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Chester Theatre's Summer 2008 Season

Last Updated: August 16, 2008 New Review: World premiere of *Tilted House

Show Schedule — an *asterisk before a show title indicates that a review has been posted
*Blackbird |*Almost Maine| *The Dishwashers*Tilted House

About this All-In-One Format: Since summer theater productions run such a short time, instead of retiring each show after it makes way for the next production, we're putting details and reviews of shows at a particular theater on one page so that everything remains at your fingertips. No need to click to the archives unless you are looking for something from a past season.

The ChesterTheatre Company, at the Chester Town Hall, on Middlefield Street off Route 20. (413 - 354 -7771) web site. Evening Performances Wed-Sat at 8pm Matinee Performances Thurs & Sun at 2pm

You can't think about it every day.— Ray
I don't have to. It's there.—Una
Rebecca Brooksher as Una and Steve Hendrickson as Ray
Since I saw the New York production of David Harrower's Blackbird, I was curious to see how a small theater like Chester would handle a play that owed so much to its actors, director and stage craft. Not to worry. The Chester Theater production may not be as high profile as the one I saw at Manhattan Theatre Club or the one Curtainup's London critic reviewed in the West End, but it still fits my description of it as a harrowing pas-de-deux of bitterness, shame, regret and passion.

Even though my second time around viewing meant that the tricky surprise ending was no longer a surprise, this intense, often painful to watch psychodrama still held me in its grip throughout its intermissionless 90 minutes. Director Sheila Siragusa has seen to it that the two-hander has enough tension to make you overlook the play's less than believable elements —not unexpected given that the playwright based his script on a case publiized in the media. Not that the author has failed to bring his own imagination to bear on his source material (the case of a man who goes through with a date arranged over the internet even after he discovers his cyber pal is under the age of legal consent). It's just that provocative as Blackbird is, it retains the footprint of the playwright at work. <

Whatever the source, the cause and effect of adult sexual relationships with minors is a pungent subject that has produced classic fiction like Nabokov's Lolita and Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-prize winning How I learned to Drive. Harrower's broken "Pinteresque," dialogue effectively escalates the tension of the confrontation between the middle aged man who wants to forget the past and the young woman who, unlike him, is unable or unwilling to do so. While my opinion holds that Blackbird is not a great play, it still delivers the goods in that it's an absorbing play whose characters will provide you with absorbing theater plus hours of post theater discussion.

Per my previous review, here's as much as you need to know about Blackbird's plot: A nervous middle-aged man (he's 58) hustles a pretty young woman (she's 28 or 29) into the lunch room of the medical supply company where he holds some sort of mid-management level position. It's evident that her visit is unexpected, unwelcome and that anything she says is best not overheard by his co-workers who can be seen as shadowy figures through the smoked glass door. She obviously has the man at some sort of anxiety provoking disadvantage. For one thing, the name she uses, Ray, is not his current name but belongs to the past that we quickly learn haunts both of them. It's only through a picture of Ray and other company executives in a trade magazine that provided her with a lead to his current location.

Needless to say, the recollections, recriminations and see-sawing emotions that the woman's —her name is Una— unexpected arrival at Ray's workplace set in motion are as messy as the evidence of leftover food and drinks. Without going into too much detail, Una and Ray once lived on the same street of some distant unnamed city and a casual conversation at a barbecue led to three months of secret meetings with the obviously inappropriate relationship consummated when Ray took the girl to a seaside guest house. This resulted in a three-year prison term for statutory rape for him and years of ostracism for her.

Naturally, much rests on the way the two actors delve into the complexities of these characters. Both Rebecca Brooksher Steve Hendrickson do a good job of conveying Una and Ray's anger and pain. Hendrickson deserves some kind of medal for stepping into this role shortly before opening and not only committing the script (including a lengthy monologue) to memory, but tapping into the nuances of Harrower's style and the emotional core of his role.

Brooksher, who made an impressive New York debut in another two-hander, Shining City (review) lacks the Lolita-like fragility that the petite Allison Pill brought to the role. Perhaps if costume designer Charles Schoonmaker had put her into a more sizzly-sexy outfit, it would have been easier to picture her as an irresistible pre-teen. Brooksher looks good enough in her little black dress but it lacks that Lolitaish something. A shirt with an open tie would also have been better suited for Ray than a sport shirt.

