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How Playwright Winter Miller Got The Story Of ‘In Darfur’

Rehearsal photo by Enrico Spada.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

She didn’t get there without an argument. Winter Miller, a playwright who’d been working as a research assistant to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, had finally gotten her boss to agree to let her join a trip to the border of Chad and Sudan, where refugees had taken shelter from the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

Miller had been hearing endless stories of the atrocities there for two years, fact-checking drafts of Kristof’s much-read columns and remaining privy to details and survivors’ stories that never made it into print. So she planned a visit to see for herself in 2006, to do research for a play that might raise awareness about the ongoing atrocities.

But a few days before departure, Kristof raised his objections again. It was a dangerous place, and it was best for Western visitors to travel light, in small groups. “The one thing I was pretty sure of was that taking someone who didn’t really need to be there was not a good idea,” he later wrote about his thought process at the time.

He had the world’s ear, and in fact would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the crisis. But his young assistant wanted to potentially put herself in harm’s way for lesser stakes.

Playwright Winter Miller (L) and director Kristen van Ginhoven. Photo by Enrico Spada.

The debate lasted “all the way until the airport,” Miller says now. “No, I’m not an op-ed columnist. I write plays,” she remembers telling him, “and I have all this information, and I’ve committed to going, so how about we just end this conversation here and I write the best play that I can possibly write?” They arrived at JFK airport and got on the plane.

The resulting play, In Darfur, played the Public Theater in New York City in 2007, including one summertime staged reading at the famed Delacorte Theater.

It makes its New England debut this week in a Berry Family Studio Production by WAM Theatre in Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Performing Arts Center, at the Berry Family Studio. WAM artistic director Kristen van Ginhoven will direct the seven-person cast.

The play aims its gaze at issues of journalistic ethics as well as the particulars of the situation in Darfur, where the Sudanese military and paramilitary groups launched a campaign of so-called ethnic cleansing, including systematic rape, against non-Arabs. An estimated 300,000 people have been killed, and another 2 million displaced, in the ongoing conflict.

In Darfur looks at an American journalist covering the crisis, confronted with the opportunity to rally world opinion but endangering her source in the process.

Miller visited the region in a group of eight, including Kristoff and NBC correspondent Ann Curry. She spoke with refugees living semi-permanently in border camps, hearing their stories and seeking a way to dramatize the events in a way that would reflect the facts on the ground while staying compelling theater in its own right. She also injected a bit of unexpected humor.

Rehearsal photo by Enrico Spada.

“The most difficult part was how to convey what’s happening when people donn’t know much about it, but also keep the story moving,” Miller says. “Some important facts were cut. Some good jokes were cut. It’s all about what the container of the play is capable of holding, and being true to that — rather than pushing an agenda of all the things you want to say.”

Miller has also written about the arts for the Times, traveled to Uganda to write short plays for children to perform, and founded the (now-defunct) creative collaborative 13 Playwrights. In Darfur has been produced around the country and seeing it onstage has been the end result of a years-long process, including one very intense field trip. In the end, was it a particularly difficult play to write?

“I sort of felt called to tell the story. And the story was telling itself, but what was difficult,” Miller says, “was the question ‘Who am I to tell this story? Do I have the right to?’ And for me, I answered that by asking ‘who am I not to?’”

For his part, Kristof has enthusiastically plugged the play in his column and on his blog. Apparently it made sense to make room for one extra traveler, after all.

In Darfur
Through November 16
WAM Theater at Berry Family Studio, Elayne P. Bernstein Center
70 Kemble Street, Lenox

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 10/27/14 at 10:36 PM • Permalink

Review “An Enemy of the People” at Barrington Stage

Arthur Miller’s 1950 play, An Enemy of the People, which he adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s prophetic 1882 play, is the story of a small Norwegian town called Kirsten Springs whose prosperity and identity are dependent on its salubrious waters, which the town doctor discovers are, in fact, toxic.  The doctor, who is friends with the so-called liberal press, is certain that he will be hailed—if not canonized—for making this news public, saving lives as well as the town’s soul. Alas, his fervor is matched only by his naïveté.

Like other Miller plays that Barrington Stage Company’s artistic director Julianne Boyd has mounted as her fall production (The Crucible in 2010 and All My Sons in 2012), An Enemy of the People resonates with contemporary concerns. I found my mind wandering as I watched this superbly acted and directed production, which was, counterintuitively, a good thing: I thought about climate change, the dangers of hydraulic fracking, the recent contaminations of drinking water in Ohio and West Virginia. It wasn’t until intermission, when I saw stories from the Berkshire Eagle mounted on the lobby’s walls about General Electric’s dumping of toxic PCBs into the nearby Housatonic River, that I realized how the storyline hit so close to home. Boyd demonstrates that great theater is a public service on many levels.

