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Stage: Nutritious Treats

The region's summer theater season was good, and good for you.

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Thursday, September 01, 2011
Photo by Ellen Augarten
Dan Morbyrne in Storm Dance

"Theater is not dead; it is the definition of alive. In these days when you can't even get a real person on the phone to place a complaint with the electric company, what a luxury to have living breathing humans in front of you, fervently believing in a lie in the hopes that you will believe too. Theater is a human necessity. Theater reminds us that we are all alive and that we are all here together. We believe that theater is a delicious treat, a taste of life—which, if you use the proper ingredients, tastes bittersweet, like the kind of chocolate that's actually good for you."

That statement is the manifesto of PinPuppets, a New York-based theater company co-founded by former Northamptonite Susannah Berard Dalton. Her witty, trenchant comedy The Importance of Doing Art was workshopped in the Valley and premiered last month off-off-Broadway with an all-Valley cast. I didn't catch the Big Apple incarnation because summer theater in Western Mass. is so abundant that it's unnecessary, even difficult, to get very far afield. But I often savored those words as I dined on the banquet of nutritious treats throughout the season just ended.

This summer I visited 14 theater companies and saw a majority of the nearly 70 plays and musicals they staged from early June through the end of August (with three troupes in the Berkshires continuing through this weekend) in venues ranging from upholstered auditoriums to experimental black boxes to star-spangled meadows. While some shows are already fading in memory, others persist in images of striking stagecraft, exciting scripts, moving performances and, for the three professional festivals closest to home, admiration of entire seasons.

Chester Theatre Company took a risk last year with a trilogy of connected plays. Building on the remarkable success of that experiment, this year artistic director Byam Stevens gambled on a quartet of literary adaptations and produced the company's most exhilarating season yet—beginning with pride@prejudice, my favorite comedy of the summer. Adapted from the Jane Austen novel of almost the same name by Daniel Elihu Kramer and performed by a versatile cast of five, it was at once a faithful story-theater rendering of the book and a cybernetic deconstruction that incorporated Internet-derived thinkbytes that actually deepened our experience of Austen's world.

Chester's season continued with a three-actor version of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and a two-person rendering of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw, both of them psychological thrillers that used their very economy to chilling effect, and climaxed with Wittenberg, a satirical prequel to Hamlet that was as profound as it was funny.

The Ko Festival of Performance, the Valley's most adventurous and unpredictable summer treat, molds every season around a unifying theme. This year artistic director Sabrina Hamilton chose "Secrets," exploring the intersection of "the desire to tell with the desire to hide." Three of the shows were solo turns detailing fantasies about secret aspirations or imagined personas; the youth in Ripple Effect, from the Springfield-based First Generation performance project, divulged home truths about identity, culture and nationality; and Stranger Things, from the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles, contained a creepy and, for Ko, surprisingly straightforward narrative of betrayal and revenge in a geographically and emotionally isolated family.

There was theme implicit in the strong, varied season at New Century Theatre, the Valley's premier hot-weather stage, which began its third decade this year. All four of producing director Sam Rush's shows were family-centered stories. Painting Churches found an elderly couple confronting advancing age and their daughter dealing with her parents' denial; Dinner with Friends looked at a pair of marriages splintered by divorce; Distracted examined a family grappling with a child's attention deficit disorder in a quirky, fragmented, uniquely theatrical style that mirrored the disorder itself; and Superior Donuts gathered together a family of individual lost souls. PaintBox Theatre, New Century's young-audience adjunct, delivered a trio of mischievous takes on traditional tales that upended conventions and delighted kids and grownups alike.

Into the hills

Unlike those three festivals, whose seasons I devoured in total, I was only able to sample the menus at the Berkshire theatres, where I found a mixed plate of sweet and sour. To dispose quickly of the latter: One Slight Hitch, a new play by comic Lewis Black at Williamstown Theatre Festival, wasted a great premise with sitcom cliches; Best of Friends, at Barrington Stage Company, wasted an astonishing real-life story in TV-movie format; and Red-Hot Patriot wasted the irrepressible Tina Packer, Shakespeare & Company's founder, in a floundering impersonation of the irrepressible columnist Molly Ivins.

Of the Berkshires' drama and comedy offerings, respectively, I most admired the Berkshire Theatre Festival's world-premiere Dutch Masters (see below) and Shakespeare & Company's As You Like It, a giddy, inventive staging overlaid with depth and shadow. Two rumbustious frolics in S&Co's Rose Footprint tent theater—the Commedia dell'Arte Venetian Twins and EveryActor, a dizzy encapsulation of the Everyman morality play—were good for a whole season's worth of guffaws.

Barrington Stage bookended its summer with two yummy musicals: Guys and Dolls, the Runyonesque romp through a Times Square that never existed, and The Game, a smart, tuneful swirl of sexual intrigue and deception. BTF opened with Michael Weller's Moonchildren, a comically edgy portrait of the just-pre-Vietnam generation, and closes this weekend with Tennessee Williams' "serious comedy" Period of Adjustment, in which three dynamic tragi-comic performances—by Rebecca Brooksher, Paul Fitzgerald and C.J. Wilson—overcome the script's flaws.

