Review: “10 x 10” Festival at Barrington Stage
By Dan Shaw
You have probably spent a lot of time this snowbound winter in front of the television. Netflix, Showtime and PBS notwithstanding, you’ve probably realized that television is actually getting worse, not better — sitcoms with 90-second scenes, dramas that depend on violence instead of dialogue to stir your emotions. Even hot HBO shows like Girls and Looking are so disjointed with so many scene changes packed into 30 minutes that it’s next-to-impossible to be absorbed or moved by them.
And that is just one reason why Barrington Stage Company’s annual 10 x 10 New Play Festival (running through March 2) is so satisfying and remarkable. These ten, ten-minute plays are more engaging, affecting and entertaining than anything I’ve seen recently on TV. They are by turns funny and provocative, often addressing serious issues like Alzheimer’s, unhappy marriages or parent/child struggles with precision and tenderness.
Sitting in Barrington Stage’s intimate black box theater (officially the St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle & Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, which many of us still refer to as the old VFW Hall), you are offered two hours that, despite the sometimes grim subject matter, fill you with hope: BSC artistic director Julianne Boyd, along with fellow directors Chris Innvar and Kristen van Ginhoven, have given us versatile acting and inventive writing that lifts your spirits (for the bargain ticket price of $25).
In “New Year’s Eve,” by David MacGregor, a feisty resident of the Parkview Retirement Home (Robert Zukerman) objects to celebrating New Year’s Eve at 12 noon instead of midnight. He strains to explain to his nurse (Emily Kunkel) that the feelings a heterosexual man has for women at 18 never go away, even if the body can no longer respond as it once did.
In Lynn Rosen’s “I Love You,” Zuckerman plays a middle-aged worrywart who frets over the life of his 30-year-old hipster son (John Zdrojeski) who is striving to become his own man. In Suzanne Bradbeer’s “Man the Torpedoes,” the always delightful Peggy Phar Wilson plays a widow who has been the caretaker for her elderly best friend and her house, whose son (Matt Neely) is torn about firing her and setting her off into the world on her own. In John Cariani’s “Uh-Oh,” a pair of newlyweds (Dina Thomas and Zdrojeski) are bored of being married after only eleven months, and the wife’s solution to their situation is radical, shocking and funny—at least from her perspective. The finale, “Sweetheart Roland,” by James McLinden brings together the entire ensemble in a wacky send-up of a fairy tale that has the kooky energy of the best Saturday Night Live skit you ever saw.
All of the plays evince a sense of compassion for the troubles and foibles of ordinary people. They are not fashionably dystopian or cynical. They are meticulously compressed dramas, well-wrought short stories brought to vivid life. They are heartfelt and, ultimately, heartwarming. Now celebrating its 20th season, Barrington Stage Company is a cornerstone of the Berkshires’ cultural life, and this year’s “10 x 10” festival is rock solid.
10 x 10 New Play Festival (through March 2, 2014)
Barrington Stage Company
36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA
Thursday—Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday at 3 p.m.
$25 Thursday evenings, Saturday & Sunday matinees; $30 Friday & Saturday evenings
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Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Heats Up Hudson
By Robert Burke Warren
Perhaps you’ve got a top hat and tailcoat in the closet? Or a corset and tutu you’ve been dying to wear? The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus invites you to dig them out, put them on, and be part of the spectacle at a cabaret for grownups at Helsinki Hudson.
“People accustomed to music at Helsinki Hudson will see things they never imagined in this space,” says Bindlestiff Family Cirkus co-founder and featured performer Keith Nelson. “Magic is going to happen here.” Indeed, as Nelson (above, with Stephanie Monseu) and Co. outfit the club with tightwires for acrobats, riggings for aerialists and sideshow décor, the venue achieves an otherworldly air, a crackling energy reminiscent of old-school vaudeville.
This is Nelson and Bindlestiff co-founder Stephanie Monseu’s fourth year heating up Helsinki Hudson with the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret. The size of the club offers an opportunity for patrons to experience a more intimate version of the Bindlestiffs’ distinctive blend of sideshow, circus, burlesque and variety show. The first performance is Saturday, January 25, at 9 p.m. (doors open at 7). Subsequent shows, each with a different cast, will be Friday, February 14 – a special Valentine’s Day edition – and Saturday, March 29, both at 9 p.m., with a G-rated Sunday matinee for the youngsters on March 30 at 3 p.m. This engagement is an auspicious one for the Cirkus: “We’re entering our 20th season making circus cabaret happen in New York state,” Nelson says proudly.