Regina Garcia's set design works well enough to create the cold, corporate office with the opaque door allowing the shadowy figures of colleagues passing by and intensifying Ray's nervousness at being seen with his mysterious guest. Somehow, left-over paper plates and cups on the conference table as well as the overflowing garbage can would have added to the symbol of the messiness of Ray and Una's life.

I couldn't give away the ending even if I were so inclined since Harrower smartly doesn't tie things up with a neat explanation about the whys and wherefores of this relationship, or the implications of the finale. In case you're wondering about the title, which he also doesn't explain (or refer to), my guess is that he took it from biblical references to ravens and other black birds as being bad omens and their penchant for plucking out the eyes of sinners (a vengeance dream described by Una and made concrete by Ray's suffering from some sort of eye discomfort that he keeps rubbing). On the other hand, the sight of two blackbirds sitting together is also a symbol of peace and a good omen. As with any play that raises as many questions as it answers, you might walk out of the theater with the play's final image reminding you of two such blackbirds, or feeling more than a little queasy about the blackbird's more ominous associations.

Blackbird by David Harrower
Directed by Sheila Siragusa,
Cast: Rebecca Brooksher as Una and Steve Hendrickson as Ray
Set Design: Regina Garcia
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Costume Design: Charles Schoonmaker
Sound Design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: Lyndsey Goode
Running Time: 90 Minutes without intermission
from July 2-13.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 6th matinee
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Almost Maine
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer
I'm sorry if I made you mad. I don't know what I did wrong. I just gave you a kiss. I mean, just. . .why not give me one back? It's the polite thing to do, you know, get a kiss/give a kiss, very fair. Just. . .give me a kiss, Rhonda. —Dave
Almost Maine
Manon Halliburton and Paden Fallis
( Photo: Rick Teller)
I first saw Almost Maine two years ago on a cold night in the middle of winter, the same time of year actor-playwright John Cariani chose for unfolding his small town, 9'oclock version of midsummer madness that can infect lovestruck, love hungry folks anywhere any time. Naturally, since that production was in an Off-Broadway theater in New York, it wasn't nearly as cold as it gets in Almost, Maine which was inspired by the author's own home town of Presque, Maine where going South for the winter means moving to Vermont. Nevertheless, Cariani's loosely connected pieces focusing on pivotal moments of love lost or found by twenty residents of Almost struck a responsive chord with New Yorkers.

Sure, it was hokey and unapolegetically quirky, but the authentic realness of these stories and the dialogue that was genuinely down east without being overcooked avoided the pitfall of making Almost, Maine too cloyingly quaint. While this wasn't a show with the legs to carry it to Broadway, my prediction that it would have a life beyond that New York production in many regional theaters is already coming true.

The production now at the Chester Theater is already the play's second in the Berkshires (it was produced at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon last summer). Happily, director Chuck Hudson has collaborated effectively with the designers to create the atmosphere of a small Maine town and guided his quartet of thespians to bring the needed warmth, humor and understanding to their multiple roles, this is a feather in this increasingly popular little theater's feather-studded cap.

The notes in the script in my New York press kit mentioned that Almost, Maine could be done with just two actors. However, while the Chester Theater began its life focusing on two-person plays, the company has expanded its vision so their production again enjoys the variety provided by a cast of four. Since they apply to the current director's, actors' and designers' work, the comments that follow are pretty much a repeat of the story highlights and observations made after my first encounter with Mr. Cariani's Almostians .

We're again taken to a Friday night in the middle of winter in Maine. Such nights can get pretty cold and snowy, but happy and not so happy romances seem as abundant as the stars twinkling in the deep blue sky that overarches the play's eleven vignettes. As groups of stars form constellations, so these brief episodes are connected by time and place (each occurs on in and around Almost at 9pm). The bracing hopefulness of these episodes is another unifying element.

As the citizens of Almost never got around to organizing themselves as a real town eligible to have its name on the state map, the Almostonians we meet seem not to have gotten around to sorting out and expressing their romantic yearnings. When they do, there are no eloquent interchanges. These people's deepest feelings can be located in the emotion fraught silences that punctuate what they say. (Could Harold Pinter have learned his famous pauses during an unpublicized youthful visit to Almost?)

Don't expect steamy sex. For the folks in Almost a kiss is a big deal and usually has major consequences, and it takes a spurt of courage to land one. This applies even to a wondrously funny yet full of feeling Brokeback Mountain type episode which describes what happens between two long-standing buddies have a face to face moment with the love that for them still dare not speak its name.

