Stage

Stagestruck: Invidious Comparisons

Local theaters can outshine their big-budget rivals.

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Tuesday, January 21, 2014
Ellen Augarten photo
Serious Play's Blind Dreamers

I am one lucky critic. I like most of what I see. A sizeable percentage of the shows I attend generously repay this theatergoer’s time and attention. I count myself especially fortunate to be theatergoing in the Valley, where so many small theaters and adventurous ensembles produce work that’s often every bit as polished and professional as what the region’s big-budget institutions deliver—and sometimes better. Here are some examples from the shows I caught last year.

Let’s start with a side-by-side comparison. I saw two productions of 33 Variations, Moises Kaufman’s dual-period play about Beethoven and a modern musicologist who’s probing the mystery of the great composer’s obsessive work on a suite of piano variations. I saw it in January at the Lyric Stage Company, a highly regarded Boston theater, and again last fall at the Majestic Theater in West Springfield. The latter’s version was superior in every way to its big-city cousin’s. In Max Williams’ brilliant production, the complexities of the interweaving plots and fractious relationships, as well as the use of the stage itself (in both cases rather constricted spaces), were clearer and more compelling.

The Tony- and Pulitzer-winning Clybourne Park updates the classic A Raisin in the Sun to explore class privilege and race relations in suburban Chicago. Barrington Stage Company put it on in Pittsfield last summer, but in Good People at Northampton’s New Century Theatre—both David Lindsay-Abaire’s play and Sam Rush’s production—I found those issues handled with more finesse and depth. In that show too, key performances by Sara Whitcomb and Alika Hope were highlights of the summer season.

I enjoyed some wonderful contemporary dance at Jacob’s Pillow last year, but one of the season’s most highly touted performances was overshadowed, for me, by a Valley-based movement-theater piece with a similar theme. In House, from Israel’s avant-garde L-E-V company at the Pillow, the message of human estrangement was delivered in dark, drawn-out images—fleeting moments of almost-connection between not-quite-humans that also didn’t quite connect with me. Here in the Valley, Serious Play’s Blind Dreamers imagined an ordinary household whose members were estranged from both each other and themselves, likewise presented in abstract terms, but with far more visceral connection.

I saw 18 Shakespeare productions last year, including a marvelous Othello from London, courtesy of the National Theater’s live satellite broadcasts (this year’s opener is another Shakespeare, Coriolanus, coming to the Amherst Cinema on Jan. 30). The National’s production was a big, swirling, high-tech number with a large cast and a huge set, but the Othello that really grabbed me last year was a little “no-tech” production by a brand-new troupe called Real Live Theatre, performed in a small, bare room in Holyoke’s Gateway City Arts complex. Notwithstanding its minimalism—indeed, buoyed by that simplicity—it was a thrilling recapitulation of Shakespeare’s tale of love, jealousy and The Other, made all the more riveting by being within touching distance of the actors.

As the new year gets underway, the area’s theater’s are beginning to unveil their 2014 offerings. I’m looking forward to seeing some shows that equal or outshine the best work in the region.•

 

Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and his blog is at valleyadvocate.com/blogs/stagestruck.

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