As usual at Barrington Stage, the casting is dead on. Steve Hendrickson as Dr. Thomas Stockmann who sounds the warning bell is convincing in the Jimmy Stewart-esque role of the moralist who refuses to compromise his convictions even though he puts himself—and his family—in danger. As his malevolent brother, the mayor of the town, Patrick Husted brings to mind the evil Mr. Potter (Jimmy Stewart’s nemesis in It’s A Wonderful Life) who cannot see past the bottom line. He is so convincing in his portrayal that he was actually booed at the curtain call by several members of the audience at last Sunday afternoon’s performance. And as the liberal journalists who betray their ethical responsibilities, Scott Drummond, Christopher Hirsch and Jack Wetherall devolve with plausible deniability.

As Dr. Stockmann gradually becomes so irate that he becomes unhinged, I couldn’t help but think of the playwright and activist Larry Kramer whose often-hysterical behavior was the only way he knew how to respond to the government’s lackadaisical response in the first decade of the AIDS crisis.  We’ve all known or read about zealots like Dr. Stockmann, but few of us have the courage of our convictions.

Although some of the dialogue feels old-fashioned, Boyd’s direction makes An Enemy of the People absorbing, intense and rewardingly relevant. She stages a near-riot scene by cleverly having several actors yell and arrive on stage from the aisles, making us fully aware that we are participants in such conflicts whether we like it or not. After all, passivity is as much a choice as activism. Miller’s morality tale is especially unnerving because the ending is intentionally ambiguous, bringing to mind the somewhat cryptic AA slogan, “Would you rather be right or happy?”

An Enemy of the People (through October 19)
Barrington Stage Company
30 Union St, Pittsfield, MA

October 8
Post-Show Talk with the Cast

October 12 @ 5:30 pm
Pre-show panel discussion: “Housatonic River Clean-up: What’s Next?”

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 10/06/14 at 12:29 PM • Permalink

John Waters Brings His Filthy World To Hudson (To Fundraise!)

Photo by Greg Gorman

By Robert Burke Warren

Ever since filmmaker-performer-author John Waters unleashed his transgressive 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos on an unsuspecting public, he’s accepted numerous titles: The Pope of Trash, The Baron of Bad Taste, The Prince of Puke. With a reputation like that, attendees to his one-man show This Filthy World, Volume 2, at Basilica Hudson on Saturday, October 18 may be surprised to discover he’s actually quite the charming raconteur. Outsider shock remains his calling card, yes, but as a presence, he’s genuine and warm, a skilled and often hilarious storyteller. (The performance is a benefit for the Basilica film program and the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.)

Waters is excited about coming to Hudson. “I understand it used to be a center of vice,” he says with relish from his Manhattan apartment. Upon finding the once-tawdry town has become a Williamsburg-esque arts mecca, he says, “So it’s hipster; the men all look like they just kidnapped Elizabeth Smart. They’re really cute but they work really hard to be ugly to prove they’re so cute they can’t be ugly. That’s what that look is about. I love hipsters. I’ll be fine.”

Waters has reason to be sanguine about this gig. Although he achieved fame as a screenwriter and director, he’s always been a performer; back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he often did stand-up before film screenings, and as an actor, he appeared in Something Wild, Homicide: Life On the Street, and The Simpsons, to name a few. All those showfolk chops came in handy when he first presented This Filthy World in 2006. (The acclaimed documentary of the same name is streaming on Netflix.) “I sold out Sydney Opera House and the Southbank Centre in London, a huge place,” he says.  “I didn’t see how big Southbank was until I did the Q and A, because when you’re onstage you just see black. It was amazing.”

Although he’s not made a movie since 2004’s A Dirty Shame, this Basilica engagement – his only local appearance – comes at the tail end of a particularly busy year. 2014 has included the release of the bestselling Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, a chronicle of his recent adventures thumbing it, and a Lincoln Center retrospective, Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take? He says all this action keeps him fit: “I’m the only gay man you’ll meet who’s never been to a gym in his life.”  (Waters will be signing copies of his book at Finch on Warren Street in Hudson at 2 p.m. prior to the Basilica show.)

Basilica owner and former Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur couldn’t be happier about This Filthy World coming to her establishment. “As an original, independent risk taker, Waters captures the spirit of a large part of our mission,” she says.

Waters promises This Filthy World, Volume 2 will be completely different from the 2006 version. “I’m always on tour,” he says. “And I’m constantly upgrading the show, putting in new stuff and rewriting.” Along with his Carsick adventures, the Lincoln Center retrospective will likely make its way into his monologue. “It was exciting,” he says of the event, with wonder. “No irony, for once. It was like being at my funeral.”

