I attended over 30 theater productions in the Valley this year, but that wasn’t half of what was on stage. What struck me most was the variety of fare – from the breadth of established companies’ seasons, to the ethnic and gender diversity on campus stages, to community theaters’ daring departures, to the exciting expansion of theater venues.
Here, then, a partial but appreciative backward glance as the curtain falls on 2018.
Two Valley companies mounted full-year seasons. In West Springfield, the Majestic Theater ran a geographical gamut from Alabama Story to Outside Mullingar (Ireland) via Times Square (Guys and Dolls), the Midwest (The War and Walt Whipple) and the Wild West (Johnny Guitar), comprising two musicals, a love story and two contrasting slices of American history.
In Greenfield, Silverthorne Theater Company touched extremes, from two world premieres – Tar2f!, a musical take on Molière, and White, Black and Blue, a gritty inner-city thriller – to a drama recalling Apartheid South Africa (The Road to Mecca) and one recalling the Holocaust (The Tattooed Man Tells All), with changes of pace from farceur Christopher Durang and Yuletide stalwart Charles Dickens.
Serious Play Theatre Ensemble brought two shows back from a sold-out stand at the Edinburgh Fringe – John Sheldon’s The Red Guitar and the words-and-music piece Do It Now: Manual Override. Double Edge Theatre brought their surreal Leonora and Alejandro back to Ashfield from a sold-out premiere in New Jersey, following a revised revival of their summer spectacle We the People.
Pauline Productions performed the whimsical duet The Roommate in its Ashfield sanctuary, then did a hills-and-Valley split run of Rylan Morsbach’s solo tour de force I Am My Own Wife. Ko Festival’s summer season of “Radical Acts” ranged from memories of the Sixties to an Emily Dickinson-inflected memoir, from a one-man shamanic Amazon journey to one woman’s Alaskan journey through fear and infertility, bookending its annual Story Slam.
Two long-running amateur troupes each draw from one classic source – Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan. This year Valley Light Opera sumptuously staged The Gondoliers and Hampshire Shakespeare Company performed Twelfth Night and Othello under the stars.
For kids, PaintBox Theatre offered another summer of twisted childhood classics, plus its annual Pirate Day and Santa Show, Piti Theatre Company toured its environmentally conscious To Bee or Not to Bee and mounted its annual Syrup festival in Shelburne Falls, and the Majestic Children’s Theater staged adaptations of Roald Dahl, Lewis Carroll and Charles Schultz.
Holyoke-based Enchanted Circle Theatre continued its life-changing collaborations with schools and community groups, using theater to teach and inspire children. In Putney, Sandglass Theater, the not-just-for-kids puppetry troupe, wedged its biennial international festival into a chock-full season ranging from picture stories told with vintage “crankies” to the multi-disciplinary activist series Voices of Community.
Campus & Community
The year at the Five Colleges echoed my annual reports on women and people of color onstage in the region’s professional theaters. As I noted in a previous column, the 2018-19 mainstage season at UMass is almost entirely by and about people of color, following on from the Harlem Renaissance play Infants of the Spring and Taylor Mac’s gender-smashing extravaganza The Lily’s Revenge last Spring.
Hampshire College’s homegrown productions included Aria Acevedo’s magical-realist Esperanza this fall, along with José Rivera’s classic Marisol, to be followed in January by an evening from the Persons of Color Artist Collective. Mount Holyoke College staged Question 27, Question 28, about the WWII Japanese internment, the all-woman metaphor of fascism The House of Bernarda Alba, and a guest presentation of American Moor, Keith Hamilton Cobb’s exploration of race and Othello.
Smith College’s spring season featured The Wolves, about a girl’s soccer team, and Men on Boats, an all-male adventure written for and performed by an all-female cast. Amherst College presented senior honors projects The Blizzard, by Yetunde Ojetade, and Denzel Wood’s The Electric Dream.
And PS – Holyoke Community College saluted its core community with a buoyant production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Latinx musical In the Heights.
Community theaters have been upping their game as well. Revivals of Neil Simon and Agatha Christie are giving way to more thoughtful and challenging fare. Take Ashfield Community Theater, which produced Sinclair Lewis’s prescient warning of political demagoguery It Can’t Happen Here – which also received a staged reading at Arena Civic Theatre.
In Ludlow, Exit 7 Players’ year included Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and two anarchic musicals, Spring Awakening and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. And Unity House Players in Springfield presented an edgy updated version of The Diary of Anne Frank.
The most encouraging development in a stage-starved Valley has been the flowering of new venues along with more shows at established ones. Performances have begun at 33 Hawley, the Northampton Center for the Arts’ new home. A new-work showcase from the Northampton Playwrights Lab, the 24-Hour Theater Project, Shakespeare Stage’s Twelfth Night and Real Live Theatre’s When Last We Flew all took flight there this fall.
RLT mounted its spring production of She Kills Monsters at Gateway City Arts, Holyoke’s mushrooming arts magnet. Ghost Light Theater is a resident company there, staging Sex with Strangers last month and hosting a monthly new-play reading series. And a brand-new company, K and E Theater Group, debuted in October with Sweeney Todd.
Mirroring Gateway, the Shea Theatre Arts Center in Turners Falls has become a key arts venue in the Upper Valley. It’s a regular locale , for a number of local theaters, including Eggtooth Productions, whose immersive Deus Ex Machina took visitors on a ghostly tour of the building. Pilgrim Theater performed its Brecht cabaret Moon Over Dark Street there, and Josie’s Magical Flute is the resident comedy-improv troupe. And speaking of improv – and venues – Happier Valley Comedy has moved into a home of its own in Hadley.
Northampton’s Academy of Music ever-expanding live programming ranged from Johnny Lee Davenport’s solo portrait of Thurgood Marshall to Silvia Milo’s of Mozart’s sister, and from The Valley Letters Project to Annie, Jr. Holyoke’s MIFA Festival hosted The Legible Bod(ies), the National Players, Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and other visitors in various city venues while continuing its quest to renovate and reopen the Victory Theatre.
As I said, this rundown can’t fully account for the wealth and variety of Valley theater in 2018. Look for more of the same – and different – next year.
Chris Rohmann is at StageStruck@crocker.com and valleyadvocate.com/author/chris-rohmann