Nelson, a consummate fire-eater, sword-swallower and tramp clown (i.e. “bindlestiff”), looks forward to setting up shop at Helsinki Hudson. Commuting will be a breeze: the club is not far from the house he shares with Monseu. “I’ll be swallowing swords and clowning at all three shows,” he says matter-of-factly, “and Stephanie – as Ringmistress Philomena Bindlestiff – will be hosting each show, but otherwise we’re bringing in fresh new energy, world-class magicians, acrobats and musicians.”
Music is a big part of the Bindlestiff experience. Ever since the company’s beginnings, the Cirkus has included live, often edgy music in their productions. Nelson is particularly excited about Sabrina Chap, a brazen singer-songwriter popular on the burlesque circuit, who will be accompanying the January 25th performance. “We’ll also have Hudson-based belly dancer Donna Barrett,” he says, “and ex-Ringling Brothers performer Adam Kuchler, who does classic vaudeville and contemporary comedy.” Also on the bill are world-touring magician Magic Brian and aerialist Rebecca Hahn.
The February and March shows, still in the planning stages, will feature similarly adventurous and eclectic casts; performers both traditional and cutting-edge, with nods to everything from political street theater to punk rock to Barnum & Bailey.
Many Bindlestiff fans discover the troupe at their recurrent appearances in Bard’s SummerScape Spiegeltent, where Nelson and Monseu tailor the show to families. While Nelson says the Helsinki cabaret is “PG-13, maybe R,” and far less racy than, say, most video games, he suggests families attend the March matinee. The matinee, Nelson says, is an experiment, a first in their winter residency, and in keeping with their custom of reaching out to all ages. “There are a lot of families in Hudson,” he says, “and we want to serve them, too.”
As with every Bindlestiff endeavor, the troupe encourages audiences to dress up. Those in costume or circusy makeup can even ask for discounted tickets at the door. For a few hours, thanks to the Bindlestiff run at Helsinki, you can run away and join the circus.
Bindlestiff Family Cirkus Cabaret
January 25, February 14 & March 29
Doors Open at 7 p.m.; Showtime at 9 p.m.
FAMILY MATINEE: March 30, 3 p.m. with the same cast as on March 29
Club Helsinki, 405 Columbia St., Hudson, NY
Tickets: $20 / $15 clowns in make-up or costume (walk-up only)
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A ‘Wonderful Life’ Hits Home
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
The woman sitting by the hearth looked so calm and comfortable, so part of the scenery, I wondered whether she was a volunteer who’d been stationed there deliberately.
Before the start of Shakespeare & Company’s thoroughly entertaining production of the holiday classic It’s A Wonderful Life re-imagined as 1940’s-era live radio play, an immersive vibe had already been created in the lobby of the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. Cast members David Joseph and Ryan Winkles, nattily costumed in sharp suits, gladhanded members of the arriving crowd, welcoming theatregoers to that evening’s “broadcast.” (Joseph and Winkles, with Jon Croy in-between, are seen above in Enrico Spada’s photo.)
And set designers had created a hearthside milieu just outside the theatre doors, complete with gaudily decorated Christmas tree, mock fireplace, old-fashioned radio playing period news broadcasts—and that unidentified woman with a blanket lain across her lap, seated in a comfortable chair next to an end table that held a plate of cookies and a glass of milk.
As with S&Co.’s similarly themed treatment of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds a few years ago, the show itself happens in a frame within a frame. As audience members take their seats, the cast flits casually around the playing space, which is outfitted by set designer Patrick Brennan to evoke a CBS radio studio on Christmas Eve, 1947. Simulated announcements by stage manager Hope Rose Kelly inform the ensemble when they’re due to go “live” over the air. As the announcer, straight-man extraordinaire Jon Croy stands behind a microphone and leads the audience through a lesson with the glowing “applause” sign. And after ten minutes of warm-up, S&Co.’s five cast members (including Sarah Jeanette Taylor and Jennie M. Jadow, seen at right), in their roles as vintage radio personalities, begin an adaptation of the Frank Capra film complete with on-stage sound effects (a miniature door being opened and closed, a bag of glass being shaken) and a few pauses to perform holiday songs and product jingles. (If you’re looking for a good hair tonic, I can now recommend one.)