Speaking of funerals, Waters has dealt with his share of death this year. First, his beloved mother passed away in February at the age of 89. “She always made me feel safe,” he says. “My parents were horrified by what I did, but they gave me a good foundation.” In addition to his mother, Waters lost his friend Joan Rivers. “I was with her just before she died,” he says. “And it’s not such a terrible story. She performed the night before, and she didn’t even know she died. I hope that happens to me. And now her family can sue the hospital, and they’ll be doubly rich! It’s sad, because she was so vital, and believe me, she didn’t want to die, but she didn’t know she died, and that is so important, having gone through my parents’ deaths. [Waters’ father passed away in 2008.] The last four years of old age can really be ugly. I couldn’t imagine Joan like that, and now I don’t have to.”

As for himself, Waters plans to be buried near his dearly departed muse, Divine, whom he discovered (and named) in the ‘60s. Divine was the star player in a troupe of oddballs that included actors Mink Stole, Pat Moran and Mary Vivian Pearce, all of whom remain close. “We all bought a plot where Divine’s buried,” he says. “Friends don’t usually get buried together, but we will be. We call it Disgraceland.”

But that’s all far in the future, of course. For now, John Waters, visionary filmmaker, author, and raconteur, is quite well, thank you, and ready to remind us how deliciously shocking life can be.

John Waters’ This Filthy World, Part 2
A benefit performance for Basilica Arts and The AIDS Council of Northeastern New York. 
Basilica Hudson
110 South Front Street, Hudson
(518) 822-1050
Saturday, October 18, 8 p.m.
$125 General admission | $175 Preferred Seating with Open Bar
$50 Students (with valid ID)

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Posted by Lisa Green on 10/06/14 at 11:26 AM • Permalink

Review: “The Visit” at Williamstown Theatre Festival

By Dan Shaw

Without baring her famous legs or a single high-step, Chita Rivera razzle-dazzles us in Williamstown Theatre Festival’s production of Kander & Ebb’s The Visit. As Claire Zachanassian, the richest women in the world who has returned to the small, down-on-its-luck European village where she grew up, Rivera is perfectly cast as the formidable grande dame who seeks revenge on the man who deflowered and disappointed her when she was 17.

As soon as you take your seat in the ’62 Center, Bruce Pask’s haunting set transports you to a small town in Europe that’s obviously on the brink of collapse. The glass is cracked in the roof of a once grand public space — perhaps the train station or central market — and the columns are overgrown with vines. There is a profound sense of desperation. The villagers make it clear in the opening numbers that they have become permanently disillusioned but are suddenly optimistic by the prospect of the billionaire Claire Zachanassian returning home. The possibility that she will save them is the only good news they’ve heard in years.

As Anton Schell, the man who broke her heart by marrying a once prosperous shopkeeper’s daughter instead of Claire (who was treated like a second class citizen growing up because she was half Jewish, half Gypsy and poor), Roger Rees still charms even as we begin to understand the depths of his cruel betrayal. Claire wants them to revisit their old trysting places, and it seems that it may not be too late for them to rekindle their youthful infatuation, which is underscored by the presence of two actors playing their younger selves onstage for the entire show. The memory of young love can never be forgotten. But neither can a broken heart.

Claire offers to give billions to the town if the villagers will sacrifice Anton, which at first seems preposterous and beyond the pale. But Terrence McNally’s book (based on the play by Friedrich Durrenmatt that was brought to Broadway in 1958 by Peter Brook in a translation by Maurice Valency) presents the situation as a moral dilemma resolved with a surprising inevitability.  Directed by Tony Award-winner John Doyle and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, The Visit floats along like a long, complicated but entirely rational dream. Certainly, there’s a surreal quality to the story as personified by two eunuchs in formalwear and yellow platform shoes who travel with Claire; they’re evidence of her power and peculiarities. Kander & Ebb’s songs are lush and captivating (although they are not listed by title in the program) with faint echoes of Cabaret and Chicago but only one number called “Yellow Shoes” has what you’d call razzmatazz.

The Visit, a contemporary musical that’s as highly stylized as an opera, is intimate and grand, cerebral and seductive. A showcase for the 81-year-old Rivera, the performance proves (as if there were any doubt) that she’s a genuine legend of the American stage. As so often happens at Williasmstown, you will leave the theater surprised that you are in the country and not Times Square because you’d swear you just saw the season’s most buzzed-about Broadway show.

