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Play Readings that Play

Cranwell Resort

If I were to include play readings in my itinerary, there would be absolutely no occasional night at home with a book or just visiting with friends. In fact, in New York one could maintain a pretty full schedule of going to nothing but plays. The very full Berkshire summer arts and entertainment menu has its share of readings, such as Williamstown Theatre Festival's popular Fridays at 3 series and Shakespeare & Company's annual end of season Studio Festival Series. The idea behind these or any such presentations is of course to try out a playwright's work on an audience to see what can or needs to be done to take a work to a full scale production.

This year, in addition to the September 3rd Studio Festival Series, Shakespeare & Company made room on its busy Founders stage to present a single and all too timely play, To Pay the Price by Peter-Adrian Cohen, about one of Israel's great heroes, Jonathan "Yoni" Netanyahu, the only fatality of the 1976 rescue of Jewish hostages at the Entebbe airport in Uganda.

Being that a reading is done with minimal rehearsal time and the actors work with script in hand, To Pay the Price is not yet open for review. However, I doubt I'm jumping the gun when I say that this moving story of a genuine hero told from the viewpoint of young Israelis who must keep fighting the same battle for survival is likely to have a life as a fully staged production -- if not as part of a regular Shakespeare & Company season, at a small off-Broadway house, at other regional theaters, or, for sure, at Jewish organization auditoriums.

Besides showcasing Mr. Cohen's play to a packed house, this reading also served as an example of how to do a reading so that it is a satisfying dramatic experience. Naturally, if the material isn't worthwhile, no amount of savvy staging and effective work on the part of the "readers" can equate seeing a fully staged production. However, Michael Hammond, Shakespeare & Company's associate artistic director and the man in charge of this reading, managed to make you almost forget the scripts in the hands of the actors and the ad hoc aura that is part of a reading.

The audience, including this writer, were thoroughly engaged for the entire 80 minutes of the presentation. That's because Mr. Hammond enlisted five outstanding actors, and offset the script-in-hand line reading by putting the four male actors in Israeli uniforms, and creating just enough theatrical lighting and sound effects to create a more finished than tryout effect. What's more, Mr. Hammond took advantage of the fact that the reading was being staged on the company's main stage, and didn't have the actors just sit on stools or at a table, a common modus operandi. Instead, the actors playing Israeli soldiers (Robert Serrell and Howard W. Overshown) and a friend (Nigel Gore periodically moved off the blocks at the front of the playing area on which they were seated, While the actors playing Yoni and his young wife Bruria (Anne Gottlieb and Seth Kanor) were seated further upstage.

To add a sense of being at a special event, the reading was followed by a talkback with the playwright. Since the play focuses on the events leading up to Netanyahu's death at age 30, the audience was obviously curious about his family. And lo and behold, two Netanyahu family members were on hand -- in the audience, Netanyahu's father and, to take the stage and answer questions, Dr. Iddo Netanyahu, Yoni's brother and the author of the book Yoni's Last Battle--The Rescue of Entebbe. The questioning was animated and, typical of a large Jewish crowd, full of diverse opinions.

As the company's premiere presentation of Martha Mitchell Calling proved how the addition of just one actor can animate what is essentially a one-person play, so Michael Hammond's astute presentation of a reading, proves that this label does not preclude dramatic effectiveness.
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