After shutting down two years ago, then edging back with skeleton seasons last year, theaters in the region are back at full capacity this summer, for the most part with vax-and-mask policies still in place.

Here are some of the shows I’m looking forward to seeing up and down the Valley.

Betty and The Patch, at the Majestic Theater, was both a product and victim of Covid. Written during the shutdown by the theater’s founder-director, Danny Eaton, it was scheduled to premiere last fall but was postponed when Covid hit the cast. Now it’s playing in the West Springfield theater through July 24, though a lead role was taken by an understudy in the first week because of, yes, Covid.

I don’t know if the pandemic had anything to do with Eaton’s ideas for his play, but it’s built on twin calamities: a kitchen fire that has shuttered The Patch, a beloved local restaurant, and the cancer that has come to claim its proprietor, Betty Borelli. Other complications include her daughter Cristina’s shaky engagement to a city slicker, her lifelong more-than-friendship with Betty’s mellow assistant, BoBo (who is, quite incidentally, Black) and the mystery of who Cristina’s father is.

Covid awareness is guiding Happier Valley Comedy in its diverse all-summer schedule of improvised fun. As “Head of Happiness” Pam Victor told me, masking is “Required, Recommended or Respected” on a given night depending on current conditions. Following its mission “to bring more laughter, joy and ease to Western Massachusetts (and the world!)” HVC is offering free admission to “Fun Fridays” in its Hadley theater, including trivia nights, standup- storytelling and more.

Saturday lineups with HVC regulars rotate week-by-week through improvised musicals, long-form improv, improvisations from true stories and The Championship Show, “which is what it would look like if Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the Super Bowl had a goofy comedy baby,” Victor said.

Hello and Goodbye

Educating Rita is Willy Russell’s 1983 two-hander about a Liverpool lass who takes an Open University literature course with a tired and bitter lecturer, and the things they teach each other. The aptly named Passport Theatre Company is bringing it here, after last fall’s run in Finland.

The title role is played by Valley favorite Stephanie Carlson, who has a longstanding partnership with the Helsinki theater. She told me the play “has long been on my bucket list because it features such a strong female protagonist.” She and costar Adrian Goldman “also thought it was interesting to reflect on the ways that society has, and has not, changed” over four decades. Performances are July 21-24 in the newly revamped Blue Room in Easthampton’s Old Town Hall.

While area theaters are reviving — and newcomers are springing up — the 30-year-old Ko Festival of Performance is folding its tent after two final productions, plus one more night of the ever-popular Story Slam. Sandglass Theater of Putney, VT, in collaboration with Parris-Bailey Arts, brings a new puppets-and-humans show, Flushing, that reflects the season theme, “Stepping Up/Stepping Back,” about passing the torch of leadership. Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man is an outdoor immersive “environmental, cultural and spiritual parable of domination and resilience.”

“During the height of Covid, when the ability to present was so curtailed, I found new joy in turning my focus to training and supporting others as they develop into self-presenting artists,” founding director Sabrina Hamilton said in her season announcement. But, she said, “Ko isn’t closing. Ever-nimble, we are transforming and seeking new ways to serve both the art form and the community that we hold dear.”

Psycho Killers

The next offering in Amherst Cinema’s monthly NT Live screenings of live-capture performances from the British stage is Prima Facie, a one-woman, multi-character drama with Jodie Comer, fresh from her role as the obsessive assassin Villanelle in TV’s Killing Eve. Here she’s on the other side of the law, as an attorney who specializes in defending rapists, until she’s assaulted herself. It’s on the big screen July 21 and August 6.

Two Shakespearean bloodfests are getting original, gender-blind makeovers. In the Valley, Real Live Theater’s The Gentle Villainy of Richard III, Troubler of the Poor World’s Peace receives work-in-progress outings — staged readings with choreography — July 9 at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls and July 10 at 33 Hawley in Northampton (sliding scale tickets start at $5).

It’s a “lean adaptation,” director/adapter Toby Bercovici told me, clocking in at 90 minutes and with seven actors taking on the dozens of roles. (Linda Tardif plays the “gentle villain.”) It’s framed as “a cautionary bedtime story” told by Margaret of Anjou, who was the central figure in Bercovici’s previous mashup of the whole Henry VI trilogy plus Richard III (the title derives from curses she flings at the murderous Richard).

And in southern Vermont, Wild Goose Players are currently performing a stripped-down version of Hamlet at Main Street Arts in Saxton’s River, Fridays and Saturdays through July 16. It’s directed by John Hadden and stars Jim Nutter, both of them Shakespeare & Company veterans. “We’re finding new small horrors in the old story,” Hadden told me.

This edition of the daunting classic is set in “the Madmen era of corporate giants and rebellious Beats.” Hadden has condensed and edited it “to focus on the split-second errors and miscalculations we all recognize that make such a mess of things.” The black-box setting includes some café-table seating “for audience members who don’t mind becoming confidants of Hamlet and his inner demons.”

Photo credits:
Ezell: Ballad of a Land Man (featured image) – Erica Fladeland
Betty and The Patch
– Lee Chambers

Educating Rita – Anni Taponen
Flushing – Kirk-Murphy

Prima Facie – Helen Murray/NT Live
Richard III – Ellen Augarten
Others courtesy of the companies

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