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CurtainUp in the Berkshires
Williamstown Theatre Festival's Summer 2011 Season
By Elyse Sommer

Main Stage Shows (an *asterisk next to a title indicates the show details include a review) Three Hotels* | She Stoops to Conquer*|Ten Cents a Dance*

Nikos Stage Show Reviews (an *asterisk next to a title indicates the show details include a review::
*A Street Car Named Desire |One Slight Hitch| Doll's House *| Touch(ed)*

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main Street
Williamstown, MA (413/597-3400)
Performance Schedule (all venues)
Tuesday - Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Saturday & Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For more schedule details, visit . (Note: the earlier than last year's evening curtains should be welcome news for people with long commutes. The uniform matinee times should avoid confusion and are also earlier than in the past.)

About this All-In-One Format:These omnibus pages for individual theater organizations include facts about the entire schedule even though our limited human resources may not make it possible to review all the shows. However, every show reviewed will be added on this page. If you're looking for something seen in past seasons, click on our Berkshires archives . Also check out our Berkshres news page for news about theaters we don't cover or only occasionally— Berkshire news page and Berkshires Archives-links to past reviews and features .

Main Stage

The season will again mount three instead of four mainstage productions which the new artistic director Jenny Gersten says is less for economic reasons than to allow productions a somewhat longer than usual run. Casting for the originally announced opening play, You Can't Take It With You, ran into snafus. (This critic, for one, is quite happy with the replacement).

Three Hotels
In a hotel nothing sticks, It's all transitional, and you're never stuck with the vital you.—Ken Hoyle

For Ken, firing people has become a sort of prayer. — Barbara Hoyle
Maura Tierney
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Steven Weber
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Before I go any further, a full disclosure note: I'm not particularly fond of monologue plays, so it takes an outstanding script and acting to draw me in. Last season's Ghetto Klown, written and performed by John Leguizamo went a long way towards dispelling my coolness towards monologues. When it comes to monologue plays that feature several actors on stage with their narratives linked, but without any direct interaction between the monologists, Brian Friel is that rare playwright who can make this difficult to get deeply involved with structure work — witness his The Faith Healer and Molly Sweeney.

Having seen most of Jon Robin Baitz's plays, a play by him with just two characters, and those two characters in this never-the-twain-shall-meet monologue style, are quite atypical. Yet Three Hotels is just that, a two-hander constructed as three monologues with a linked narrative but no interaction between the speakers. The first and last are by a global baby formula manufacturer's executive, Kenneth Hoyle who's in charge of damage control vis-a-vis deaths attributed to the company and getting rid of " dead wood." These pieces bookend one by his wife Barbara, who has become a loose canon.

When I first saw Three Hotels in 1993, before Curtainup was launched, it was an intimate Off-Broadway production and had all the hallmarks of a still emerging playwright, but one with an obvious talent for dealing with complicated personal relationships as well as universal ethical issues. Baitz's experiment with the separate but linked monologue device was too awkward and distancing to be successful. He wisely abandoned this style in later works, like his first big hit The Substance of Fire and the terrific Other Desert Cities which is Broadway bound after a successful premiere at Lincoln Center's Second Stage.

Though Williamstown's Main Stage revival is elegantly staged and sensitively directed by Robert Falls, the monologue structure still makes it difficult to become deeply engaged in Kenneth Hoyle's and Barbara Hoyle's story. However, as Christine Lahti and Ron Rifkin made the hotel rooms in Morocco, the Virgin Islands and Mexico worth visiting, so do Maura Tierney and Steven Weber (Both actors are well-known to TV viewers — she for ER, he for Wings) enrich the Williamstown revival running through July 24th.

The not quite satisfying dramatic structure notwithstanding, the personal drama of the Hoyle marriage woven into the larger story remains depressingly timely. The angry young auteur contrivances and polemical tendencies remain rather too obvious (the tragedy that drives Barbara Hoyle to the brink, Ken Hoyle's reconnecting with his far away mother in a Jewish home for the aged). But the the larger story remains depressingly relevant. Business malfeasance is with us more than ever — from organizations like the one Ken works for that are willing to keep allowing their products to do harm and even kill; to dehumanizing downsizing and mismanaging of funds. of corporate malfeasance. The perks of corporate life continue to lead bright people to dream of getting a foot up the ladder even if it means abandoning ideals.

Baitz introduces the published edition of his play with a fable about a scorpion who persuades a water buffalo to ferry him across the water to shore, swearing that his intentions are good. The water buffalo's initial hesitation prove to be well founded for the scorpion foolishly does sting him, thereby killing them both. His explanation: " I can't help it; it's my nature." To the playwright his story is all about hopefully disproving that explanation.

