Stagestruck: Six Degrees of Connection – The Berkshires’ Year in Theater

Six theater companies form a kind of chain across the southern and western Berkshires. From the closest to the Valley to the farthest, they are the hilltowns’ Chester Theatre Company, then westward (passing dance mecca Jacob’s Pillow) to Shakespeare & Company in Lenox and its neighbor, the Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Festival, now headquartered to the north in Pittsfield, which is also home to Barrington Stage Company, and beyond that, Williamstown Theatre Festival. The sixth link in the chain is WAM Theatre, which performs in a variety of Berkshire venues, including BSC and S&Co.

 

Let’s begin in Chester, whose four-play summer opened with Bar Mitzvah Boy, a comedy about a middle-aged nonobservant Jew who suddenly needs his becoming-a-man ceremony. And here’s another Jewish joke: Three Jewish songwriters walk up to a piano…. That’s the premise for Coming Back Like a Song, a charming play-with-music formed around a trio of Tin Pan Alley greats. It was BTG’s contribution to a slew of Berkshire world premieres.

Matthew Broderick in “The Closet”

Jessica Hecht in “The Closet”

Five of those debuts were at Williamstown. I was only able to catch two of them, which happened to hit high and low points on my summer itinerary. The former was The Closet, a screwball comedy with the wonderful Jessica Hecht and starring Matthew Broderick as a mild-mannered clerk who pretends to be gay in order to keep his job. The latter was The Sound Inside, a self-conscious experiment in literary themes in which Mary-Louise Parker played a writer’s-blocked college professor with an alarmingly talented student.

Also set on a college campus was Well Intentioned White People, at BSC, with Myxolydia Tyler as a junior professor whose tenure track is threated by eruptions of racism and political correctness. The blend of comedy and current events did not work as well there as it did in Church and State at BTG, about a red-state U.S. Senator who finds his moral compass when his re-election is jeopardized by the gun-control issue.

From the cutthroat arena of politics to a pair of actual cutthroats – those bloodthirsty Macbeths (Jonathan Croy and Tod Randolph, both superb) at S&Co. From there, down the hill to the troupe’s second stage for Creditors, by August Strindberg, a quieter but equally lethal study of villainy with mesmerizing performances by Jonathan Epstein, Ryan Winkles and Kristin Wold, a cat-and-mouse game of romantic illusion and sexual possession.

Those themes resurfaced at BTG in Luigi Pirandello’s Naked, the expressionistic tale of a young woman whose mysterious history deceives everyone, including herself. Self-deception was at the center of Typhoid Mary, a new history-based play by Mark St. Germain at BSC, about Mary Mallon (a breathtaking Tasha Lawrence), the cook who unwittingly, and then recklessly, infected dozens of people with the disease.

Harriet Harris as Sister Mary Ignatius

Another deadly Mary, in Christopher Durang’s Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, delivers a screamingly funny catechism before gunning down her students. She was vividly embodied at BTG by Harriet Harris, who earlier in the season stole the show in The Royal Family of Broadway at BSC.

The aristocratic family in S&Co’s agreeable outdoor As You Like It is living in rustic exile, changing customs, viewpoints and garments to find their true selves – none more so than Rosalind (Aimee Doherty), a girl who pretends to be a boy. In Taylor Mac’s unnervingly madcap Hir, also at S&Co, there’s a girl who is literally becoming a boy (Jack Doyle) – a gender transition that baffles his older brother but enchants their mother.

The motherly baker in BSC’s The Cake, played scrumptiously by Debra Jo Rupp, is not so enchanted to encounter non-traditional gender roles in her goddaughter’s impending marriage to a woman – an alien concept in her small-town culture. And it’s an alien culture that greets Afong Moy, displayed as an exotic curiosity to 19th-century Americans in Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady at BSC. Shannon Tyo’s exquisite near-solo performance was aimed right at the audience, turning us into gawking novelty-seekers.

Jayne Atkinson as Ann Richards

In Ann, WAM Theatre’s one-woman portrait of the feisty Texas governor Ann Richards, a high-octane Jayne Atkinson likewise addressed the house – this time we were a graduation-day crowd – before turning to an unseen, unheard audience on the far end of a phone line. Holland Taylor’s play was directed by WAM’s co-founder, Kristen van Ginhoven – who also, as it happens, staged Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar’s riveting study of identity, assimilation and appropriation at Chester.

Which brings us back where we started, via six degrees of connection around the 2018 Berkshires.

Photos by Carolyn Brown, David Dashiel, Daniel Rader,
Emma Rothenberg-Ware & Elizabeth Solaka

If you’d like to be notified of future posts, email StageStruck@crocker.com

Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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