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StageStruck: The Learned Ladies

...and other plays about (but mostly not by) women

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Thursday, January 19, 2012
Kevin Sprague Photo
Left to right: Kelly Galvin, Ryan Winkles and Alexandra Lincoln in The Learned Ladies at Shakespeare & Company.

A year ago I did a count of plays produced by Western Massachusetts professional theaters to see how many of their productions in the previous year were written by women. The results were not pretty: 39 plays by men (not even counting those by Shakespeare), 13 by women.

And our region isn't unique. Despite the fact that a majority of students in graduate playwriting programs are women, most of the plays performed around the country are written (and produced and directed) by men—and average twice as many men as women in their casts.

From the authorship point of view, this area's spring season lineups don't exactly threaten the status quo. I count seven plays with women's names on the title page. But I also notice quite a few with women characters at their center.

Perhaps not surprising are the female-centered shows coming up on community theater stages—unsurprising because of the preponderance of women in that casting pool. This weekend, Amherst Leisure Services Community Theater ends its run of the practically-all-girl musical Annie at UMass' Bowker Auditorium. Next month Ashfield Community Theater stages The Vagina Monologues, that perennial compendium of genital liberation.

Also next month, Springfield's Panache Productions mounts Wait Until Dark, the classic thriller about a blind woman in a battle of wits with drug gangsters. And in April, Arena Civic Theatre presents Radium Girls, a fact-based drama by D.W. Gregory (a woman) about the young factory workers in the 1920s who marked glow-in-the-dark watch faces with radioactive paint.

This spring you'll find women playwrights most in evidence on academic stages. On Feb. 6, Mount Holyoke's theater and math departments co-host Gioia De Cari's Truth Values: One Girl's Romp through M.I.T.'s Male Math Maze—a one-woman show summed up by its title. In April the college celebrates one of its most illustrious alums, Wendy Wasserstein, who died five years ago this month, with a series of events including her play Uncommon Women and Others, about a reunion of Mount Holyoke alums.

The musical adaptation of Alice Walker's searing novel The Color Purple, with a script by playwright Marsha Norman, comes to the UMass Fine Arts Center on Jan. 31. And Moment, by the Irish dramatist Dierdre Kinahan, a "lightning fast and frighteningly funny" family drama about crime and consequences, is at Smith College Feb. 24-March 3.

All four of the Berkshire summer theaters are women-led and/or -founded, though you wouldn't know it from their record of producing work by women: last season, five out of 25 (again, not counting Shakespeare). At the Berkshire-based WAM Theatre, though, the mission is specifically to promote work by and about women. Its second annual 24-Hour Theatre Project in April will cook up five new "instant" plays by women.

WAM's mission is shared by the ongoing Women's Work initiative at Northampton's Academy of Music, which next month premieres Truth, an opera about Sojourner Truth created by an all-woman team. In March the series presents Shakespeare & Company's founder, Tina Packer, in Women of Will, a dramatic survey highlighting "the feminine in Shakespeare."

S&Co's winter production, opening Feb. 3, is Molière's satire on academic snobbery, The Learned Ladies. And in an intriguing affirmative-action move, next summer's production of The Tempest will star Olympia Dukakis in the usually male role of Prospero.

Chris Rohmann can be reached at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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