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Tina Packer Completes The Bard’s Oeuvre, But She’s Not Done Yet

Packer in “Antony and Cleopatra” at Shakespeare & Co. Photo: Kevin Sprague.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

When Tina Packer first led a troupe of actors up to the Berkshires from New York in 1978 and took residence in Edith Wharton’s then-neglected home, The Mount, the group produced plays on the lawn outside. When she directs a play on Shakespeare & Company’s main stage nowadays at its Kemble Street campus, she does so in a theater named after her.

“It’s faintly embarrassing,” she says of the honor on a recent Sunday afternoon, seated on a bench outside Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse. “I think of myself as a jobbing actor-director. Now I’m institutionalized, so it’s a very odd feeling. On the other hand, I feel terribly grateful to all the people who did it and worked for it to happen,” she says. “But as I say to them: I’m not dead yet! And not only am I not dead, I’ve not retired either.”

Indeed. When her production of Shakespeare’s late-period play Cymbeline begins performances at the Packer Playhouse on July 4, the theater maven will have reached a remarkable milestone: She’ll have directed every single play Shakespeare ever wrote. (There’s about 37, depending on how you count.) 

The milestone coincides with the 40th season at Shakespeare & Company and the first of new artistic director Allyn Burrows. Packer herself left that job behind after the 2008 season, citing the importance of handing over the reigns in a stable manner and her desire to complete a list of creative projects that her leadership position didn’t leave time for.

Packer and Epstein in a radio interview in 2016. Photo: Ava G. Lindenmaier.

That’s the sort of thing plenty of people say when they retire from the big job. In Packer’s case, it was true. In the decade since, she has completed and toured extensively with her magnum opus, Women of Will, a deep exploration of Shakespeare’s evolving conception of females, executed with scene partner Nigel Gore. She’s turned it into a book published by Knopf. She’s worked as a freelance actor, most recently in a production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus at Philadelphia’s Lantern Theater in March. And she’s continued to direct, closing in on her goal of completing Shakespeare’s canon.

Gore met Packer when he played Claudius to her Gertrude in the 2006 Hamlet at Shakespeare & Company that marked her return to the stage as an actor in a major Shakespeare role after many years. They’ve hardly stopped collaborating since, principally through Women of Will, which has toured Mexico, Prague and China. (Packer and Gore will reprise it in the Packer Playhouse for one night this summer, on August 25.)

“When we go out on the road it’s very moving sometimes to see, especially among young women directors, just how important she has been as a role model, how people look up to her,” Gore says of his collaborator and friend, “and how much she’s achieved and accomplished. She has iconic status for a lot of people in this country and in the world.”

Gore is in the Cymbeline cast, as is Jonathan Epstein, who has his own long body of work created in collaboration with Packer.

Photo: Enrico Spada

“Tina is one of the few really prolific Shakespeare directors who puts the actor at the center of the concept,” Epstein says, noting that her company’s aesthetic is to start with the text of the play and the actors assembled, rather than shoehorning everything into a director’s high-concept interpretation. “Without Tina’s kind of work, you really can get a little hungry as an actor. Because you feel that your voice isn’t heard.”

Given the demands of the box office, Packer notes, even directors who are Shakespeare specialists may only get the opportunity to direct 10 or 15 of his plays. “By the time you’ve done it all, they all are in relationship to each other. You can see the whole,” she says.

When you consider Packer’s familiarity with the canon—as a director, an actor and an educator—her perspective on the Bard is something rarer than uncommon. Her peers are few.

But that doesn’t means she’s stopped asking questions. Somewhere in the pile of papers she carries around after rehearsal are a list of notes she made during that recent run of Coriolanus—observations about the role of women in that play that she hadn’t noticed before.

“They seemed really important to me all of a sudden,” she says, even though she had recently sent the last chapter of her latest manuscript, a book on sex in Shakespeare, to her publisher. Now she needs to make some revisions.

Tina Packer’s oeuvre remains a work in progress.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/27/17 at 10:24 AM • Permalink

Audition Day At Sharon Playhouse: The Callbacks

By CB Wismar

“Find your own boogie!” 

Choreographer Chris DeVita’s words bounce around the Bok Gallery at Sharon Playhouse and are met with a chorus of nervous laughter. These are the “callback” auditions — the second opportunity for regional actors to secure a place in this season’s production of “The Music Man.” Theater goers will see only the fully rehearsed production, of course, but much goes on before the rehearsals are to start, and for those curious about the process, a chance to audit the auditions is illuminating.