Weber is chillingly on the mark as the play's human scorpion in the Tangiers, Morocco opening monologue entitled "The Halt & The Lame." Since he also gets the last part ("The Day of the Dead" in Oxaca, Mexico) his is also the role that enables us to see his journey from glib game player to plummeting corporate star — a man increasingly disillusioned even as he continues to sting like that scorpion of Baitz's introductory fable but who eventually makes his beginnings as the son of Jewish left wing family and Peace Corps volunteer believable.

Tierney's piece, a lecture to new corporate wives entitled "Be Careful," fills in the first part's references to the deterioration of their idyllic beginnings (they met in the Peace Corps). It is a study in grief, not only for a very real and irrevocable loss, but for the loss of who they were. Though a craft-honing play, Three Hotels and Weber and Tierney's outstanding acting, demonstrate the author's ability to create characters fitting themselves into life styles that go against their better selves.

Given the small scale, Thomas Lynch's stunningly executed sliding sets are almost too grand. If a last-minute problem with launching the Main Stage season with You Can't Take It With You hadn't cropped up, this revival probably would have been more suited for Williamstown's smaller Nikos theater. Still, the imposing grandeur, especially of the first hotel room do underscore the lavish life style that seduces people like the Hoyles into abandoning the lives they set out to live, and intensifies the steepness of their crash landings when they happen. Mr. Falls also uses the set for a striking final image that leaves it up the the viewer to decide whether there's hope for Barbara and Ken to reconnect.

As you will see from the list of Baitz plays Curtainup has reviewed, Williamstown has already revived some of his early plays in the past, If they're considering another one, my vote is for the unfairly neglected Ten Unknowns. John Robin Baitz plays reviewed at Curtainup
Chinese Friends Playwrights Horizon 2004
The Paris Letter 2005 Roundabout
Ten Unknowns2001 Lincoln Center
Hedda GablerBaitz adaptation 2001
Mizlansky/Zelinsky or "Schmucks"/ 1999 Manhattan Theater Club
The Film Society(1997 Williamstown)
End of the Day 1996 Williamstown

Production Notes:
Three Hotels by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Robert Falls
Cast: Steven Weber, (Kenneth Hoyle), Maura Tierney, (Barbara Hoyle)
Scenic DesignL Thomas Lynch Costume Design: Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls
Sound Design,: Obadiah Eaves
Production Stage Manager: Eileen Ryan Kelly
Running Time: Approximately 75 minutes, without an intermission
June 29 to July 24, 2011
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on July 7th

She Stoops to Conquer
by Gloria Miller
I'm disposing of the husband before I've procured the lover. — Kate Hardcastle
She Stoops to Conquer
Brooks Ashmanskas in a scene from She Stoops To Conquer (Photos by T. Charles Erickson)
Oliver Goldsmith's 1773 comedy of manners, She Stoops To Conquer, opened July 27th at Williamstown Theatre Fesitval's Main Stage without losing an iota of farcical zaniness or rowdy exuberance that has contributed to its popularity for two hundred and thirty eight years. Director Nicholas Martin, abetted by an extremely able cast, among whom are Brooks Ashmanskas, as Tony Lumpkin and Kristine Nielsen, as Mrs. Hardcastle, creates a highly amusing satire of class and propriety. They, along with a retinue of accomplished actors, are a comic whirlwind that fires the two-hour performance and drives it to its satisfying, though improbable finale. This rollicking hilarity is further intensified by a group of bungling servants whose hugger-mugger add to the misadventures at the Hardcastle estate.

This comedy of mistaken identities, venal guardian, tongue tied suitor, witty, virtuous maidens and devious mischief maker has been brought to life with every possible nuance, innuendo and slapstick inspiration exploited to create a joyful reincarnation of Goldsmith's work. Martin has kept the production in its period, but the audience recognizes human foibles and quirks no matter what the century.

When the two young suitors, Charles Marlow (Jon Patrick Walker) and George Hastings(Jeremy Webb) arrive in the rustic countryside, they become the butt of Tony Lumpkin's rascally manipulations. His broad loutish intelligence, in spite of his being referred to as a "booby," soon has the two proper gentlemen involved in a web of hilarious confusion. Brooks Ashmanskas' Lumpkin commands the stage with his antics and comic asides. Tony has troubles of his own as his vulgarly dressed and vain mother insists he marry her ward, the lovely Miss Constance Neville ( Holley Fain) in order to keep Miss Neville 's inheritance in the family.