Once things get going, the actors—working under director Jenna Ware—maintain a somewhat affected air. They’re not aiming for naturalism here; nor are they cheating with an ironic, winking approach, which they no doubt could have employed to mine additional laughs at the expense of the audience’s emotional connection. As a radio star portraying hero George Bailey, Joseph stays clear of the tics of James Stewart’s all-too-familiar performance, but still hugs its contours. He speaks in a cadence that’s familiar to us from our lingering impressions of 1940’s mass media, but not ranging into cliché.
Ironically, it turns out we really need that inch of distance to get truly close to the story. This adaptation by playwright Joe Landry adheres closely to Frank Capra’s 1946 film. The tale, of course, is a celebration and sentimentalization of small-town American life. At the time of the film’s original release, its bittersweet sense that our culture was losing something in its march toward big banks and big business—something both ineffable and foundational, mysterious as it was vital—must have been more prescient than it was rueful.
It’s a powerful memory. Surely it’s a wistfulness for the fuzzy idyll of caring neighbors and Christian charity evoked by the film that motivated an anonymous bidder (rumored to be George Lucas) to shell out $46 million this month for Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” a depiction of an elderly woman and her young companion bowing their heads in prayer amid a diner crowded with seemingly perplexed but respectful observers. And it’s the same thing some Berkshire visitors are looking for in something like the annual Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas event, when that town almost literally attempts to go back in time, if only for a few hours.
Capra’s story of a fledgling guardian angel (played winningly by company favorite Winkles, left, among his several other roles) showing a troubled man just how important he is to his friends and neighbors might seem like a tough sell in the age of irony. But much of It’s A Wonderful Life is achingly familiar. A big bank is gobbling up the smaller ones, headed by a cruel plutocrat to whom profits are paramount and people seem invisible. The hated Mr. Potter, a slumlord and monopolist, is happiest when readying to evict a family from its home or bribing a government regulator. “There’s nothing quite so loathsome as a family business,” Croy sneers as Potter, immediately identifying the character as an enemy of the Berkshires.
Yet this is Capra, not Eisenstein. The politics are sleeve-tugging rather than radical. There’s no call to reform the system that makes all this possible and, indeed, encourages it—instead there’s the sense that the tendencies of the market are ably checked, in the end, if there’s at least one little guy still out there, heroically offering an alternative to a few peers on a limited scale. (A public option that tames its much bigger competitors, if you will.) The sight of Bailey’s neighbors turning up to empty their pockets on his behalf goes straight for the heart, but the whole point is that they can’t afford to bankroll the Bailey Savings and Loan—George is bailed out by a telegram from a generous, factory-owning friend.
But that gesture isn’t just pure noblesse oblige (or guilt for refusing to re-purpose a defunct factory in hometown Lee—I mean Bedford Falls—as Bailey suggests he do, earlier). It’s payback to a good man for being a valuable neighbor and friend. And that’s ultimately the point, as suggested by Capra and co-screenwriters Frances Goodrich, Albert Hacket, and Joe Swerling. It’s something we can perhaps relate to in the Berkshires, whether we pass familiar faces each day while walking down Main Street, or hover on the edges for a periodic taste of unselfconscious living as a needed corollary to urban existence.
Thoroughly charmed by the play—particularly the second half, when Bailey’s supernatural vision and triumphant resurrection are vividly rendered by the multi-talented cast—I stepped back into the lobby afterwards, and took a seat by that hearth. There may not have been any genuinely crackling logs there, but I put the blanket across my lap to get in the spirit.
If the vision of a small town where people actually know (and perhaps even care) about each other was merely a nostalgic illusion, It’s A Wonderful Life (both the film and S&Co’.s play) would be charming but inert, a streetscape of vintage cars that’s fit for photographs but merely a veneer. Instead, it felt familiar—the neighborliness and genuine human connections, as well as the struggle faced by local businesses and the epic importance of keeping a decent roof above-head. (Let’s not forget, the Bailey family fashions its dream house from a real fixer-upper—an abandoned property.)