As for the Almostians' hearts, they're broken and mended — literally and metaphorically, as when .a woman who packs up the love received over the years in big plastic bags and returns them to her commitment-shy boyfriend, like an unwanted Christmas present. Then there's a scene when a misplaced shoe drops mysteriously from the sky like a shooting star or, in this case, like the misplaced love of the shoe owner and her husband.

While some of the humorous scenes border on slapstick, it all adds up to a bracing, hopefulness and authenticity, enhanced by the actors' handling of their from four to six. As long as I'm quibbling, the scenery changes could be a bit shorter and smoother, but this is offset by the way the various duets are interspersed with a silent interlogue that grows increasingly hilarious.

As with any assemblage of sketches like this, some are better than others and I feel now, as I did two years ago, that Almost, Maine would be even better if trimmed here and there so that the whole snowy tapestry could unfold without being interrupted by an intermission. Still, the Chester audience at the matinee I attended was never restless and responded with raucaus laughter to the humor, adding their own interlogues of applause. Clearly, whether you see it in summer or winter, this endearing little show is just the ticket for escaping from economic and political tensions to a world where a kiss is not just still a kiss but a life changing big deal.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani
Director: Chuck Hudson
Cast: Jim Beaudin (Pete, Jimmy, Landall, Randy, Daniel), Paden Fallis (East, Steve, Chad, Phil, Dave), Manon Halliburton(Ginette, Waitress, Maralyn, Marci, Rhonda, Suzette), Tracy Liz Miller (Glory, Sandrine, Gayle, Hope)
Set Coordination: Craig Milne
Lighting Design: Lara Dubin
Costume Design: Heather Crocker Aulenback
Sound Design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: Samone B. Weissman
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours, including one 10-minute intermission
on July 17
July 16-27.
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The Dishwashers
My hatred has been my discipline and my discipline has become my job. —Dressler

The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.—Albert Camus
The Dishwashers by Morris Panych is a working class study of Sisyphean Hell. Instead of repeatedly rolling a rock up a hill only to watch its descent for all eternity, the men trapped in this Stygian galley wash endless piles of dishes accompanied by an interminable stream of existential dialogue.

If Panych wants us to feel their pain, we do, along with a great deal of ennui. Though there are flashes of brilliance in the writing, Panych needs to cut, cut, cut through the piles of repetitious language, which interferes with the playwright's attaining a greater potential in this spirited examination of man's fate. It is an allegory where existential questions are wrapped in discussions of gleaming silver and glassware; where crème brulee becomes a metaphor for life.

The three characters— Dressler, Emmett and Moss— struggle together in this apparently thankless task of dishwashing while ruminating over great philosophical theory. Dressler (Tim Donohue), the professional, is introducing Emmett (Jay Stratton), the “"new guy," to the art of kitchen maintenance. Emmett is fighting against his precipitous fall in status and determined to regain his former life as some sort of financial hustler. In fact, he once regularly dined upstairs in the restaurant where he now toils. When he says, "If only I could get back in, I know I wouldn't make the same mistakes a second time," we know he is deluded. All of his machinations to escape foreshadow his entrapment in the web of a new hell.

Moss (John Shuman), the dying wreck of a lifer in the kitchen sphere, still holds out dreams of escape by buying lottery tickets—though he takes pride in his perseverance, he is mentally and physically beaten. "We are working our way up, except for the up part," indicates the depth of his aspirations.

It is the deadly logical, equivocator Dressler who is the existential hero. He understands the reality of life and finds self-esteem in this dead- end job. Like Sisyphus, he has no hope, but the truth has freed him to wax eloquent about the dignity of his job in the face of the absurd. His endless labor provides its own contentment. He comforts Emmett with "Don't worry, as you get older your dreams get smaller. They become little wishes."

The play has the makings of wonderful, except for its length, and gratuitous final scene. It also requires actors who pick up each other's lines and move the pace along. Perhaps in this production this will happen as the actors become more comfortable in their roles.

The set, lighting and sound combine to create the dreary atmosphere of a subterranean basement where faceless men slog away in obscurity for low wages. Dressler observes: "We are the people they don't ever want to know about—ever!" In spite of the apparent deadening regularity of his days and nights, Dressler seems unflappable and even satisfied. Not many humans can say that. As Camus ends his essay, ". . . one must imagine Sisyphus happy."