Mrs. Hardcastle is very concerned with keeping up with London fashion; however, her eccentric creations are anything but trend-setting. Obviously the two young people loathe each other but try to keep up appearances in order to gain their individual freedoms. Miss Neville plans to elope with George Hastings and Tony desires the barmaid Bet Bouncer (Elyse Steingold).

To round out this mad pursuit, the other young Londoner, Charles Marlow, is supposed to be wooing the elegantly astute Miss Kate Hardcastle (Mia Barron,) but he cannot find the courage to speak coherently to women of his own station and breeding. She must engineer the scenario of her own courtship if she is to break through Marlow's skittish reserve and social ineptitude.

All of these characters achieve their heart's desires and thwart impediments to true love in the course of one evening is at the core of Goldsmith's clever machinations which has as a subtitle Mistakes of the Night. After a night of manic turmoil akin to that of A Midsummer Night's Dream, all seems lost, but the rightful partners prevail and the two doting fathers — Paxton Whitehead as Mr. Hardcastle and Richard Easton as Sir Charles Marlow — benevolently help to create the charming, yet predictable denouement.

David Korins' stunning set and Ben Stanton's luminescent lighting seamlessly transport the action from grand manor, to The Three Pigeons Pub, a forest garden and back to the manor with the use of moveable screens and trapdoor tables. Together with finely wrought costumes by Gabriel Berry and sound by Drew Levy the audience is treated to a lush visual production that is the very essence of theatrical magic.

We can only hope that She Stoops To Conquer and the vibrant experience of live theater will live on for another two hundred and thirty eight years.

Production Notes:
She Stoops to Conquer by Oliver Goldsmith
Directed by Nicholas Martin
Cast: Brooks Ashmanskas (Tony Lumpkin,) Mia Barron (Miss Hardcastle,) Michael Bradley Cohen (Roger,) Richard Easton (Diggory & Sir Charles,) Holley Fain (Miss Constance Neville,) Elvin McRae (Malcolm,) Kristine Nielsen (Mrs. Hardcastle,) Brandon Reilly (Toby,) Emily Ryder Simoness (Pimple,) Elyse Steingold (Bet Bouncer,) JD Taylor (Thomas,) Jon Patrick Walker (Charles Marlow,) Jeremy Webb (George Hastings,) Michael Wieser (Landlord & Jeremy,) Paxton Whitehead (Mr. Hardcastle)
Scenic design: David Korins
Costume design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting design: Ben Stanton
Sound design: Drew Levy
Production stage manager: Lauren Kurinskas
Running Time: 2 hours 15 minutes; one 15 minute intermissions
From: 7/27/11; Opening: 7/29/11; closing 8/7/11 Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 31 performance

Ten Cents a Dance
Now I'm No Longer Alone
Without a Love of My Own
— a line from "Blue Moon" as sung by Johnny during one of his more upbeat moods.
Ten Cents a Dance
left to right: Jessica Tyler Wright, Malcolm Gets, Lauren Molina in a scene from Ten Cents A Dance
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The latest Doylization of the musical genre applies his streamlined approach to the song cycle of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Lorenz Hart. Unlike his terrific use of having the actors double as instrumentalists in Company and Sweeney Todd, both book musicals by Stephen Sondheim, Ten Cents a Dance has only a sliver-sized story to release 32 Rodgers and Hart hits from their 1920s and 1930s time capsule.

And what hits they are! To name just the best known: " Blue Moon". . . "Poor Johnny One Note". . . " Isn't It Romantic". . . "Where or When". . . "My Funny Valentine". . . "We'll Have Manhattan". . . "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered". . . "Sing for Your Supper". . ."The Lady Is a Tramp". . ."With a Song In My Heart". . ."I Didn't Know What Time It Was". . .and the song from which this show takes its title, "Ten Cents a Dance."

But can even a super talented actor-musician ensemble dishing up this generous sampling from an iconic musical songwriting team add up to a full meal? Is labellng it as a musical a stretch?

For musical theater purists, I suppose the answer is no. Even the award-winning and very satisfying Sondheim à la Doyle Company and Sweeney Todd had its detractors. But for anyone open minded enough to embrace a less traditional approach to the genre, this American premiere (a major revision of a previous production at Doyle's Waterwell Company in Great Britain) will be well worth the more than ten cents a ticket to this dance will cost them — that's even though it features neither dancing or a conventional book.

Don't let that Ten Cents a Dance title fool you though. Instead of dancing, you'll get choreographed movements. Those movements and the lyrics of the carefully arranged songs are all you need to know about the central male character, a man named Johnny (Malcolm Gets) and the five women in look-alike gowns and wigs who move around the piano where he spends most of his stage time tickling the ivories and singing. Johnny's body language, as well as the changing mood of the songs and Jane Cox's lighting, provide additional clues to this moody musical memory story Mr. Doyle has concocted.

