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Stagestruck: Four to Go

Valley colleges open their theater seasons

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A world-premiere musical about what dolls get up to when no one’s looking. A fragmentary play about a fragmenting mind. A French farce about an insatiable liar. And a performance installation about fat. That diverse menu of productions is under the lights this month at four area colleges, representing the variety and, indeed, the adventurousness to be found in the Valley’s theater departments.

The Doll People, this weekend at Smith College, is based on the popular children’s book series by Laura Godwin and Ann M. Martin, the latter a Smith alumna. That’s only one of the reasons it’s being premiered at the college: the musical adaptation is by Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner, parents of a current Smithie.

Here, the world is seen from the dolls’ perspective. They’re the ones who are “normal” size while the humans are giants. In Ellen Kaplan’s production, this illusion is maintained by life-size props, including a Victorian dollhouse and toy car, with enormous animations portraying the play’s gigantic people.

Woyzeck is a work of tortured genius that was left unfinished when its author died at age 23, but has become a touchstone of European drama. Written in 1836, Georg Buchner’s play concerns a young soldier who’s bullied by his superiors, tortured by a medical experimenter and cheated on by his girlfriend, all these stresses uniting to make him paranoid and hallucinatory.

Charlotte Brathwaite, a visiting professor at Amherst College, has built a class around it titled “Woyzeck: Longing, beauty, horror” and staged an adaptation that goes up next weekend at the college. She’s set her collaborative production in “a no man’s land somewhere between mania and surrealism… a world of intense physical actions, beauty and brutality, erotic and gritty energetic chaos.”

The Liar is playwright David Ives’ “translaptation” of Pierre Corneille’s 1643 farce Le Menteur—“a translation with a heavy dose of adaptation.” Ives, no mean farceur himself, thus gives us “the play Corneille would have written today, in English”—in other words, true to the original but accessible to the present.

The production, this and next weekend at UMass, includes a special ticket offer, related, I presume, to the hero’s baroque moustache. Bring a hairy upper lip to the box office on the night and get a $1 discount. (I also presume this applies equally to females, since you’re invited to either grow one, “glue one to your face or draw one on.”)

Fat. Black. and Ugly, at Hampshire College, is a project of student Eshe Shukura, who describes it as “a performance installation that displays my personal Fat Body. Considers my brown, St Louis-born, Atlanta-raised skin. …Exposes, critiques, and invites.”

And not far behind this quartet, next month comes another audacious entry, Mount Holyoke College’s fall production. The Mandrake is a 16th-century comedy by one Niccolo Machiavelli—yes, he of the machiavellian reputation—who used Commedia dell’Arte conventions and the plot of a sex farce to sling barbs at the Medici potentates who had exiled him and, more broadly, to satirically restate the infamous thesis of his political treatise, The Prince: that the ends justify the means.•

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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