Stage

Summer Arts Preview: In the Wings

Our theater critic samples the unfolding summer season.

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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Spring isn’t officially over and already the summer theater season is underway. Two shows are up and running in the Berkshires, with dozens more waiting impatiently in the wings. I count over 50 productions lined up in Western Mass. companies’ regular seasons through August, not including one-night stands, new-play readings and other special events. Herewith, an incomplete sampling of some of the shows I’m looking forward to.

The productions already on the boards are Bashir Lazhar, at Barrington Stage Company, and Master Class, at Shakespeare & Company. The former is the one-man play by Canadian writer Évelyne de la Chenelière that inspired the Oscar-nominated film Monsieur Lazhar, about an Algerian refugee teaching in a strange land and a troubled classroom. Master Class is virtually a one-person show too, in which the operatic diva Maria Callas, played by S&Co favorite Annette Miller, reflects on her life in typically prima-donna fashion.

 

The Sound of Musicals

 

This season is more than generously stocked with musicals, most of which go beyond what you’d expect from the standard song ’n’ dance repertoire. The what-you’d-expect entries are season openers at Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group. BSC kicks off with On the Town, the Bernstein-Comden-Green wartime romp about sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in that helluva town, New York, New York. BTG’s musical set piece at Pittsfield’s Colonial Theatre is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s pastoral of the plains, Oklahoma. BSC’s youth theater also chimes in with The Little Mermaid Jr.

Apart from those evergreens, musical theater in the region includes three world premieres and three shows that look at social issues through historical lenses. Chester Theatre Company opens its season with Arms on Fire, a new musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, the duo responsible for the megahit Spring Awakening. A kind of modern myth, it concerns a fellow named Ulysses in thrall to the siren song of a tantalizing nightclub singer. BSC’s Musical Theatre Lab, which nurtures up-and-coming talent, presents Southern Comfort, a celebration of, wait for it, transgender in back-country Georgia. Williamstown Theatre Festival’s lineup includes no fewer than three musicals, including a tuneful new version of the hit book and movie The Bridges of Madison County. WTF’s season kicks off with Animal Crackers, the zany-defining 1928 Marx Brothers vehicle that began on Broadway before being immortalized in Hollywood.

Also at Williamstown, Johnny Baseball provides a musical answer to the infamous “Curse,” blaming it not on the Bambino but on the Red Sox’ last-in-the-majors resistance to signing black players. The Burnin’, an “a cappella musical” at the Ko Festival of Performance, investigates two fatal fires in black nightclubs and their legacies for young African-Americans. And The Ape Woman, a rock opera at the Berkshire Fringe, traces the true-life history and racist oppression of the 19th-century sideshow phenomenon Julia Pastrana.

Race also plays a role in most of New Century Theatre’s upcoming season. The opener, Lend Me a Tenor, is a ’30s-style door-slamming farce that climaxes in blackface-induced mistaken identities; The Sunset Limited, by Cormac McCarthy, is a black-white confrontation over matters of life and death, faith and despair; and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People mixes issues of class and race in Southie and Chestnut Hill. That one and NCT’s season capper, Yasmina Reza’s outrageous black comedy God of Carnage, incisively and humorously investigate the fragile assumptions that prop up our lives and lifestyles.

 

Classics, Old and New

In a season when contemporary plays and themes predominate, some old friends also make an appearance, some in new getups. Shaw and O’Neill are represented, the former by Pygmalion, the basis of My Fair Lady, starring Robert Sean Leonard at Williamstown; the latter by Anna Christie, the haunted love story of a former prostitute and a shipwrecked sailor, at Berkshire Theatre Group, with Rebecca Brooksher in the title role. These two companies also host a couple of modern classics. BTG opens its season with The Lion in Winter, that bickering-family drama about monarchial succession, starring Jayne Atkinson and Treat Williams. And Williamstown offers Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, a mind-twisting comedy of Cold War espionage wrapped in quantum theory, with Kate Burton and James Cromwell.

Of course there’s Shakespeare. If you’re so inclined, you can compare three different productions of that sexual battle of wit and insult, Much Ado About Nothing. Two of them are at Hampshire Shakespeare Company, where the troupe’s mainstage and youth troupes are preparing separate versions of the comedy, along with the rambunctious parody The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged). Barrington Stage closes the season with its own lavish interpretation of Much Ado.