The gossamer light narrative framework on which the songs are hung revolves around the singer-pianist who enters the stage visibly depressed, and when he sits down at the piano conjures up images from his longtime romance with a taxi dancer named Miss Jones, with each member of the female ensemble portraying a different stage of that romance. Except for Donna McKechnie, there's no age distinction between the women; but then, this isn't a chronological story which is structured around the grouping of the songs (Five Episodes entitled (The Blue Room, Isn't It Romantic, Manhattan, Ten Cents a Dance, Quiet Night), plus an Encore.

The performances are outstanding. I've come to know Malcolm Gets as an accomplished singer and actor. He now proves himself to be an accomplished pianist. While the various Miss Joneses, all of whom have experience with Doyle's unusual concept, wouldn't pass an audition for either the Boston Symphony or Boston Pops concerts at Tanglewood, they gamely and quite ably play a variety of instruments (trumpet, clarinet, string bass, cello, viola, violin, triangle, drums, saxophones). Donna McKetchnie, a seasoned musical star but new to the Doyle style and apparently lacking girlhood instrument playing lessons to reactivate, gets into the spirit with a triangle. At one point she even joins in a group trumpet riff.

The songs, including some of the less familiar ones, are a feast for the ears. All these assets notwithstanding, Ten Cents a Dance isn't quite on a par with Company or Sweeney Todd and some of the choices by Doyle and his design team left me more bothered and bewildered than bewitched.

Since the shows on which Rodger and Hart worked didn't always have books worthy of their songs or would be dated today, so it's understandable to want to give audiences a chance to look for a new way to experience them. The 2008 Broadway revival of Pal Joey had a brand-new book by Richard Greenberg. For Doyle new meant dreaming up a way to incorporate a large chunk of their song cycle into a single show.

Mr. Doyle has taken this original new form to a level that's more than a way of dealing with a small budget (though that's what prompted this format at his tiny, low budget company). However, I found his story a bit too reminiscent of Company, which in turn kicked up other comparisons. Like Sondheim's commitment phobic Bobby, Doyle's Johnny too has relationship problems which are echoed in his rendition of "Have You Met Miss Jones" which includes this line: "you're a girl who understands that I'm a man who must be free." In a later Episode, there's even a Bobby-like epiphany.

To take the comparison between Ten Cents a Dance and the Sondheim productions a step further — even with a more substantial book and beautiful as the Rodgers and Hart songs are, their appeal is mostly nostalgic. Listening to them prompts comments of "they don't write them like that any more." On the other hand Sondheim's edgy music continues to inspire young musical theater practitioners.

As long as I'm quibbling, while set designer Scott Pask certainly can't be accused of not filling out the WTF's high main stage, the second level's giant cello case and piled up chairs don't really serve much purpose and that huge circular staircase isn't exactly a never before seen Wow! A very similar staircase was a pivotal scenic element in Nine, another musical about a troubled central male character and the women in his life. On the other hand, the staircase as a dominant prop does fit since it was also used to lead to the speakeasy setting in the above mentioned Pal Joey revival.

Also for the thumbs down department: Ann Hould-Ward, who has done superior costume work for Company as well as many other shows, has created remarkably unattractive gowns for the Miss Joneses. Perhaps this wouldn't warrant a mention if this was an isolated costume instead of the only costume but multiplied by five.

Finally, there's Mr. Doyle direction of Malcolm Gets. I realize that the oh so slow descent down that circular staircase and the long silent pause before Gets finally heads for the piano are designed to establish the picture of a man who's not happy in the present and needs to review his past before moving on with his life — but this isn't a Pinter play! As for having Gets shed his jacket and roll up his sleeves and finally wind up in his undershirt, this seemed another needlessly overcooked way of bringing us closer to the inner Johnny.

While Mr. Doyle has directed his share of more traditionally structured musicals, it's his exploration of multi-tasking small cast musicals that have burnished his reputation to the point where his use of this technique is a matter of choice rather than necessity. Still, with the economy everywhere in dire straits and artistic directors faced with ever tighter budgets, the appeal of a musical that doesn't call for large cast and band salaries is likely to improve Ten Cents a Dance's chances to have a life after WTF and the follow-up run at the Mc Carter Theater in Princeton.