The day before, men and women, boys and girls who stretch and turn in front of a wall of mirrors had stood alone, singing a song of their choice and reciting lines from a favorite play. If that solo performance was impressive enough, the invitation was offered. Today, things get more intense.  Today, they dance.

The audience on this Sunday in early spring is both critical and encouraging. Director Morgan Green, who will bring three major productions to the Sharon, Conn. stage this summer, controls the ebb and flow of the day. First there is work with the show’s choreographer, Chris DeVita, then the chance to sing a song from Meredith Wilson’s classic American love story and do a bit of dialogue. Then it’s “Thanks for coming. Good job. We’ll announce in about a week.”

And, the wait begins. 

If you’re an actor, this is the time for second guessing — for wondering if you hadn’t missed the “grapevine” step or hit the high note with a bit less vibrato … or …

If you’re a director, it’s time to juggle the images and performances and individual chemistry with notes and opinions from your production team. The goal: to get to the moment when the cast works with the concepts already in your mind. There’s a long journey between hearing a few bars of “Wells Fargo Wagon” done three different ways to determine an actor’s range, and opening night on August 4 when the audience gets to meet “The Music Man” for the first time.

Chris DeVita

Morgan Green has demonstrated her range as a director in the complex world of what is euphemistically known as “Off-off-Broadway.” With her production partners Madeline Wise and Milo Cramer, Green is part of New Saloon, a production company that attracted positive reviews for their production of “Minor Characters” at this past year’s “Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival” and captured the attention of Sharon Playhouse Artistic Director Johnson Henshaw.  “Minor Characters” will be Sharon Playhouse’s first offering this upcoming season, running from June 9 - 25. It will be followed by Green’s staging of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away,” then “The Music Man” comes to town. 

If you’re a choreographer, the hour of dance auditions that begin the day is layered and intense. With 30 cast aspirants working hard to learn, then deliver the routine he has devised, Chris DeVita demonstrates his great talent of being both a patient, encouraging teacher and a keen-eyed critic. He, like Morgan Green, must be able to see what’s in front of him and project how that performance can fit into the ultimate production. 

“I want them to have fun … to let us see what they’re comfortable with,” he says. “My approach is to work with whatever skills they bring, not try to force them into routines that aren’t comfortable.”  Almost on cue, as a group finishes running through the choreography, DeVita leads the boisterous cheering and applause.

DeVita is no stranger to the talent pool in the region. He spent two seasons as Artist-in-Residence at the Wassaic Project, spending summers in the New York town as counterpoint to his full-time role as cofounder of his own New York dance company.

His audition complete, would-be cast member Rudd Anderson, a gifted education teacher at Weston Intermediate School, gets ready for the drive home. “As auditions go, they made this very comfortable,” he says. Anderson seems relaxed, not caught up in the second guessing that might be expected. “Theater is where I started, and I enjoy having this creative outlet,” says the veteran of regional theater, European theater companies and an American touring company of “CATS.”

And, inside the Bok Gallery, the rehearsal pianist strikes a chord and yet another rendition of “Wells Fargo Wagon” fills the morning. 

Related story: Sharon Playhouse Plans a Director-Driven Season

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/11/17 at 09:54 AM • Permalink

Scott Frankel of Columbia County Storms Broadway with “War Paint”

Scott Frankel with Christine Ebersole.

By Dan Shaw

On a recent Sunday afternoon at his stately, red-brick Greek Revival house in Columbia County, composer Scott Frankel was decompressing after the third week of previews for his new Broadway musical, War Paint, which opens on April 6 at the Nederlander Theatre. It’s been five years since Frankel and his collaborators — playwright Doug Wright, lyricist Michael Korie and director Michael Greif — began working on the show about the 50-year rivalry between cosmetics tycoons Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, which had its out-of-town world premiere last summer at the esteemed Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

“We always knew the roles had to be played by two larger-than-life stars with big personalities,” says Frankel. Arden is played by Christine Ebersole, who won a Tony Award in 2007 for Grey Gardens, the team’s musical adaptation of the seminal 1975 documentary by Albert and David Maysles about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’s eccentric cousins who lived in squalor on one of the best streets in the Hamptons (in a house that was later bought and renovated by the Washington Post’s Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn.) Patti LuPone plays her rival.