Two nights after I saw the play, I walked from my Great Barrington apartment to a restaurant where the owner approached our table to make sure we knew the chorizo on the menu that night was fashioned from a pig he raised personally.
I didn’t find Zuzu’s petals in my pocket, but I sure felt right at home.Comments
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Zip: Two Boots Brings Bawdiness to Bard With Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque
By Robert Warren
You can pull all the stops out ‘till they call the cops out,
Grind your behind till you’re banned.
But you gotta get a gimmick if you wanna get a hand!
—Miss Mazeppa, from the Sondheim/Styne musical Gypsy
“It’s high time we exposed the Hudson Valley to Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque,” says Two Boots Hudson Valley owner Phil Hartman. “It’s outrageous, equally fun for men and women, and tastes good with pizza!” It’s also a great gimmick.
Hartman knows gimmicks: his Two Boots franchise, serving Cajun food and pizza, gets its name from the boot shapes of Louisiana and Italy, the locales from which those cuisines spring. This irresistible hook – along with consistently great food and business savvy – has helped turn one East Village restaurant into a thriving fifteen-location empire. The newest addition does gangbuster business in Red Hook, where Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque, on Friday, Nov. 8th at 9 PM, raises the rafters with bawdy fare not seen in this neck of the woods since the days of the Borscht Belt.
New Yorker Hartman, however, is no stranger to burlesque. Although absent from the Red Hook region, the ribaldry made famous by such vamps as April March (above) and Tiffany Carter in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, has enjoyed a nationwide resurgence since the late 90s, especially in Manhattan. In that relatively healthy scene, Hartman and Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque creator, Brooklynite Jen Gapay, enjoy an ongoing partnership. “Jen’s a mover and a shaker – though not on stage – in the burlesque community,” he says. “She and I have worked together on a slew of events – the HOWL! Festival, multiple Mardi Gras Balls to benefit the Lower Eastside Girls Club, and a long-running burlesque series at Two Boots Bridgeport.”
The genial Gapay, who also created the wildly successful New York Burlesque Festival, is looking forward to this particular event. She says Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque is tailor-made for clientele like Bard students, i.e. Two Boots Hudson Valley’s usual patrons. “It’s more hip than the regular classic burlesque that older couples would appreciate,” she says. “In classic burlesque, you have pretty long routines, almost like skits, like fifteen or twenty minutes long. But we’re the short-attention span generation, so each Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque act does about five minutes. Plus, there’ll be magic from host Albert Cadabra. So it’s more like an overview of burlesque, more edgy.” (Although modernized, Gapay’s crew keeps to the age-old burlesque etiquette of stripping down to pasties and a G-string; no performer is ever completely nude.)
Coincidentally, the multi-faceted Cadabra, who bills himself as The Great Deceiver, Master of Illusion and Charm, grew up in nearby Rhinebeck, attended Rhinebeck High School, and graduated from Bard. He has since brought many gasps and laughs to comedy clubs, cabarets, Off-Broadway, and his running gig with Ripley’s Believe It of Not in Times Square, at which he routinely hammers nails into his nostrils and performs magic. “Albert performs in a lot of sideshows,” says Gapay. “I thought he’d be really good for the college kids.”
The Two Boots Hudson Valley engagement isn’t the first Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque. “It’s usually a Valentine event at the Highline Ballroom in Manhattan,” says Gapay. “It’s like a variety show: there’s The Maine Attraction [far left], who does a lot of Josephine Baker-style stuff, plus some audience participation. She dances into the crowd, does a headstand in a chair in someone’s lap.” Gapay laughs. “She’s a lot of fun, as close to classic burlesque as this show gets. Then we have Rosie 151 [center], who does a number where she dresses as a cowboy and cracks a whip, then Brewster, a boylesque performer. After that, you get Broadway Brassy [top right], an amazing singer who does a lot of parody songs, makes “‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ extra dirty, and finally Boo Boo Darlin’ [bottom right], the Carol Burnett of Burlesque, who’s a great comedienne.”