Production Notes
Ten Cents a Dance
Conceived and directed by John Doyle
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Produced in association with McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, NJ
Cast: Malcolm Gets (Johnny), Lauren Molina (Miss Jones 1), Jane Pfitsch (Miss Jones 2), Jessica Tyler Wright (Miss Jones 3), Diana DiMarzio (Miss Jones 4),Donna McKechnie(Miss Jones 5).
Musical director and orchestrator: Mary-Mitchell Campbell
Scenic design: Scott Pask
Costumes: Ann Hould-Ward
Lighting: Jane Cox
Sound Design/Composer: Dan Moses-Schreier
Wigs: Paul Huntley
Movement Consultant: Dontee Kiehn
Stage Manager: Eileen Kelly
August 11 to August 28 2011
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/14/11 performance

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Nicos Stage Shows ws

A Streetcar Named Desire
by Gloria Miller
There is so much confusion in the world.— Blanche DuBois
Streetcar Named Desire
Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois and Sam Rockwell as Stanley Kowalski.
(Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Williamstown Theatre Festival’s revival of Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire stars Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois and Sam Rockwell as Stanley Kowalski. Director David Cromer's "scaled down" version has been reimagined and recreated in the manner of a previous production at the Writer’s theatre in Glencoe, Illinois.

The claustrophobic lack of privacy that Blanche DuBois’s arrival creates in Stella and Stanley Kowalski’s very modest household is set in a cramped railroad flat, with linoleum floors, period appliances and bare lamp bulbs. It runs horizontally across the Nikos stage allowing the audience members to be seen on one side of the flat. Unfortunately, this set, designed by Collette Pollard, along with the lighting design of Heather Gilbert, leaves the audience in the dark, or with glaring discomforting light bulbs and blocked sight lines. The trunks and tables create awkward stage pictures which force the actors to deliver lines outside the view of many in the audience view members at crucial points in the play. Often one or more of the actors will have a back to the audience due to seating on both sides of the railroad flat. This is quite disconcerting as clear line deliveries are muted and the faces of the other side of the audiences are always visible.

The music from sound designer Joshua Schmidt is monotonously modern. It lacks the gritty New Orleans jazz of the ‘40’s and 50’s which should contribute to the feeling an inescapable heat, humidity and humanity struggling amid the aftermath of World War Two. It is understandable to begin a scene with just a candle or bare bulb, but to force the audience to watch the entire scene in the dark is pushing authentic "atmosphere" beyond common sense.

Jessica Hecht as Blanche DuBois creates a finely nuanced role as the woman whose hold on reality is tenuous and her constant reinventions and costumes create a feeling of decadence, clinging Spanish moss and decaying pre-war manners and entitlements. Hecht’s Blanche is strongly manipulative and steely in her quest to realize her version of her life. The only false note is the last line, which is thrown away on the other side of the stage, almost as an afterthought.

Sam Rockwell as Stanley is an interesting choice. He is a small street fighter with a crafty intelligence and a take-no-prisoners attitude towards life. He immediately senses that Blanche’s visit is a threat to his place in the world. A returning soldier of Polish immigrants, he has no time for Blanche’s snotty innuendos and downright insults. Stanley knows baloney when he hears it and he begins to plot a strategic defense of his castle and marriage. Rockwell imbues Stanley with sympathy as he battles Blanche for what little he has. Instead of Stanley as the callous brute, we see him as a small man who has limited coping skills and Blanche is testing every single one of them.

Ana Reeder’s Stella is the realist who possesses little sentimentality for the distant past. Stanley’s sexual energy and drive promise her the future, one in which Blanche and Bel Reve play no part. Reeder’s Stella is softly sexual and a stark contrast to her sister’s fine-boned feigned prudity.

There are several scenes where Blanche’s memory of her dead boy/husband are foisted on the audience — one of which is not visible to the entire audience. By adding Allan to the production, Cromer does not seem to trust his audience’s willingly suspension of disbelief to follow Blanche’s memory pictures without literal depiction.

A second intermission as Stella goes into labor breaks the momentum of Stanley’s resentment and Blanche’s hopelessness. The third act seems an afterthought rather than the brutal denouement to which the play’s action should have been building. The production values of this A Streetcar Named Desire do not serve the actors or Tennessee Williams 100th birthday anniversary as well as it should have.

Editor's Note: For more about Tennessee Williams and links to other Williams plays reviewed at CurtainUp, see our Tennessee Williams Backgrounder. Since Streetcar. . .is one of the playwrights jewels, we've reviewed our share of productions, especially in the last several years when we reviewed a high profile Blanche at BAM in Brooklyn, Broadway musical star Marin Mazzie's Blance at Barrington Stage -- and will be adding a multi-cultural review on Broadway later this year.