Shakespeare & Company’s nine-play season includes just three by its eponym. Two of those, Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are comparatively rare gems in the Shakespearean canon, the one a contemplation of divine right and raw power, the other a feast of romantic wordplay with a bittersweet ending. There’s also an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes the company back to its original home at The Mount. The other classics in S&Co’s lineup are Les Faux Pas, or The Counter Plots, an original adaptation of Molière, and Brecht’s Mother Courage, starring last season’s “Prospera,” Olympia Dukakis.

The antique world gets a look-in with two reconceptions of classical works. Double Edge Theatre’s annual “traveling spectacles” give classic texts a workout in elaborate indoor/outdoor productions that traverse the company’s Ashfield farm. This year’s Shahrazad is a reimagining of 2009’s Arabian Nights. At Chester Theatre Company, An Iliad places a modern-day Homer in an empty theater, reliving the ancient battles of men and gods and drawing out their timeless lessons.

 

Women:

The Absent Majority

 

It’s a tired truth that in a profession where women make up a majority of the population, most of the plays produced around the country are written by men, directed by men and have male-dominant casts. A protest march in New York next week underlines that frustrating fact, and a look at this summer’s season confirms it. Of the 50-plus plays on Valley and Berkshires mainstages this summer, I count just eight written or co-written by women playwrights. Three of these are at Williamstown; of the area’s other two women-led theaters, BSC has one and BTG none.

WTF’s trio are American Hero, by Bess Wohl, a tale of enterprise and rule-breaking in a sandwich shop; Blood Play, a ’50s mix of suburban smugness and adolescent angst by Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen of The Debate Society; and The Bridges of Madison County musical, with a script by Marsha Norman. Chester Theatre Company comes off as the most female-friendly of the region’s theaters, featuring three women playwrights in its four-play season: Karoline Leach’s Tryst, a period melodrama with a fiendish twist, featuring festival favorite Allison McLemore; Body Awareness, by Amherst native Annie Baker, about, well, body awareness; and An Iliad, co-written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare. The latter is staged by Sheila Siragusa, one of only five female directors in the area’s summer mainstage lineup.

Heartening exceptions to this feeble tally are found at the area’s two festivals of alternative theater, the Berkshire Fringe and Ko Festival of Performance, where works created and performed by women actually predominate. Of the Fringe’s nine offerings, all but one are women-centered. They range from a solo performance about Mozart’s sister to one about Nigerian-American identity and cookies, and from a “partial puppet play” about loss and resilience to an interleaving of the Passover story and the Arab Spring. At Ko, we’ll experience a one-woman rocket trip to Mars, a meditation drawn from the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe and those of women prison inmates, and The Burnin’, from the all-women Progress Theatre of Texas.•

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

 

 

Barrington Stage Company, 7 productions in 2 Pittsfield venues, June 12-Aug. 25, (413) 236-8888, barringtonstageco.org.

 

Berkshire Fringe, 9 productions July 17-Aug. 5, Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington, (413) 320-4175, berkshirefringe.org.

 

Berkshire Theatre Group, 6 productions in 3 venues, Stockbridge & Pittsfield, June 29-Aug. 31, (413) 298-5576, berkshiretheatre.org.

 

Chester Theatre Company, 4 productions June 26-Aug. 25, 15 Middlefield Rd., Chester, (413) 354-7771, chestertheatre.org.

Double Edge Theatre, Shahrazad, July 19-Aug. 19, 948 Conway Rd., Ashfield, info (413) 628-0277, tickets (866) 811-4111, doubleedgetheatre.org.

 

Hampshire Shakespeare Company, 3 productions July 19-Aug. 25, Renaissance Center, 650 East Pleasant St., Amherst, hampshireshakespeare.org.

 

Ko Festival of Performance, 6 productions July 5-Aug. 4, Holden Theater, Amherst College, kofest.com.

 

New Century Theatre, 4 productions June 13-Aug. 3, Mendenhall Center, Smith College, Northampton, (413) 585-3220, newcenturytheatre.org.

 

Shakespeare & Company, 9 productions through Sept. 15, 70 Kemble St., Lenox. (413) 637-3353, shakespeare.org.

 

Williamstown Theatre Festival, 8 productions on 3 stages, June 26-Aug. 18, Williams College, Williamstown, (413) 597-3400, wtfestival.org.

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