A thematic thread running through a surprising number of plays was that most insidious and intransigent of American ills, race. Beginning, appropriately enough, with Race, by David Mamet, which played at Hartford's TheaterWorks early in the summer. The four-character drama revolving around an accusation of sexual harassment, while rather formulaic, dug through the layers of guilt, hypocrisy and rationalization that infect so many cross-race encounters.

For me, the high point of the season in the drama category came with Dutch Masters, a new play by Greg Keller at BTF. This high-pressure collision of race and class ripped away our culture's all-too-thin veneer of tolerance and featured what was, for me, the outstanding male performance of the summer: Amari Cheatom as a young black man torn apart by resentment, rage, yearning and grief. Compared with Dutch Masters' brutal truths, Best of Enemies, at Barrington Stage Company, was a feel-good snapshot of race relations, based on the amazing-but-true story of a desegregation drive co-led by an African-American activist and a Ku Klux Klansman. While I found it fascinating but thin, audiences appreciated it so much that it's being revived next month.

Race played a supporting role in two other shows this season. In New Century's Superior Donuts, the young man who comes to work at the rundown donut shop on Chicago's South Side is black, but his redeeming effect on the fed-up old white stoner who owns the place has more to do with the youngster's healing enthusiasm than with bridging a racial gulf. That odd-couple relationship was beautifully portrayed by Johnnie McQuarley and Rand Foerster.

The grumpy park ranger in Shiloh Rules, played by Susan Duncan, who tries to keep order among the women taking part in a Civil War battle re-enactment, has a few choice opinions about the Southerners' unreconstructed denial of the war's roots in slavery, as well as the Northerners' liberal condescension. That show, Pauline Productions' second performance in the rustic outdoors of Goshen's Three Sisters Sanctuary, was another sweet-and-tart highlight of the season.

Individual images

Arresting images of sets, lights and costumes also linger, adding to the summer's savor. In The Game, Jeff Croiter and Grant Yeager's lighting carved multiple locations out of Michael Anania's multipurpose set, which was magically both simple and sumptuous, and Jennifer Moeller's Baroque-era costumes were simply sumptuous. The set for Ghost Road Company's Stranger Things, made entirely of white-painted wooden pallets, framed the play's lethal tension in a bleak latticework. At Williamstown Theatre Festival, Thomas Lynch created Three Hotels on separate continents with a series of vast sliding walls.

A season's worth of eloquent sets and lighting effects transformed Chester Theatre Company's compact stage—from the bookcase maze in pride@prejudice to the thin light filtering through a ghostly wall of shutters in Turn of the Screw. At Shakespeare & Company, Kiki Smith's all-white, period-neutral wardrobe put a new spin on Romeo and Juliet, as did Arthur Oliver's lively Jazz Age outfits for As You Like It. And Daniel D. Rist painted show after show at New Century Theater with subtle, evocative lighting.

Theater is above all a communal event and an ensemble art. But individual performances can't help but leap out at the attentive spectator, and here are some of the ones that grabbed my attention—most of them, as it happens, by women:

Allison McLemore, as the governess who may or may not be going mad in The Turn of the Screw—a performance of such sustained power, passion and subtlety that it left me breathless. Kelly Curran as Rosalind's cousin and confidante Celia in As You Like It, pulling that sidekick character out of the shadows with a lively, smart performance that made me want to see her as Rosalind.

At the Ko Festival, Laurie McCants wrapping the poems of Emily Dickenson around memories of her literary mother; Martha Kemper winding the passion of Joan of Arc into an appreciation of a passionate teacher; and Kali Quinn spinning secret family histories into the fantasies of a rock wannabe. At New Century, Sara Whitcomb as a querulous but marbles-intact elder (and with a pitch-perfect Boston Brahmin accent) in Painting Churches, and Stephanie Carlson in a hilarious turn as a twitchy OCD paradigm.

Myra Lucretia Taylor, fiery and fearful as the mother of a homicidal dictator in Going to St. Ives at Barrington Stage. Su Hoyle, loose-limbed and goofy in Hampshire Shakespeare Festival's Taming of the Shrew and fiercely austere as a Confederate ghost in Shiloh Rules. Haerry Kim as several generations of Korean women (and men) in Face, her solo excavation of sexual slavery at the Berkshire Fringe. Starla Benford as the Nurse in Shakespeare & Company's Romeo and Juliet, who (before she left the show in mid-run) not only nailed the character's bawdy humor but rescued her from parody with a healthy dose of grit.

And finally but magnificently, two young men playing old men: Dan Morbyrne as King Lear in Serious Play's stripped-down adaptation of Shakespeare, bringing more subtlety, gut-level emotion and raw power to the role than many a grizzled elder; and Rylan Morsbach, reprising his astounding turn as a 100-year-old clown in Scaramouche Jones (see "The Standing O" in this issue's StageStruck).

People in the dark watching people in the light. Performers enacting a private reality while drawing their energy from the auditorium's collective breath. The mysterious compact between actors and audiences, a shared understanding that without each other we don't exist.

If music be the food of love, as someone once observed, the PinPuppeteers remind us that theater is food for the soul. This summer's box of chocolates was, for the most part, sweet, delicious and nourishing.

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