Production Notes
A Streetcar Named Desire
By Tennessee Williams
Directed by David Cromer
Cast: Michael Bradley Cohen (Young Collector), Esteban Andres Cruz ( Pablo), Jennifer Engstrom (Eunice), Jessica Hecht (Blanche DuBois), Vella Lovell (Mexican Woman), Crystal Lucas-Perry (Negro Woman),Ana Reeder (Stella Kowalski), Sam Rockwell (Stanley Kowalsk)i, Daniel Stewart Sherman (Mitch), Emily Simoness (Nurse), Lou Sumrall (Steve), Kirby Ward (Doctor)
Sets: Collette Pollard
Costumes: Janice Paytel
Lighting: Heather Gilbert
Sound/Composer: Joshua Schmidt Fight Direction: Thom Schall
Production Stage Manager: Davin De Santis Running Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions
Reviewed by Gloria Miller June 25th matinee

\\ One Slight Hitch We didn't get to see this one by the Black is best known as an acerbic stand-up comedian, wearing his hat as a playwright. Like A. R. Gurney's last comedy, Black Tie

Black's comedy like Gurney's, is about a wedding. On the day of their daughter's wedding, Doc and Delia Coleman find themselves in all sorts of comic predicaments, starting when an unexpected guest arrives hours before the wedding.
For people who've come to expect seeing Black on stage delivering his spiel, One Slight Hitch is the best known and most frequently produced of his playwrighting endeavors. Unlike Mr. Gurney, who often uses his plays to air his political concerns, Black so far has not combined his stand-up routines with his playwrighting. As one of our readers who saw the play last week sums it up "It's like a summer beach read-- fun while it lasts-- but like the songs in most of today's musicals, nothing really sticks. Now, if he wrote a play about the body politic-- it might just be more memorable and worth the trip from Lenox to Williamstoen."

July 6 – 17, 2011
One Slight Hitch By Lewis Black
Directed by Joe Grifasi Cast: Jeanna Phillips (P.B. Coleman), Lizbeth Mackay (Delia Coleman), Mark Linn-Baker (Doc Coleman), Justin Long (Ryan), Megan Ketch (Courtney Coleman), Clea Alsip (Melanie Coleman), Ben Cole (Harper).
Set Designs: Robin Vest
Costumes: Susan Hilferty
Lighting: Rui Rita
Sound: Charles Coes
Runing Time: 2 Hours, plus one intermission

Doll's House
I am first and foremost a human being..— Nora, in response to her husband's attempt to keep her from leaving him by appealing to her duty as a wife and mother. This fits Ibsen's basic aim for A Doll's House. Though it's often viewed as a feminist play, in a speech given to the Norwegian Women's Rights League in 1898, Ibsen disclaimed the honor of having consciously worked for the women's rights movement and insisted that he intended the play as "the description of humanity."
Doll's House
Lily Rabe with Zinab Jab in a scene from A Doll's House
( Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
The two reasons to see Williamstown Theatre Festival's take on Ibsen's classic about a woman who slams the door on her comfortable existence as a middle class wife and mother are the actors playing that woman and her friend Kristine: Lily Rabe and Lili Taylor.

Rabe, who has become one of the most valuable young actors on stage —( in her previous appearance at Williamstown as the childlike Babe in Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, and most recently as Portia in The Merchant of Venice which transferred from Central Park to Broadway. Rabe's Nora is in the mold of Janet McTeer's 1997 Tony-Award winning performance. Like McTeer, Rabe's Nora is tall, aggressively vibrant and sexy, not the petite compliant woman that tends to pop into one's mind when picturing the doll-like chatelaine of Ibsen's Doll's House. Lili Taylor, an always interesting to watch actress, provides a fine understated contrast as her friend Kristine. Unlike Nora, who has been spoiled and protected, first by her father and for the last eight years by her husband, Kristine has had to deal with the grimmer realities of the real world. Her impoverished family situation led to her to a marriage of convenience and now that she's widowed, seek employment.

Unfortunately neither Rabe or Taylor can keep this production from disappointing on three critical counts: First, like the initial presentation at the Nikos Stage of a classic play as re-envisioned by an up-and-coming director (See the review above of A Streetcar Named Desire), neither Sam Gold's directorial vision or Paul Walsh's super-conversational translation make a case for bringing the Helmers' story into a more contemporary era, or allowing a golf club (yes, a golf club, really!) to upstage the famous slamming door finale. Introducing Rabe as a sort of born-to-shop, glamorous Norwegian housefrau somehow doesn't jibe with having husband Torvald (Josh Hamilton) still refer to her in decidedly old-fashioned bird-related endearments. This contemporary vernacular is also delivered without any consistency as to accents; for example. Rabe make no attempt at a Norwegian accent, which is fine, if it didn't make Adam Rothenberg's thick Norwegian accent sound as if he belonged in another play, rather than in the vital role of the lawyer Nils Krogstad. In case you don't know the story, Krogstad who triggers the collapse of the Helmers' middle class, upwardly mobile idyll by threatening to expose the secret of Nora's forging her father's signature to finance a vacation to restore the ailing Torvald to health.