Frankel and his collaborators dreamed of getting LuPone to play Madame Rubenstein, as she was called, which would make the show a twofer — a pair of legendary Broadway actresses portraying a pair of legendary beauty moguls. “We try not to use the D-word,” says Frankel, explaining that calling LuPone or Ebersole a “diva” is a mischaracterization.

The show is fiction based on fact. “We hew closely to the historical record,” says Frankel, citing the book War Paint by Lindy Woodhead and the documentary “The Powder and the Glory” by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman. Frankel wrote much of the enchanting score on the 1890s Blüthner grand piano in the high-ceilinged drawing room of the house he shares with the architect Jim Joseph. “It’s a very acoustical room, and the piano came with the house,” says Frankel.

Their home, which was featured in Architectural Digest, could rightly be called an “estate” if the owners weren’t so humble. It was built in the 1830s by the Livingston family, and it has the genteel grandeur of nearby Hudson River historic homes like Clermont. Although it is furnished with period antiques — many purchased in Hudson from Vince Mulford and Stair Galleries — the house has a relaxed, don’t-worry-about-mud-on-your-boots vibe.

Frankel is unfailingly congenial in town or country. At a recent preview of War Paint, he greeted friends and acquaintances in the lobby of the Nederlander as if it were his bar mitzvah. He was giddy because this is only his second Broadway opening, although he’s one of the most successful composers of his generation, whose credits include Happiness at Lincoln Center Theater and Far From Heaven, which had its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012.

Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Photo by Joan Marcus.

War Paint is must-see unadulterated Broadway — a Technicolor spectacle with dazzling and illustrative sets by David Korins (whose most recent credits include Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen). The drop-dead chic costumes by Catherine Zuber are sophisticated and sublime. The facsimiles of Rubenstein’s jewelry are especially astounding. Known for her patronage of visionary artists and designers (such as Brancusi, Dali, Picasso, Schiaparelli), Rubenstein’s avant-garde eye has been well documented (in books like Suzanne Slesin’s Over the Top and the Jewish Museum’s 2014 exhibit “Beauty is Power”), and Zuber has recreated looks that remain startling in their originality and modernity.

However, style does not upstage substance, and War Paint is a potent history of protofeminists who created a new industry. “They were the Henry Fords of cosmetics, skincare and day spas,” says Frankel, noting that unlike other rich and powerful women in history, they did not inherit or marry their fortunes.

They famously disdained each other, but pop culture critics are wrong when they compare the women to Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who are the subject of Ryan Murphy’s new FX series Feud. Arden and Rubenstein were actually more like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs — arguably, the invention of the modern cosmetics industry changed the world as much as the personal computer. Arden and Rubenstein viewed cosmetics and skincare as empowering ordinary women to be their best selves. (Before them, primarily actresses and wanton women wore makeup.) “It’s a conflicted legacy, of course, but they really believed they were helping women,” says Frankel.

And War Paint itself is a vehicle of empowerment because its stars are women of a certain age. “I’m proud to add roles to the repertoire for veteran actresses,” says Frankel. “Everything shouldn’t be about young people.” He credits Ebersole, 64, and LuPone, 67, for collaborating to make their characters multidimensional. “They helped us push beyond catty, facile stereotypes,” he says.

After opening night, Frankel won’t be at the rear of the theater taking notes five nights a week, so he can return to Livingston and unwind. “I’ll go for a walk in nature and then buy some pastries in Hudson,” he says.

War Paint at the Nederlander Theater
For discount tickets, visit Playbill.com

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/03/17 at 09:26 PM • Permalink

Sharon Playhouse Plans A Director-Driven Season

By CB Wismar

The barn red buildings of Sharon Playhouse in winter are a stark reminder that cold weather and snow have replaced the drama that inhabits the campus from June to September. Opening night at the Sharon, Conn. Equity theater seems many months away.

But recently, in the warm confines of the intimate Bok Theater, a collection of energetic, imaginative and amazingly dedicated theater professionals began planning for their first show. June will be here soon enough, and the new management and creative teams at Sharon Playhouse are not wasting a moment.

To set the stage, the first announcement came in late fall. The new president of the Playhouse organization, Emily Soell, announced that George Quick had been named the new managing director of the Playhouse. Quick left a successful run as executive director of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre to move north.

Johnson Henshaw and George Quick

Enter, stage right, the holidays. There were rumors of plays to be staged and changes to come. News, however, was hard to get. Then, in mid-January, a new name appeared on the Sharon Playhouse website. Johnson Henshaw, a talented young producer and director with both theater and TV credits had been named artistic director.

