Stagestruck: Women in the Saddle

Hot on the heels of my recent rundown of women’s representation in the area’s summer theaters comes more encouraging evidence from some of the fall season’s first shows. The Majestic Theater is playing a cowboy musical in which the lead is not a boy. WAM Theater, which provides on- and offstage opportunities for women, continues its popular staged-reading series. And Pittsfield’s Whitney Center for the Arts revives the classic celebration of vaginas.

 

Johnny Guitar was a hardboiled 1954 Technicolor western with a pistol-packin’ woman at its head – and Joan Crawford’s name above the title. Fifty years later Johnny Guitar: The Musical opened off-Broadway, and now the Majestic Theater in West Springfield is staging it, through October 21st. It’s a tongue-in-cheek version of the original, with less shootin’, more singin’, and way more jokes.

Despite the title, the central figure is a woman, Vienna, who owns a saloon in a stretch of western desert that is about to become a boom town when the railroad comes through. The plot, flimsy as a clump of tumbleweed, involves an angry posse out to avenge a stagecoach attack and bank robbery, both of which they’d like to hang on Vienna, and the return of her former lover, Johnny, a reformed gunslinger who’s given up his six-shooter for a six-string.

Most of the action is spurred by sexual jealousy. Johnny is obsessed by the thought that Vienna may have been with other men in the years they’ve been apart. Vienna has a sworn enemy, Emma Small, who’s sweet on another former lover of Vienna’s, the Dancin’ Kid, who’s still sweet on Vienna.

The two toughest hombres in town are the women. “I never met a woman who was more man,” observes Vienna’s bartender, and diminutive Emma thoroughly intimidates her manly posse. Naturally, they detest each other, and in the High Noon ending the men are merely onlookers.

Most of Nicholas van Hoogstraten’s dialogue is drawn verbatim from the screenplay, with the mood swinging between genre-faithful and broad parody. The songs, by Joel Higgins and Martin Silvestri, range from aw-shucks country-ish tunes to heartfelt ballads. Danny Eaton’s cast, all solid performers and strong singers, give the sometimes awkward mix a jaunty vigor, with varying ideas about how broad the parody, and the Wild West accents, should be.

Music director Mitch Chakour deftly leads a five-piece band perched above Greg Trochlil’s clever multi-purpose set, and Dawn McKay dresses Vienna in a dazzling array of costumes, from a sequined gown to a western shirt and Levi’s.

Myka Plunkett plays Vienna with an icy hauteur, contrasting with Bethany Fitzgerald’s excitable Emma. Billy Clark Taylor and Michael Graham Morales are equally strong-jawed as Johnny and the Kid, In other archetypal roles, Walter Mantani is the bullying cattle baron and Joseph Duda the fresh-faced youngster eager to become a man. Michael Garcia, Michael King and Steve Sands double as all the other men, plus provide the show’s delicious running gag as the oo-aah backing group who sidle onstage for almost every number.

Photos by Kait Rankin

Tea and Calamity

Saying WAM Theatre provides opportunities for women is like saying your lungs provide breathing opportunities. It’s what they’re all about. The Berkshire-based company has a duel mission – to present plays by and about women and girls, and to benefit organizations working to improve their lives. In addition to two full productions each season, WAM presents Fresh Takes, an ongoing series of staged readings. The latest in the series takes place this Sunday in West Stockbridge, Mass.

Caryl Churchill – Marc-Brenner photo

Escaped Alone is a recent work by Caryl Churchill, author of such boundary-smashing plays as Top Girls and Cloud 9. She’s a sly playwright. You never quite know where she’s coming from, and when you think you’ve caught on, she whaps you upside your assumptions. Escaped Alone is a case in point.

It’s set in the cozy back garden of an English suburban house where four matronly ladies, “all at least 70,” sit around a tea tray chatting about this and that – until one of them breaks out of the frame to predict, Cassandra-like, a future of social and ecological catastrophe. The title comes from the Book of Job, in which a breathless servant arrives to report a scene of calamity and slaughter, “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Churchill, a septuagenarian herself, “has written a play that captures older women contemplating how to go on in a world that is collapsing around them” says Talya Kingston, who curates the Fresh Takes series. “At WAM Theatre we look for work that both features women who aren’t usually seen on stage, and that initiates social and political dialogue. Escaped Alone is a great fit.”

Directed by WAM’s co-founder, Kristen van Ginhoven, the one-hour performance features Joan Coombs, Nancy Rothman, Eileen Schuyler and Denise Walker. The single performance is Sunday, September 16, 3:30 p.m. at the West Stockbridge Historical Society. Tickets and info here.

 

Daring Monologues

From its not-so-humble beginnings in the mid-90s as the Off-Broadway sensation that dared people to say its title, The Vagina Monologues has grown into a movement. Less than a play and more than just a piece of theater, Eve Ensler’s compilation of first-person anecdotes, confessions and indictments has become a rallying point for women to reclaim not just their sexuality, but their inmost selves. This weekend it comes to the Whitney Center for the Arts in Pittsfield, which this past summer added live theater to its programming.

The monologues, ranging from comic to horrifying, poignant to edgy, gain additional punch in the #MeToo era. Over the years, says director Monica Bliss, the piece “has given voice to a deeper consciousness in the conversation around ending violence against women.” The cast includes Nancy Vale, Brittany Nicholson, Alex Martinez, Colleen Jordan and Jess Lillie.

The performances, September 13-16, benefit the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which supports and protects transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming individuals, and Pittsfield’s Elizabeth Freemen Center, which serves survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their families. Tickets and info at http://www.thewhit.org.

 

 

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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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