The second disappointing aspect of this production is that the staging which is too often too dark and too unfriendly to a sizeable segment of the audience I overheard a good deal of grumbling from people sitting at the right side facing the stage and unable to see what was going on in the hallway and stair case area of David Korins' set.

Finally, at 3 hours and 10 minutes with 2 intermissions this Doll's House would benefit from being shortened like the skirts designed by Kaye Voyce for Lily Rabe. Those mini-skirts suggest the 1960s when women everywhere began to slam the doors on lives dependent on their husband's rather than their own achievements. While the slim, long-legged Rabe looks great whatever she wears, she's frequently required to assume unflattering positions. Other causes for my too long complaint could easily have been addressed by conflating the three acts and eliminating one intermission with a darkening of the stage for a brief pause. Several other scenes could have used trimming and a faster pace. Granted that Sam Gold's reputation has been built on a directing style that allows the actors to reveal themselves very gradually, that laissez faire direction doesn't work as well for this 3-act classic than the shorter, modern plays like Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation and Bathsheba Doran's Kin. The penultimate scene, when the Helmers' confront each other and the sham their marriage is the worst offender here, with enough unendingly long pauses to out-pose Harold Pinter. And without even a resounding door slam to make Nora's exit worth waiting for.

Perhaps if Josh Hamilton were a more dynamic Torvald, with sexual sizzle to match that of Rabe's Nora, this production more or less taking the big bang finale away from her and giving it to him would be less of a let down. Still, you can't blame Williamstown's new artistic director Jenny Gersten for putting her own stamp on Festival productions. At the Nikos that has been giving young directors a chance to revitalize old plays, as well as offering a feel good fun play (not new, but hardly a classic) by stand-up comic Lewis Black. Next up, it's back to what Nikos is best known for, a brand new play, tis one by Bess Wold and with another up-and-coming young director, Trip Cullman, at the helm.

Postscript: A Doll's House was based on a real story involving a friend of Ibsen's. But as it took many years for women to just walk out on a marriage into a world in which they were unprepared to fend for themselves, Laura Kieler did not walk out on the husband infuriated at discovering her secret forgery. Instead she was committed by him to an asylum and two years later returned to him and her children. Though she achieved recognition as an author, she never slammed the door on her unhappy marriage. That was left to Ibsen but in his role as a playwright. When she asked for his help at the height of her dilemma, he was una ble or unwilling to do so. What he did instead was to transform her situation into the powerful drama of a woman bravely leaving her family under her own steam, taking a chance on an uncertain future.

Production Notes
July 20 – 31, 2011
A Doll’s House By Henrik Ibsen
Translated by Paul Walsh
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Lily Rabe (Nora Helmer), Zanib Jah (Anne-Marie), Torvald Helmer (Josh Hamilton), Lili Taylor (Kristine Linde), Adam Rothenberg (Nils Krogstad), Matthew Maher (Doctor Rank), Eliza Huberth (Helene), Sol Sutter (Ivar), Rose Sutter (Emmy), Tashi (Tashi), Party Goers (Ensemble)
Scenic Design: David Korins
Costume Design,:Kaye Voyce;
Lighting Design: Ben Stanton
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Running Time: 3 hours and 10 minutes, includes 2 intermissions
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at July 23rd matinee

She's not just depressed, Billy, before the meds she was paranoid and psychotic. She used to think the house was bugged, people were following her, strange men, she could see their eyeballs in the ceiling. For a whole year, she wouldn't talk. . .—Kay.

Look, I agree, she's touched. But, did you know, in ancient times, the Greeks, they thought it was God who had touched them. And when he did, his hand was so hot, so full of fire, that it — It burned right through. He touched certain people because they were special. . . — Billy, in trying to convey to Kay that there may be a problem with the modern system of medicating people the way her sister Emma has been medicated and experiencing the various meds' dismal side effects.
Merritt Wever, Lisa Joyce, Michael Chernus (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Hurrah! Finally, a new play at the WTF's Nikos Stage.

Play debuts, quite a few of them transferring to Broadway and Off-Broadway venues, have been what have long been the main items on the seasonal menu at WTF's second stage. But not so this first season helmed by Jenny Gersten when new has meant two new-fangled stagings of classic plays (A Streetcar Named Desire and A Doll's House) by much praised young directors. For something a bit more light and summer-y, there was a not so new (2005) amusing but lightweight comedy by stand-up comedian Lewis Black. Touch(ed) by Bess Wohl, an actress turned playwright, is thus a much anticipated and welcome season closer, especially since it takes on a subject that's well worth exploring: The treatment of mental illness and the emotional ripple effect on a long term patient's family.