How does Gapay, who moved her successful business Thirsty Girl Productions from Seattle to New York in 2000, account for the burlesque revival of the last fifteen or so years? “People like to say it was because Giuliani closed the sex shops in Times Square,” she says, “and that created a need for something. But I think it’s thrived because it wasn’t started by a corporation, which made it easier for performers and producers, on a local level, to take control and do their own thing. Performers are really supportive of each other when they’re touring. It’s a real community.”
Gapay’s New York Burlesque Festival, in fact, has seen an explosion of interest. It’s become the oldest and most regular burlesque event in the country. “Our first year, we just asked our friends to come,” she says. “This past year, we had almost 500 performers apply. We were the first, but now there are festivals in Toronto, Chicago, Dallas, even Iowa City!”
Curious? Of course you are. To see what folks from Iowa to Toronto are gaga about, come get an eyeful of tassels, glitter, gams, and gimmicks a-blazin’ at the Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque show at Two Boots Hudson Valley in Red Hook.
Filthy Gorgeous Burlesque
Friday, November 8
Doors at 9 p.m., show at 10 p.m.
Two Boots Hudson Valley
4606 Route 9G, Red Hook, NY
$15 advance, $20 at the door
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Review: “Clybourne Park” at Barrington Stage
There’s a new word—“authentrification”—that developers in New York City are using to justify renovating buildings that once served low-income communities and turning them into “authentic” hangouts for free-spending hipsters. Is this awesome or awful? The vicissitudes of gentrification are at the heart of Bruce Norris’s articulate, searing and funny Clybourne Park, which has been given the Broadway-worthy production we’ve come to expect from Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield (running through October 13.)
Described as a sequel to A Raisin in the Sun, the 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park is the story of a white family in 1959 that is about to sell their very lovely house in an all-white middle class neighborhood of Chicago to an African American family; it then fast forwards 50 years when a young, affluent white couple buys the house and plans to extravagantly renovate it in a way that might have a devastating domino effect on the historic and now racially mixed neighborhood. You don’t have to remember A Raisin in the Sun to be startled, disturbed and thoroughly entertained by this play that weaves together race and real estate, two of our nation’s most primal and personal obsessions.
Produced in conjunction with Vermont’s Dorset Theatre Festival, Clybourne Park is a play that raises more questions than it answers, in the tradition of Arthur Miller and Edward Albee. It’s less a morality tale than an ethical puzzle: In our market-driven society, home is not a birthright but a prize that goes to the highest bidder. The American Dream of home ownership, it turns out, is as much about anxiety as security.
The text cleverly lays out our relationship to our notion of place in the first few minutes when the white homeowner Russ (empathetically played by Remi Sandri) and his wife Bev (the divine Carol Halstead) discuss the etymology of “Neapolitan”—he is eating a carton of tri-colored ice cream as Bev cleans out the icebox before the move—and they wonder why the people of Naples are called Neapolitans, which leads to a discussion about the difference between “Mongoloids” and “Mongolese.” The clever banter lays a foundation for the play, which is a meditation on identity and place.
One of the treats of Clybourne Park is that all of the actors play new roles in the second act, so you get a clear sense of just how talented and versatile they are. As the 1950s housewife whose perkiness is a form of denial, Carol Halstead keeps her character from being a caricature, and then becomes a world-weary, hot-shot Chicago lawyer in Act II. Lynette R. Freeman as her uncomplaining-but-seething housekeeper in the first act emerges as a vivacious-but-resolute concerned neighbor after the intermission.
All of the actors are at the top of their game: Kevin Crouch as a Capraesque preacher and then a lawyer who’s gay-but-it’s-hard-to-tell; Greg Jackson as both the vintage and contemporary version of the uptight, supercilious neighbor; Andy Lucien as the conscientious African American husband who defies stereotyping in two different eras; Clea Alsip as a pregnant, deaf woman in Act I and then the loquacious wife who is willing to berate her husband in front of strangers in Act II.
The direction by Giovanna Sardelli makes the production run like an expensive Swiss watch: It’s so well calibrated that it moves along with precision and a sense of inevitability. The only disappointment is that the play doesn’t have an Act III, because you’d be happy to spend another hour watching these fine actors deliver Norris’s crisp and cutting dialogue.
Clybourne Park (through October 13)
Barrington Stage Company
30 Union Street