The Dishwashers by Morris Panych
Directed by Byam Stevens
Cast: Tim Donoghue (Dressler,) Jay Stratton (Emmett,) John Shuman (Moss,) Jeff Vatore (Burroughs)
Set: Charles Corcoran
Lighting: Lara Dubin
Costume Design: Arthur Oliver
Sound Design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: April A. Kline
Running Time: 125 minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 31st performance
July 30 to August 10.
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Tilted House
Don't try to push your way into my life.—Annie

I've always been in it. I've known you for five hundred years.—Clay

You missed a few events—Annie
Tilted House
Victor Slezak and Alex Slezak
(Photo: Rick Teller)
The little theater that's become a big favorite with Berkshirites is joining its bigger neighbors in presenting a world premiere. Like all this summer's premiering plays, Tilted House by Susan Eve Harr is a realistic, contemporary drama, to be more specific, a marital drama.

Harr has built her conflict around Annie and Robert (Yifa Edelstein and Victor Slezak), a couple whose marriage is going through a patch as rough as the ocean on a bad weather day at their rented Fire Island house. To further rough up the waters Robert, a New York book publisher, has invited Clay (Michael Milligan), an author whose next book he'd like to publish to be their house guest. He thinks Annie will be pleased since she and Clay knew each other before they were married. What he doesn't know is just how well they knew each other. Clay's arrival is something of a tidal wave that threatens to be the apple to put an end in this already less than a marital paradise. Ms. Harr actually wrote an apple to be offered and eaten into her script as a reminder of the one that was Adam and Eve's undoing.

The difficulties of making a marriage work even if it's built on a foundation that had cracks in it to begin with are so pervasive that there's always room for exploring the dilemma of choosing between the familial bonds forged by day-to-day shared experiences and the exhilarating thrill of a more passionate relationship. The question Ms. Harr poses is whether the house in which Annie and Robert live with their young son Henry (Alex Slezak), can get back to an even tilt, despite its precipitous leaning in the direction of the family's collapse.

The playwright is fortunate to have actors to reveal her characters' charms and shortcomings. Victor Slezak is quite fine as a man who knows how to improve a flawed manuscript, but not how to deal with the tension in his relationship with the wife and son he loves. Yifa Edelstein is all simmering frustration and smoldering passion as the wife who, though she adores her child, regrets not prevailing in her ambitions to be a contender in the entertainment world—a resentment that has made her resent Robert's career. Michael Milligan conveys all the nuances of the irresistibly charismatic lover to awaken Annie's tamped down feelings and the self-absorbed destructiveness of a writer for whom everything is ultimately just fodder for his work.

Victor Slezak's son Alex has enough stage presence to make it likely that this debut performance may well be the first of many. He also happens to be totally adorable. Alex's role as son Henry is actually critical to the plot denouement since, like one of the chess pieces in the game Robert is teaching him to play, he becomes a pawn in the human chess game played by Clay and Robert.

Despite its valid theme, Tilted House is as flawed as the marriage it examines. When a play has seven scenes per act, the playwright had better be sure that those scene to scene transitions can be staged without interrupting the story's flow. It also takes a director who can find ways to avoid using those between scene moments to move props around noisily and annoyingly.

Unfortunately all those little cliffhangers Haar plants, especially in her tediously slow first act, could use a lot more polishing and a lot less of director Linsay Firman's unnecessarily busy between scenes activities. No sooner do you feel involved with the characters, than the lights dim and a bunch of prop movers disengage you from the story. Much of this rearrangement of scenery could more easily and smoothly be effected with lighting and a small second set at the side of the stage (something I've seen done in other Chester productions). Ironically, when the scene shifts to a bedroom in a hotel near Annie and Robert's house, the room is completely unchanged from Annie and Robert's bedroom.

Since the second act is much more absorbing than the first, one can only hope that Ms. Haar will go back to her computer and try to sharpen the dialogue and action of the first. Perhaps both Haar and Firman should try to catch Not Waving, another beach play now having its world premiere in Williamstown (review). It too is about people who need to sort out their relationships and feelings, but without a single blackout or scenery change.

Tilted House by Susan Eve Haar
Directed by Linsay Firman
Cast: Ylfa Edelstein (Annie), Michael Milligan (Clay), Victor Slezak (Robert) and Alex Slezak (Henry).
Set Design: Tony Andrea
Lighting Design: Jill Nagel
Costume Design: Kara. D. Midlam
Sound Design: Tom Shread
Stage Manager: Cheryl D. Olszowka
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer August 14th
August 13-24
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