Much as I'd like to report that Ms. Wohl treads comfortably in the footprint of the season's previously produced playwrights, Touch(ed) is promising but, at least as of now, hardly as riveting or powerful as it should be. Given the the author's extensive rewriting, not just since a previous production at the Pioneer Theatre in Utah, but even after the play went into rehearsals in Williamstown, she herself seems unsure about just how best to dramatize her research on the issues of mental illness.

Wohl has made a good start by building her drama around two sisters, both of whom are probably close enough in age and educational background for her to identify with them. However, while there have been plenty of plays based on news stories and events rather than actual personal experience, Touch(ed) hasn't quite bridged the gap between a play with its research roots too much in evidence and one coming from the author's gut.

The plot unfolds in a cabin in the woods that Kay (Lisa Joyce), a schoolteacher, has rented for her vacation. She hopes that her sister Emma's (Merritt Wever) recent improved mental state will benefit from some sisterly togetherness. The addition of Kay's supportive boyfriend Billy (Michael Chernus), complete with his own baggage (he's a successful writer but currently seriously blocked) adds several twists to the main theme — the power of love and life style versus modern medicine as a way to make damaged people like Emma function again.

Chernus, who seems to own this part of soft-spoken nice but somewhat lost, loser-type guy, adds a presence that makes way for some romance and humor to leaven the mental health situation. It also makes this as much his story as that of the sisters. Billy's efforts to relieve Kay from the constant tensions of being the go-to relative when Emma has a crisis not only affects his relationship with Kay but his writer's block. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of the excellent cast, the first act which seems intended to humorously pave the way for the more serious questions raised in the second act, doesn't quite work.

There is one exception, a funny and incisive interchange between Billy (Michael Chernus) and Emma (Merritt Wever) which demonstrates that the intelligence and ironic wit of the young woman who once wrote poetry have not been dulled by the meds she's taking to control her suicidal urges. When Billy indicates surprise at her very normal if acerbic behavior she comments "For a great writer, you have a very obvious way of seeing the world." When he admits that she's right she asks "Do you think you might be a hack? . . .Do you think you might be one of those people who thinks he's original but is really just recycling bits of mass culture in ways that are surprising but really ultimately not surprising at all and in a way kind of cheap? And that what you're afraid of is simply finally getting found out. At first by the world, and then, at long last, by yourself?"

Besides, cleverly illustrating that Emma is a mental patient with whom one might actually want to spend time, that interchange also makes one understand why Ms. Gersten was willing to put Wohl in the Nikos lineup. However, neither the script or director Trip Cullman prevent the business about packing away all the sharp objects before Emma's arrival, a food fight love scene from adding up to a slow first act that has too many of the laughs fall flat and the action generally failing to create the necessary tension for what's to come.

The second act is a vast improvement. Maybe if the first act could be trimmed and the entire story done in the popular 90 or 100-minute without intermission format, it would have more of a future at other theaters. As for the current production's still feeling like an evolving workshop, it's not for lack of a thoroughly professional staging. Andromache Chalfant has created a wonderful woodsy cabin set with the back wall that shows both the interior and exterior. Chalfant's making the set slide backward for the final scene at an unspecified time after the cabin in the woods events seems an unnecessary expense. Unless the playwright rewrites that ending again, as she did during rehearsals, it could easily work by just having lighting designer David Weiner throw the spotlight on a table all the way down stage.

Trip Cullman belongs to the same group of hot young directors as David Cromer and Sam Gold, who helmed the Williams and Ibsen revivals. Gold, who has done his best work with new plays by emerging playwrights like Annie Baker (Circle Mirror Adaptation and Aliens) might have been a more ideal choice to bring out the nuances that are not fully realized at this point.

Production Notes
Touch(ed) By Bess Wohl
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Michael Chernus (Billy), Lisa Joyce (Kay), Merritt Wever (Emma)
Sets: Andromache Chalfant
Costumes: Emily Rebholz
Lighting: David Weiner
Sound: Jill DuBoff
Stage Manager: Hannah Cohen
Running Time: 2 hours with 1 intermission
August 3 to 14th
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at August 7th performance

(ed)/Beth Wohl (Berkshires 2011)
August 16 – 21, 2011 (one week only!)
You Better Sit Down: tales from my parents’ divorce
Written by Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, Janice Paran, and Robbie Collier Sublett
Conceived by Jennifer R. Morris
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Cast: Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, Robbie Collier Sublett

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