Summer's Harvest

“Summer’s lease hath all too short a date,” quoth the poet. But its brief harvest sure is bountiful. In the three-month feast of performance just ended, 15 theater companies in the Valley and Berkshires mounted some 60 productions in 23 indoor and outdoor venues, and I managed to see almost all of them.

In the brief pause before the fall season unfolds, memory is replaying some of the keeper moments from a rich season. What follows is a subjective and incomplete rundown of some of my best (and one of the worst) experiences in the theater this summer—starting with two productions in particular that sent me out of the theater going, “Wow!”

One was the summer’s biggest surprise: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a musical I’m not particularly fond of, built on slapstick and cheesecake, in a production at Williamstown Theatre Festival that—get this—had men playing all the women’s roles and the husband of the director in the lead. Thinking camp, shtick and self-indulgence? Me too, at first, but WTF’s Forum was none of those.

It was no dragfest, but a salute to the ancient all-male Roman theater of Plautus on which it’s (very loosely) based. The men in women’s roles were feminine but not effeminate, the sexy—okay, smutty—jokes were just as funny, and Christopher Fitzgerald in the central role was a kind of anti-Zero Mostel: small, manic, acrobatic and hilarious.

The other show that made my heart soar was a quiet little gem, Last Train to Nibroc at Chester Theatre Company. It’s the first play in Arlene Hutton’s Nibroc Trilogy, which Chester staged in sequence this summer and then in whirlwind, day-long marathons of all three plays. The first one, though, is the one that sticks. It’s a deceptively simple story of shy, playful flirtation and tentative courtship that begins on a cross-country train on the eve of World War II and culminates in a proposal scene that is both sweet and funny. And the two performers in this all-but-perfect play were absolutely perfect as the young couple, Allison McLemore prim and wary, a foil to Joel Ripka’s ironic teaser.

Two more characters show up in the second play of the trilogy and one more is added in the final installment. That one, a pregnant narcissist, was played by Sandra Blaney, and that was just one of the versatile actor’s four gigs in the Valley this summer. The other three were at New Century Theatre, including one quite unexpected. When Lisa Abend sprained an ankle during the run of the three-staircase farce Noises Off, Blaney slipped into the ingenue’s bustier on three hours’ notice. Meanwhile, she was in rehearsal for the next New Century show, To Forgive, Divine, then went straight on to Intimate Apparel, this time playing an elegant society matron in Gilded Age New York.

Perfect Pairs

That show boasted two more of the summer’s most memorable performances. Lynette R. Freeman, as an African-American seamstress who tests the era’s color and class divides, and David Mason, playing against type as an Orthodox Jewish fabric merchant, were extraordinary, and their scenes together were luminous.

Another pair who added up to more than the sum of their parts were Buzz Roddy and David Friedlander as a pair of Irishmen—and a dozen other people—in Stones in His Pockets, the summertime offering of The Theater Project. Both men had previously done this show, about a sleepy village invaded by a Hollywood film crew, but in separate productions. Their familiarity with the roles made for a confident performance while having a new partner gave it freshness.

Two one-man performances in outdoor spaces had me indifferent to the humidity and mosquitoes for 90 riveting minutes. Loup Garou, a contemporary fable about the destruction of the Louisiana bayou at the Ko Festival of Performance, featured Nick Slie in a no-holds-barred tour de force that filled the half-acre performance space with almost nonstop movement and gut-wrenching emotion.

Rylan Morsbach gave a quieter but no less spellbinding performance in Scaramouche Jones for Pauline Productions at Goshen’s Three Sisters Sanctuary. The autobiography of a 100-year-old clown was performed by this 20-year-old with a subtlety and depth of feeling many veterans would give their Equity cards to achieve. Another astonishingly young man produced an astonishing performance as Hamlet on Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s outdoor stage in Hadley. P.J. Adzima combined a precocious intelligence with an adolescent energy that made the world’s most famous play seem brand new.

Berkshires and Beyond

Of the 10 (!) productions at Shakespeare & Company, I found the non-Shakespearean offerings most memorable—notwithstanding John Douglas Thompson’s monumental Richard III and Tina Packer’s guided tour through the Bard’s Women of Will. Here too, it’s individual performances that stand out: Elizabeth Aspenlieder’s gutsy, shoe-obsessed single mom in Bad Dates; Robert Lohbauer’s one-man dialogue between two musical giants in Mengelberg and Mahler; Walton Wilson and Kristin Wold’s bittersweet cross-class courtship in Sea Marks; and Rocco Sisto’s eccentric, austere but sensual Renaissance man in The Taster—a new play by Joan Ackermann that doesn’t entirely work but still resonates in my memory.

Both Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Festival mounted impressive and varied seasons, with musicals large and small as well as some smart comedies and trenchant dramas (though I sadly missed both of Eric Hill’s productions at BTF, Beckett’s Endgame and Shakespeare’s Macbeth). Coincidentally, it’s the very first shows in both companies’ seasons that stick most persistently: The Whipping Man, an engrossing Civil War drama at BSC, and K2, a literal cliff-hanger that takes place on a Himalayan mountain, at BTF. Both plays featured small casts (five actors altogether, all men and all excellent) but dealt deftly with big themes—danger, friendship, freedom and faith.

While many of the summer’s joys were small-scale pleasures—fine-tuned performances in jewel-box plays—one show gloried in its sheer scale. The annual summer spectacle at Double Edge Theatre was The Firebird. Based on Russian folktales and Marc Chagall imagery, the peripatetic production led the audience on a physical and metaphorical journey around the ensemble’s Ashfield farm, from a circus tent through a garden of dangerous delights to a watery finale followed by a fiery coda.

For all the performances I enjoyed this summer—and I did enjoy almost all of them—there was also one colossal stinker, though I had to go out of state to undergo it. I should say right away that Hartford-based TheaterWorks’ first-ever world premiere, High, by Matthew Lombardo, broke all box office records for the theater, not least because of the pull of its star, Kathleen Turner.

But I didn’t just dislike it, I hated it. It’s a three-character drama involving a tough, foul-mouthed substance-abuse counselor who is a recovering alcoholic and, by the way, a nun; a drugged-out no-hope kid she’s trying to save; and a priest with a secret. Potentially rich material that, in this case, is presented in overheated dialogue and implausible plot twists (the friend I went with leaned over at one point and whispered, “Can you guess he used to write for a daytime soap?”) and, when I saw it, suffered from a bizarre, undisciplined lead performance.

Kathleen Turner is a capable actor with a lot of fire in the belly (think Body Heat), who was drawn to this project because of her own history with alcohol. Her performance was generally praised by the opening-night press, but when I caught up with the show late in the run, it was stiff and mannered, her famous husky voice forced and, yes, slurred. Her colleagues, Evan Jonigkeit and Michael Berresse, turned in affecting performances anyway.

Still, 59 out of 60 ain’t bad.

Author: Chris Rohmann

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