By JARICE HANSON
For the Advocate
‘The Happiest Man on Earth,” Barrington Stage Company’s first production of the season on the St. Germain Stage, leaves the audience breathless with the story of a Holocaust survivor.
The show closed June 17, but the script is timeless. In his opening remarks, Alan Paul, new Artistic Director of BSC said, “With anti-Semitism on the rise in this country, remembering the past is even more important.”
Eddie Jaku survived four concentration camps and a life of insurmountable horror until the war ended and he immigrated to Australia, where he lived to the age of 101. Playwright Mark St. Germain adapted Jaku’s 2020 memoir for the stage and Director Ron Lagomarsino, along with actor Kenneth Tigar, create vivid, lasting impressions.
This play is undoubtedly Broadway-worthy, but it takes an extraordinary performer to keep the action moving at a clip. Tigar’s velvet voice holds the audience’s attention and at times, it seemed he was channeling the voice and mannerisms of Eddie. His is a mesmerizing performance, important not only for what it teaches us about human dignity and love triumphing over fascism and genocide, but because it asks us to take responsibility for ourselves. Eddie reminds us that happiness is a choice that can turn some of the worst experiences into joy and personal peace.
Also just closed is Silverthorne Theater Company’s production of “The Cake,” a comedy with a message appropriate for Pride Month. “The Cake” satisfies the longing for love conquering all, and allows us to see familiar, recent history in a new way, while exploring sensual delights that cut across gender and generation.
Award-winning playwright and television writer Bekah Brunstetter was inspired to write “The Cake” when a Colorado baker refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court where the battle was framed as a question of the right of the baker to refuse clients based on his religious beliefs.
Reviewing this show almost begs for some references to baking. The ingredients of this production are of the finest quality. Take a talented, committed cast, add two directors who excel in producing plays dealing with social consciousness, fold in sight gags and intergenerational conflict, add a little bit of sex and suggested nudity, and voila, you have all the right ingredients for a laugh-filled night at the theater.
Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a familiar face from Lenox’s Shakespeare and Company, portrays Della, the Christian baker who has a crisis of conscience when her deceased best-friend’s daughter asks her to bake her wedding cake. The problem? This wedding has two brides, which presents Della with her moral dilemma. Sam Samuels, a familiar face to Valley theatergoers, is excellent as Tim, Della’s husband, who is more comfortable talking about draining septic tanks than his feelings.
The young fiancées are portrayed by Tahmie Der as Macy, the hip, big city journalist, and Claudia Maurino as Jen, who dreams of the perfect wedding inspired by her traditional, southern upbringing. Gabriel Levey plays George, a pompous, overbearing television MC on the baking show Della sees as her stairway to fame.
Director Gina Kaufmann and Assistant Director Ezekiel Baskin drive the production at a crisp pace, but one weakness is the physical space of the theater itself. Silverthorne has taken a gamble by branching out to different venues around the Valley. While this is a brilliant move to attract new patrons and raise funds, the physical spaces can provide unexpected problems for staging and vocal projection.
Brunstetter’s script is written as an intimate piece, so staging the play on the wide stage in Hampshire College’s Emily Dickinson Hall creates challenges for sight lines. Actors had to try to project intimate conversations across the room. While there was an attempt to speak over a theater packed with patrons on opening night, I can only imagine the actors needed time to adjust to the new acoustic space.
And coming soon…
If you’re wondering what Advocate theater critic emeritus Chris Rohmann is doing these days, he’s directing an original play written by and starring Valley resident, John Feffer. “I Hope I Die Before I Get Old” will be performed in the Blue Room at CitySpace in Easthampton’s Town Hall July 21, 22, 27, 28 and 29 at 8 p.m. and July 23 at 3 p.m.
This original, one-man play tells the story of Vladimir Mayakovsky, a Russian poet, playwright, artist and actor who became known as an important figure in Russia’s Futurist movement. The title of the show comes from The Who’s song, “My Generation,” which helped Feffer compare Mayakovsky’s life to that of a 1960s rock musician. As Feffer said; “He was a rebel…With three of his buddies, he toured Russia a few years before the 1917 Revolution to recite his “songs,” outrage audiences, and win a few devoted fans. Mayakovsky was truly a rock star.”
I asked Feffer what drew him to the subject. He responded, “It’s really the current Russian war in Ukraine that brought me back to the subject. I wanted to portray a Russian writer trying to negotiate a relationship with an authoritarian state. What kind of Faustian deals must such writers make in order to publish and perform their work?”
This play is a fascinating, ambitious examination of a larger-than-life figure who broke conventional rules of media and artistic expression. As the play unfolds, Feffer draws lines from pre-Revolutionary Russia to show how Russian history was influenced by radicals like Mayakovsky. Russian history becomes clearer for the audience, and past informs the present.
Performer Profile: Jay Sefton is the workingest actor in Massachusetts
Jay Sefton is having a great summer as both an actor and writer. Any working actor will tell you, as soon as you book one role, you start looking for the next one. But this summer, Easthampton’s Jay Sefton is a busy man. While most actors have to have another job just to pay the bills, Jay’s passion for his work as a mental health counselor both informs his worldview as much as it grounds him in his work on stage and off. At the same time, Sefton is a gifted actor, writer and communicator.
In March, Sefton performed in a reading of a new work by playwright Sarah Shulman at Provincetown Theater. Recently, he completed a run in the WAM/Berkshire Theatre Group’s co-production of “What the Constitution Means to Me” at the Unicorn Theater. As the yang to Kate Baldwin’s yin, Sefton’s exceptional warmth and his “therapist’s professional distance” added dimension to the fascinating, timely exploration of the Constitution as a living document.
On July 20 and 21, Sefton’s autobiographical solo show, “Unreconciled,” will be performed at the Chester Theatre Company in workshop format. The subject matter of “Unreconciled” deals with Catholic clergy abuse of young boys, but it takes on the myriad social effects that perpetuate structures of abuse.
Sefton’s play began to take shape after writing an op-ed in a Pennsylvania newspaper citing his reasons for rejecting a cash reconciliation fee by the Catholic Church. When contacted by Mark Basquill, who read the op-ed piece, the two men started collaborating on writing the script.
Directed by James Barry, one of the new co-producing directors at Chester, this will be Sefton’s opportunity to give his own living history as a lesson to others who experience trauma. It’s the type of personal history that connects with others on multiple levels.