of Tennessee Williams' The Night of the Iguana was a big hit and while Tina Howe's quirky, delicate Coastal Disturbances didn't resonate quite as much as the other three plays, Producing Director Kate Maguire had much to smile about -- at least in terms of the big theater's productions.
The offerings at the smaller Unicorn Theatre made for quite a different story. This theater which has gained a deserved reputation for edgy productions of both new and older plays had a disappointing season, the biggest disappointments being an early Terrence McNally play, Where Has Tommy Flowers Gone? and Stephen Temperly's The Pilgrim Papers. The first was a charmless and unnecessary revival and Temperly's new play was even more disappointing, as last year's delightful Souvenir set up high expectaions. The final Unicorn playVilla Dolorosia represented a BTF first in that it was scheduled for a longer than usual season,. With the current Israel-Lebanon conflict David Hare's 1999 account of his visit to Israel, is more pertinent than ever and having an actor, Jonathan Epstein, instead of the playwright do the narration actually makes it more of a play and less a dramatized lecture. It should do well with the area's large Jewish constituency and during the post-Labor Day period when there are less choices in terms of theater.
WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL (WTF)
Roger Rees's second season as Artistic Director of this prestigious festival unfortunately had more downs than ups. It's not that Rees didn't have the right intentions for a mix of showss to appeal to various tastes and managerial needs but that for the most part, nothing really sizzled enough to be a hot ticket.
A revival of an old favorite, Cole Porter's Anything Goes encouraged enough people to buy up most of the seats ahead of time, but the production suffered from an underwhelming set and miscasting that, alas, included the leading lady. Both the set and the cast was more impressive for Sweet Bird of Youth which I liked very much -- but local audiences, instead of taking advantage of a rare opportunity to see two of Tennessee Williams plays interestingly staged, tended to make either/or choices and Williams' more popular Night of the Iguana tended to win out.
Unfortunately Romeo and Juliet which was heralded as new enough to knock everyone's sandals off, did little to move the season into anything near best-ever territory. Maybe a less trendy Shakespeare and a dynamite replay of West Side Story instead of the somewhat dated Porter musical would have worked better. At any rate, Rees did have a coup with Double Double, a delightfully tricky comedy thriller that he himself penned with Jersey Boys scribe Rick Elice (and in which Rees himself originally played the lead).
I wish I could say that the Nikos season was more memorable. The choices were certainly diverse -- a new play with a touch of magic realism (Lucy and the Conquest), an exploration of the problems of cerebral palsied children (A Nervous Smile) and a musical version of a cult movie (The Opposite of Sex). But, while all had their moments, the first play went off on too many tangents, the second was a lesser A Day in the Life of Joe Egg and the musical was fun but lacked that indispensable ingredient, a terrific score.
SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY
This was a case of Bingo all around. The two Shakespeare plays struck a nice balance between tragedy (Hamlet) and farce (The Merry wives of Windsor). The Hamlet production gained special piquancy not only from some unusual interpretative ideas by director:Eleanor Holdridge and from the fact that Gertrude and Polonius were played by artistic director Tina Packer and her husband Denis Krausnick and Hamlet by Packer's son Jason Asprey.
Annette Miller, who has a penchant for larger than life women, did a bang-up job as erstwhile Nixon administration Attorney General John Mitchell's flamboyant wife and Watergate whistle blower in Martha Mitchell Calling.. This snappily written new play was smartly staged and eerily timely. No Background Music, a half hour reading masquerading as a play, seemed like an unnecessary postscript though it did make the connection in that the letters also recalled the Vietnam War era now so sadly reenacted in Iraq.
The play that launched the season, Enchanted April also turned out to be the undisputed crowd pleaser of the entire season -- by that I mean not just Shakespeare & Company's super hit -- but the super hit of all the plays mounted anywhere in the Berkshires.
The Chester Theater's seasonal theme of "Unexpected Alliances." could easily be renamed "Natural Alliances" in relation to some other events I attended this summer. One of the most intersting of these was the collaboration of Shakespeare & Company and the Tanglewood Music Center's composing and instrumental fellows for an evening of excerpts from Antony and Cleopatra performed to original music at Ozawa Hall
Report on Tanglewood and Shakespeare & Company's One Night Collaboration at Ozawa Hall. One of my all too rare visits to Jacob's Pillow saw the Pacfic Northwest company focus on a rare alliance between dancers and instrumentalists with a Balanchine piece that had the instrumentalists take center stage with the dancers and spotlighted yet another type of alliance in a piece alternating dancing to the music of Bach with traditional African music.
Though I did get to spend a good many lovely afternoons and evenings at Tanglewood, took in two Berkshire Opera Company programs and saw most of what was on offer in the way of plays and musicals, I didn't get to the Berkshire Fringe's second season; nor did I make it over to that charming little music theater in the round, the MacHaydn in Chatham, the Theater Barn in New Lebanon or the Old Castle Theater over the Massachussetts border in Vermont. Oh, well, there's always another season. See you then.