By JARICE HANSON
For the Advocate
This has been a summer of some outstanding theater opportunities for audiences to become reacquainted with familiar company names that may have been on hiatus over the past couple of years (due to that pesky pandemic that has kept some people from gathering in public places). Theater companies have been trying to come back for the summer season, to reconnect with their audiences and entice new patrons.
And then the rains came. And the smoke from Canadian wildfires. And the heat. In short, a number of wonderful theater companies that perform outdoor have had a pretty tough time this summer, with last minute cancelations causing disappointed audiences and cast members, and revenue shortfalls. But despite some of the challenges of this summer, there have been many bright spots that have breathed life into the theater scene, from Hartford to the Berkshires.
Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield is one of those companies with a loyal following, in part because they’ve worked so hard to establish connections with their audiences for several years. Their newest offering on the intimate St. Germain Stage is “Faith Healer,” by Brian Friel, which features three of BSC’s most compelling associate artists, all of whom are recognizable to past audiences.
Directed by Julianne Boyd, the company’s founder and former artistic director, “Faith Healer” is a Rashomon-like telling of an Irish faith healer, his wife (or mistress — we’re not quite sure), and his promoter, all told in four monologs by the three actors: Christopher Innvar, Gretchen Egolf and Mark H. Dold.
Running until August 27, this show is a master class in solo performance and Irish story-telling. Is the faith healer gifted, or is he a grifter? Is he talented, or is he clever? As Boyd’s director’s note stated: “Faith Healer appears very timely in our world today, where so many public figures seem to be reinventing their pasts.” This is a haunting show that is just as relevant today as it was when it was first staged in 1979, and the play cemented Brian Friel as one of the great authors of contemporary Irish theater.
Happy 50th Anniversary No Theater!
One of the bright lights of the summer was an experimental theater piece called “Let Go” at the intimate A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. Celebrating 50 years of producing experimental theater throughout the U.S. and the world, No Theater took its name from the fact that it had no theater, no name, and (perhaps) no publicity budget. But make no mistake (joke intended), the work of this company is very professional indeed.
“Let Go” reemerged this year as a thoughtful, beautifully rendered two person comedy/drama with actors Roy Faudree and Jane Karakula, and video by Nick Verdi. Audiences for this space are intended to be small, and the actors’ use of space is creative and essential to the audience experience of this production. The dialog is non-stop and Faudree and Karakula were flawless in their execution.
I’d like to tell you what the show was about, but much of the meaning of this type of show is constructed in the individual audience member’s mind. I talked to many patrons who had gone back to see the show multiple times and each one extolled the performers’ virtues, but no two people agreed about the show’s true message. But that’s the joy — and challenge — of experimental theater. The show, originally scheduled to run from July 6 through 22, was extended to July 29, and I look forward to whatever this company offers in the future. In the meantime, Happy Anniversary, No Theater!
Another company with a shorter history that may not be immediately recognizable (yet) is K and E Theater Group. This summer’s production “The View UpStairs” at the Northampton Center for the Arts the last two weeks of June was a lively musical that featured 10 performers and a four-person band that showed that often, community theater productions are just as good (and sometimes better) than professional groups. Directed by, choreographed, and featuring Eddie Zitka, the play by Max Vernon was a surprise off-Broadway hit with characters so rich and fully realized that they seem like people you’d know. The story is based on the events of June 24, 1973, when 32 people were killed in an arson’s attack on a gay bar in New Orleans — the deadliest attack on a gay club until the Pulse nightclub massacre in 2016.
K and E Productions have been getting better and better with each successive venture, and the company has wisely cultivated a strong following. When you walk into a theater with a K and E Production, you feel the room is alive with energy. With every one of their shows, their work is uplifting, and relevant.
We will have to wait until next March for their next musical, “Ride the Cyclone,” but if you want to see great theater, wonderful characters, and marvel at how a small band can produce so much sound, watch for K and E’s next season.
A New Lynn Nottage Hit: “Clyde’s” at TheaterWorks Hartford
Lynn Nottage’s most recent Broadway hit, “Clyde’s,” is a masterful comedy that left many audience members at TheaterWorks Hartford with facial cramps from laughing so much. The production was scheduled to run through July but was extended to August 5, and featured an ensemble that formed a tight-knit family of sympathetic, fully-realized characters who touched the audiences’ collective heart.
Clyde’s is a seedy restaurant that caters to truck drivers. Clyde (Latonia Phipps) is the authoritarian proprietor, referred to as “a licensed dominatrix.” Montrellous (Michael Chenevert) is the senior member of the kitchen staff who continually ponders how new, more delicious sandwiches could be the ticket out of Clyde’s. Letitia (Ayanna Bria Bakari) is a heartbreaking character, a single mother of a disabled daughter who needed the job desperately, and Rafael (Samuel Maria Gomez), the “sous chef” who mans the griddle, adds a comic twist. Into this eclectic group comes Jason (David T. Patterson), with a face and body full of tattoos, proclaiming his belief in white supremacy. The only thing all of the characters have in common is that they’re stuck working for Clyde, and every one of them is a former prison inmate.
Nottage is a national treasure who has an uncanny ability to make us laugh at our own foibles and posturing. As a cultural critic, she understands that our differences and our similarities are the stuff of comedy, and she provides a safe place for us to laugh at ourselves when we see our behaviors in others. “Clyde’s” is currently one of the most-produced plays in America, and it’s not hard to understand it’s early appeal.
Some Additional Special Events
This summer, audiences have been treated to a number of readings and special events that may grow into fully fledged productions in the future.
Real Live Theater Company has come back with two summer offerings; a staged reading of “When The Mind’s Free,” which ran June 16 and 17 at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls, exploring relationships of Alzheimer patients and their loved ones/caregivers, told with original music and dance. The second, “Pussy Sludge,” which was presented at CitySpace, at Easthampton’s Town Hall, August 4 through 13. The play is described as a “fever-dream Queer love story/adventure about how we deal with trauma.”
At the LAVA Center in Greenfield on July 8, a packed audience responded vigorously to Lindy Whiton’s “Every Moment of Every Day,” an ethnographically produced story of mothers who have given their babies up for adoption.
And finally, Hartford Stage produced their sixth annual “Breakdancing Shakespeare” production, from July 28 through 30, with “The Tempest.” Local teens and young adults participated in this lively telling of Shakespeare’s work, learning about the Bard in the process, and demonstrating that Theater Matters — for everyone!