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A CurtainUp BerkshiresBerkshire Feature
Fridays-At Home, Tea at Chesterwood
The Porches Inn

Margaret French
Margaret French photo that inspired Susan Buchholz costume for Tea At Chesterwood
Is it theater when you have tea and cookies and a free-form conversation with an actress, Susan Bucholz, playing dress-up for the role of Margaret French, the only child of Samuel Chester French who, along with other famous monuments, sculpted the Lincoln Memorial?

Unlike the Berkshires' other popular tea-and-cookie afternoons, Shakespeare & Company's carefully scripted Wharton One-Acts, Chesterwood's Fridays-at-Home hour is improvisational, with the small coterie of tea takers (ten at the "performance". I attended) called on to be a Ms. Bucholz's co-actors as well as guests.

There is no playscript as such. Just in case guests need a bit of prompting to get into the spirit of this recreation of one of the at-homes actually held each Friday at the estate that is now one of the most beautiful and tranquil museums of the Berkshires, Ms. Buchholtz has a few notes discreetly tucked into the 1920s purse that's part of the costume lovingly recreated to match the photo of Margaret French on the program cover.

Samuel Chester French Studio
Samuel Chester French Studio with reception room and a porch that serves as the setting of Fridays-at-Home, Tea At Chesterwood
The seating arrangement in this environmental happening has the audience seated around a table on the porch outside Samuel Chester French's. studio. Everyone has perfect sightllines of the magnificent grounds and vistas beyond -- what Samuel Chester French called the "dry view."

As Ms. Bucholtz takes her seat at the head of the table, the silver tea service and pitcher of lemonade (made with ginger ale ad orange juice) before her she establishes the rules of her theatrical game. She is Margaret French and the table talk, while free flowing, will be limited to the time to which we have been transported -- the year 1920. The Great War is over and, to set the tone, Margaret announces that her papa has just declared himself satisfied with the final sketch for the Lincoln Memorial. She also lets her guests in on a bit of news she's just heard at the Thursday at-home of another prominent Berkshire family, the Crowninshields, whose son Frank is the editor of Vanity Fair.. The news is of Edith Wharton's forthcoming novel, The Age of Innocence, which Margaret hopes will be more palatable than she found Summer, the author's tale of a Lee library clerk who found herself pregnant by a married man. (Miss French would hardly have approved of either the opera or play adaptations of Summer two seasons ago -- our review of the play and the opera).

As tea and lemonade are poured and passed around with sponge cake and cookie by Anna (Dulce Ricciardelli), the uniformed servant, Margaret keeps the conversational flow going with references to local newspaper items and responds to questions about herself and her family and takes us into her confidence about he burgeoning romance with the man who will become her husband. By the time Miss French is "called away" to motor to the Hudson railroad to meet weekend guests from New York you'll have been lulled into feeling as if you've indeed time traveled back to another time.

Obviously, this is not one of those Berkshire area plays that might show up on a New York stage. The experience is strictly site specific and its chief pleasure derives from the guided tour preceding the theatrical interlude with Ms. Bucholz. My tour guide, Cynthia Weber, was a font of knowledge and charm -- and with plenty of stage presence.

A footnote: The Chesterwood Estate and Museum has also initiated another site-specific theater piece entitled Breaking the Mold: Portrait of a Lady Sculptor. The sculptor of the title is Evelyn Beatric Longman Batchelder. As recreated by Anne Undeland, she shares with visitors her experience in executing the portrait sculpture Daniel Chester Franch has passed on to her. Miss Batchelder, who became famous for her sculptures of children was married at Chesterwood and this piece marks her return in a professional capacity. Breaking the Mold will be done Thursday Afternoons at 3:15 and 4:15, through July and August.

Fridays-at-Home, Tea at Chesterwood
A participatory theatrical experience developed and performed by Susan Buchholz, as Margaret French

Dulce Ricciardelli as Anna, the tea server
Chesterwood, 4 Williamsville Rd. Stockbridge --413/298-3579
Chesterwood Web Site
Fridays at 2:15 and 3:15, following a guided tour of the grounds, the French home and the Studio
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on Friday June 29th tour and performance
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