Thinking back over the summer theater season just ended, images from memorable shows are passing before my mind’s eye, and ear — from striking moments in performances to sets and soundscapes. Here are some Valley snapshots.
Chester Theatre Company celebrated its 30th season with Gem of the Valley, a unique immersive show that took patrons on an audio-guided tour of the hilltop town and provided an indelible through-the-looking-glass image. The outing, engineered by John Bechtold, began at the tiny railway station, now a museum of sepia memories. Outside, we saw a young woman in 1890s dress standing on the platform, waving to someone in the distance. We left the station and circled through an underpass toward Main Street, and as we emerged, we looked back toward the station and saw that young woman on the platform, waving — at us!
Strident Theatre Company inaugurated its premiere season with Meryl Cohn’s The Final Say, a backstage dramedy that swirled around questions of ownership, from literary works to personal histories. Performed in the round in Smith College’s intimate studio theater, the play had three settings — the theater and two apartments — which overlapped each other, sharing not only furniture but a sense of connection among the intersecting stories.
The Ko Festival of Performance stages small-scale, hand-made performances on big themes. It opened with Hilary Chaplain’s The Last Rat of Theresienstadt, a multidisciplinary cabaret set in a Nazi concentration camp. The cast of characters included a former nightclub star now boiling soup in the camp kitchens and a pair of music-hall comedians telling bad Hitler jokes. But I most enjoyed the titular rat, created by Sonia Yoka — a scrawny, scruffy little scamp who talks like Roger Rabbit and embodies the spirit of insolent defiance against the gathering dark.
Serious Play Theatre Ensemble took a preliminary dip into a new work-in-process, Moving Water, an interdisciplinary collaboration around the theme of that precious endangered resource. In the dimly lit cavern of the Northampton Arts Trust’s theater-to-come, as the performers related water-based memories, the liquid sounds of flowing and splashing water were underscored by haunting music, played by Jonny Rodgers on water-filled crystal goblets.
New Century Theatre’s comeback season opened with Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s the corrosive tragedy of unhappy middle-aged George and Martha (Sam Rush and Cate Damon), who can’t help nipping at each other with insults till they draw blood. Early on, when the sniping was already underway, there was a brief, telling moment when the couple shared a tender, even loving look, which deepened our understanding of their relationship and made the wounds to come even more devastating.
Silverthorne Theater Company mounted the evergreen musical The Fantasticks, which puts a twist on Romeo and Juliet. Here the family feud that keeps the teenage lovers apart is only a ruse to get them together. Their respective single parents are best friends who know that “children must get their own way, the minute that you say No.” This production gave it an added twist, casting the kids’ two fathers as mothers (Stephanie Carlson and Autumn Tustin), which not only changed both the look and feel of their romantic meddling but put an extra edge on the play’s controversial “rape,” a comically faked abduction.
Ghost Light Theater’s How I Learned to Drive put a different lens on the idea of rape. Paula Vogel’s painful coming-of-age story involves a teenage girl whose uncle is both her abuser and her mentor. He teaches her to navigate the literal and figurative highways of life, while using her to satisfy his sick urges. In the image that burns in my memory, they are in his car, she seated on his lap while he fondles her breasts. Except that onstage they were sitting side by side, Gene Choquette’s Uncle Peck miming the violation while Carissa Dagenais, as “Li’l Bit,” sat immobile, fighting her feelings — a virtual rape as disturbing as any graphic enactment.
Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s answer to the infamously misogynistic Taming of the Shrew was Toby Vera Bercovici’s audacious adaptation, The *Annotated* Taming, or, Out of the Saddle, into the Dirt, which took the Bard’s title literally instead of following modern practice of keeping the “shrew” somehow untamed. Notwithstanding the show’s slapstick comedy, tongue-in-cheek footnotes and bursts of song, the image that stays with me is Emily Tanch, as “tamed” Katherina, utterly drained and beyond despair, the hollowed-out survivor of a forced-labor re-education camp.
Double Edge Theatre’s perambulating summer show was an appeal to the mythical power of storytelling. I Am the Baron, an outdoor spectacle loosely based on the 18th-century Travels and Adventures of Baron Munchausen, took visitors on a fantastical tour in the company of a colorful troupe of vaudevillians trying to remember where, and who, they are. At one point we followed an old-fashioned farm wagon, done up as a ship with flowing banners for sails, through a grove of strange voices and winking lights, as the cast sang the hymn “The Old Ship of Zion” accompanied by a ragtag brass-and-percussion band.
And with summer barely over, the fall season has already begun. Stay tuned.
I Am the Baron – Greg Cook
Gem of the Valley – Shanna Gerlach
The Last Rat of Theresienstadt – Kasia Chmura
The Fantasticks – Ellen Blanchette
How I Learned to Drive – Paul Bloomfield