But, the big questions — what plays would be staged, and who would direct — remained. What was going to push us through winter and mud season?

On February 1, without fanfare, the lights came up: Sharon Playhouse was going to take its place amid the regional powerhouse theaters — Berkshire Theater Festival, Shakespeare & Company, Williamstown Theater Festival and Barrington Stage. Like its regional colleagues, the Playhouse’s 2017 season wouldn’t be a rehash of “straw hat” favorites, but a real theatrical experience.

Downstage right, back in the pre-production meeting, the critical cast of technical and creative artists gather as the low-angled winter sun played across a table strewn with books and papers. At the head of this group is a highly regarded young director who has captured the imagination of New York theatergoers and who will, at the invitation of Johnson Henshaw, direct the three major works that will anchor the 2017 Sharon Playhouse season. 

Morgan Green is a rising star, a co-artistic director of the company New Saloon Theater Co., a Brooklyn-based, Bard College-born theater. Her staging of “Minor Character,” which is a sometimes raucous presentation of six simultaneous translations of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya,” has been widely applauded in New York. New York Theatre Review said “Morgan Green’s direction is superb… hysterical, inventive and brilliant.” On June 8, Green and her production partners, actor/playwright Milo Cramer and Madeline Wise, will bring that enchantment to the Bok stage for a two-week run.

Thanks to a new Sharon Playhouse dedication to showcasing emerging directors, Morgan’s first play will not be her last. Her staging of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” will occupy the Bok from July 6–23, And, for an encore, Morgan will turn to a great American musical, Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” which will run from August 3–20. (On the main stage, the Youth Theater will find new life in a production of “Footloose!” directed by Sarah Combs the weekend of July 14–16.)

It’ll be an interesting change for Morgan. “New York theater is very playwright driven, which is fine,” she says. “Sharon is doing something so refreshing — giving new directors the chance to present their work in a great setting to an eager audience.”

Across the table, George Quick and Johnson Henshaw nod in agreement. “We can only be as vibrant as our relationship will be to the community,” says Henshaw. “We’re going to be true to the community and eagerly invite new audiences to join in the experience.”

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/06/17 at 11:08 AM • Permalink

“Leisure & Lust” Delves Into Edith Wharton’s Personal Life

By Amy Krzanik

Although Edith Wharton is most well known for her fiction writing (The Age of Innocence; Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth), and interior and landscape designers revere her for her nonfiction books on gardens and decorating, some diehard Wharton fans and scholars are equally fascinated by her private life.

At age 23, after a failed engagement, Edith married one of her brother’s friends, Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. Except for their mutual love of dogs and travel, by all accounts the couple were not well-matched. During the decade the pair lived together at The Mount in Lenox, Mass., Teddy’s mental health declined and Edith began an affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. Eventually, the couple divorced after 28 years of marriage, and Edith moved to France.

This part of Edith’s life, along with her writing style, are what have inspired playwright Sara Farrington to pen a three-part immersive theater experience titled Leisure, Labor, and Lust. The story revolves around “a brilliant woman with an insatiable hunger for romance, and her tortured husband Harry, a closeted man rapidly losing his grip on reality.” The work is site-specific, as it’s written about The Mount and its inhabitants, and is meant to be performed live in its rooms, which it will be on Friday, Jan. 27 and Saturday, Jan. 28.

Some may remember Farrington from her debut appearance at The Mount in January of 2015, where she presented a staged reading of the first act, Leisure. This time around, she’ll bring us both Leisure and Lust. Friday’s performance, at 7 p.m., will include a talkback with Farrington, director Marina McClure, and the actors, as well as a reception and champagne birthday toast to Wharton, who was born on Jan. 24, 1862.

“Since this is a work-in-progress, audience input is vital to the cast and crew, and they’re eagerly anticipating hearing from our audience,” says Abbie Wilson, The Mount’s Public Programs Coordinator, about Friday evening’s talkback. “This is a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the theatrical creative process, hear more about the evolution of the script, and discuss what elements of Edith Wharton’s life and work inspired the piece, all over a glass of wine in [Wharton’s] own drawing room.”

Leisure & Lust Theater Performance at The Mount
2 Plunkett St., Lenox, MA
Opening Night with Talkback & Reception: Friday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.
Additional Performances: Saturday, Jan. 28 at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. & 5 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 01/16/17 at 03:45 PM • Permalink