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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
One of the problems with summer theater is that schedules are usually so tight that it's nearly impossible to put off an announced opening. November, a new play by J Ranelli is a case in point. Moving the opening from July 30th to August 3rd to allow for last-minute script revisions simply wasn't enough. The structural flaws of this play are beyond last-minute diddling. The basic premise, while valid enough, is too familiar. The same is true of the characters.
Set in the waterfront summer home of a socially and politically prominent New England family, the story begins at its penultimate point in time -- a morning in November 1982 following the funeral of the patriarch. By the time it concludes (the following morning) we've been taken though innumerable, non sequential flashbacks, dating back as far as the 1930s. The idea is to use the family's personal triumphs and tragedies as a framework to give us a perspective of this period in American history. Korea, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, the Kennedy Assassination, World War II . It's a large canvas, requiring a more experienced craftsperson than J Ranelli (gender identification is as absent form the playwright's profile as is a period in the by-line).
The playwright is quoted in the advance press release about the strains the social events of the period from 1932 to 1982 put on families like the Grants and the country in general. Unfortunately, the play also puts an enormous strain on the actors. The randomness of the flashbacks require the actors to portray their characters at a variety of ages without any changes in makeup, hair style or costumes. The last time I saw this done successfully was in Pride's Crossing (our review) in which the award-winning actress Cherry Jones went from childhood to age ninety. (costume and makeup changes were used for the rest of the cast) In November, the jumping from one time frame to another without props simply doesn't work and the randomness of the scene shifts comes off as more annoying than clever -- especially, when the play seems to reach a climax, but then proceeds to flashback for a totally superfluous additional scene.
The actors are further saddled with derivative characters and details -- i.e. the Kennedy patriarch type father and the always open bar which makes one wish this really were a Guerney play. With everyone a type rather than a flesh-and-blood character, it's hard to be moved by what should be a deeply moving drama. At the matinee I attended, there wasn't a wet eye in sight.
Given the play's problems, the eight actors should not be criticized but given our sympathies for being trapped in this work in progress. The director hasn't helped matters by allowing the excessive and excessively noisy entrances and exits (a carpet or rubber soled shoes might have helped) which further try the patience and slow things down.
Don't let this one play keep you from putting The Old Castle Theatre Company on your place of enjoyable venues to visit. The theater has comfortable, stadium seating and has produced many worthy plays -- for example, last season's production of Ayckbourn's Taking Steps. Located within the Bennington Center for the Arts, seeing a show there also affords an opportunity to see the work displayed in its galleries.