The Visit
Williamstown Theatre Festival
‘62 Center for Theatre and Dance
1000 Main Street (Route 2), Williamstown, MA

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 08/04/14 at 12:54 PM • Permalink

Theater: A Bear And A Rembrandt Walk Into A Room…

Michael Burnet directs two charming one-acts for the inaugural season of Pythagoras Theatre Works. Photo: Jeremy D. Goodwin.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Do we need more theater here in the Rural Intelligence region?

When you have access to the sort of talent that the brand-new Pythagoras Theatre Works does, and you can benefit from the vision of its very-clever founders, we say: bring it on.

This newly hatched troupe is in the midst of a six-week run, performing a charming pair of one-act adaptations — from Edith Wharton’s short story “The Rembrandt” and Anton Chekhov’s play “The Bear.” (The latter is given the subtitle “of the Berkshires.”)

The thoroughly winning, original adaptations come courtesy of Michael Burnet, the troupe’s producing artistic director. He also directed both pieces, and appears onstage near the conclusion of “The Rembrandt,” walking a fine line between menace and bon homie in the increasingly tense final scene.

Burnet, actress (and spouse) Jamie Greenland, and Chuck Schwager — president of the Boston-based Polaris Healthcare Services, former Shakespeare & Company board member, and actor himself — founded the company. (Greenland is tailor made for the role of a fetching niece who is too charming to be denied in “The Rembrandt,” while Schwager stomps around as the oblivious but vulnerable “bear” in the Chekov.)

Robert Biggs and Michael Burnet in “The Rembrandt.” Photo by Michelle Barclay.

The whole enterprise feels almost like a community service. For one thing, it draws visitors into West Stockbridge’s old town hall, which was built in 1854 but has been searching for permanent relevance since the town moved its administrative offices to newer digs. (The West Stockbridge Historical Society owns it now, and is donating the rehearsal and performance space to Pythagoras.) But it’s also a chance to see some very good, regionally based talent in action, in an informal setting where the high standard of the material would come almost as a surprise to someone unfamiliar with the sorts of not-so-hidden gems that shine so brightly around here.

Burnet came to the area in the 1990s when Shakespeare & Company cast him for a few roles right out of college, and put him up at The Mount. “There’s no better thing,” he says, seated outside the No. 6 Depot just around the corner from the old town hall. “I guess I could have been cast in a film, that might have been maybe ‘better’ in a way, but this was so magical.”

Not so long ago he was a near-ubiquitous creative presence at S&Co., stewarding the company’s free, outdoor programing (known as the Bankside Festival) and also leading actor training workshops in stage combat and clown(ing). Along with leading the cast of “The Servant of Two Masters” and writing pre-show Preludes like “The Two Tight Pants of King John,” he collaborated with composer Bill Barclay in 2007 on “The Mad Pirate and the Mermaid,” his first original full-length play (actually a musical) to be produced.

Robert Biggs and Jamie Greeland in “The Rembrandt.” Photo by Michelle Barclay.

He and Greenland, who married in 2010, rent a house in West Stockbridge and have lived mostly between the Berkshires and New York City the past few years, as Greenland, when not acting or readying for a graduate program in archeology at Columbia University, spearheaded the effort to get formal nonprofit recognition for the new enterprise.

These days Burnet is kept busy most often with his freelance gigs producing huge events for corporate clients. A symposium at San Francisco’s AT&T Park for Adobe, and another that featured a performance by the Black Keys, are particular highlights of that work, he says.

So it’s a pleasure to see him onstage again, but moreover, putting his creative muscle behind the whole thing. It’s a fully grassroots operation; he greets patrons dressed nattily in a seersucker suit and blue bow tie, while Greenland is in all her petticoated, period glory as she takes tickets.

Actress Diane Prusha, whose many memorable local roles include the smash hit “Enchanted April” at S&Co., is featured in both plays. Robert Biggs, whose inimitable way of mixing humor and pathos has been seen in his original play “The Dick and the Rose,” seems completely at home in the Wharton piece as an ethically conflicted curator. Scott Renzoni, another S&Co. alum, rounds out the cast and finds unexpected comedy in “The Bear (of the Berkshires).” Local resident and Juilliard alum Jonah Taylor composed music for the full program and performs it live, on cello.

For Burnet, his day job will continue to take him all over the country, but this theatrical double-bill is the perfect way to give back to his adopted home.

“I love the Berkshires,” he says, gesturing toward some nearby hills with enthusiasm. “It feels like an artistic home.”

Bears and all.

“The Bear (of the Berkshires)” and “The Rembrandt”
Pythagoras Theatre Works
At West Stockbridge 1854 Town Hall
Through August 17



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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 07/21/14 at 10:55 PM • Permalink