The summer theater season is at its peak, and the region’s stages are teeming with talent and imagination. In the Valley this week, New Century Theatre opens its second show, the internment drama Hold These Truths, the Ko Festival of Performance continues with the big-business exposé Death of a Man, Real Live Theatre revives The Life and Death of Queen Margaret on its way to New York, and Silverthorne Theater Company completes its season with (Irish, not Indian) Chapatti.
Next week, Chester Theatre Company unveils a staging experiment with Every Brilliant Thing, Hampshire Shakespeare Company closes its Hamlet meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern repertory adventure, and Double Edge Theatre concludes its summer spectacle We the People.
Meanwhile, a couple of shows I saw in the Berkshires last week embody the variety and vitality of this year’s summer season.
Speech & Debate, at Barrington Stage Company, follows three high school misfits who find their niche, and their power, in the school’s uncoolest club. Staged with headlong energy by Jessica Holt, it’s about being young and gay, about identity and morality and risk, and about as many laughs as you could wish for in a play that’s essentially quite serious.
Howie is an out gay, the new kid in Salem, Oregon, the red-ish capital of that blue state. Diwata, whose audition for the school play included a sort-of striptease, wonders why she didn’t get cast. Solomon hides his anxieties (and a guilty secret) by adopting the role of investigative journalist out to expose the sexual hypocrisy of right-wing politicians.
Stephen Karam is a Gen Y playwright with a keen eye and pitch-perfect ear for 21st-century adolescence. We first see Howie flirting online with an anonymous “BiGuy,” Solomon unsuccessfully pitching a controversial report topic to his teacher, and Diwata broadcasting a rambling webcast from her room. The three teens eventually come together in real space, each with a different reason for agreeing to join the school’s otherwise vacant Speech and Debate club.
Karam’s script captures the rhythms of teens’ speech, their outsize passions and their hormonal vitality, and the three young actors vividly reflect it all. Betsy Hogg is Diwata, a dynamo of ambition and nervous energy — strange, annoying, and, in Hogg’s performance, utterly captivating. Austin Davidson’s Howie is wry and knowing, flaunting his sexuality while keeping a wary edge. Ben Getz is Solomon, a clean-cut straight arrow who’s not so sure about the straight part. Getz’s performance is effectively intense, but I’m afraid I saw the actor in it more than the character. Edelen McWilliams efficiently doubles as Solomon’s exasperated teacher and a self-promoting NPR stringer.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s late romances, those sunset works where comedy blends with tragedy and the ending is suffused with poignancy and forgiveness. Here, the Bard threads together many of his favorite themes and plot devices, including banishment, misguided jealousy, parent-child reunions and the good ol’ girl-disguised-as-boy trick. It’s a fairy-tale adventure in which innocence and honesty are tested and coincidence conspires with magic to make all things right.
Director Tina Packer and her cast play this stylistic and narrative mashup mostly for laughs, but without cancelling the script’s affecting and even dangerous moments. Some of the laughs come from the staging concept itself, in which a small cast plays multiple parts — nine actors in two dozen roles, most of them familiar faces at S&Co.
This tactic, coupled with shameless anachronism, lends the show a thrilling informality. Costume changes are often executed onstage and sometimes mid-scene. When Jonathan Epstein transforms to King Cymbeline (in a union-jack robe), a stagehand holds a mirror while he adjusts the long gray wig, and in one scene Nigel Gore repeatedly jumps in and out of three different characters.
The circuitous narrative takes us from ancient Britain to ancient Rome, from bedroom chicanery to murderous stratagems, from a royal court bristling with intrigue to a Welsh countryside inhabited by peace-loving, but battle-ready shepherds.
Perhaps fittingly, the performances are as motley as the plot. I enjoyed Josh Aaron McCabe’s smirking villain, Jason Asprey’s vainglorious courtier, and Deaon Griffin-Pressley’s stalwart servant, torn between honor and duty. Tamara Hickey makes a feisty, if superficial, Imogen, the wronged princess caught in the middle of all the scheming. Bella Merlin, as both queen and shepherd, likewise limits her range by mistaking fervor for feeling.
In a generally boisterous ensemble, Epstein is the most disciplined performer and Thomas Brazzle the least, overpowering his castmates with sheer volume as Imogen’s betrayed and vengeful husband. The production’s gem is newcomer Ella Loudon — smart, spirited and mistress of a luscious Welsh accent.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com