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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

30 Years In, Powerhouse Theater Still Thrives On Risk Taking

John Patrick Shanley directs Kyra Sedgwick and Annika Boras in “The Danish Widow.” (Photos by Buck Lewis.)

By Robert Burke Warren

Chances are good that at least one great playwright is, at this moment, making last minute adjustments to his/her script for a Powerhouse Theater performance of a future award-winning work. It wouldn’t be the first time; Tony winners American Idiot and Doubt began at Powerhouse. And just this season, Powerhouse enticed leading playwrights Terrence McNally, David Henry Hwang, Marsha Norman and others to contribute to one of its productions.

Few endeavors are more aptly named than the Powerhouse Theater. Currently enjoying its 30th season, this collaboration between Vassar College in Poughkeepsie and Manhattan-based theater company New York Stage & Film helps emerging and established playwrights develop and produce new work, mounting up to 20 productions in a compressed 8-week span, and inviting audiences to join the fun. 2014 highlights include The Danish Widow, a new play from Tony/Oscar/Pulitzer-award-winning John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Joe Versus the Volcano), and performances from bona fide screen stars Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), Robert Morse (Mad Men), and T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy), plus direction from Broadway eminence Michael Greif (Rent, Next to Normal).

Leslie Bibb and Josh Radnor in “The Babylon Line.”

Co-founder Mark Linn-Baker – known to many as Cousin Larry from the long-running sitcom Perfect Strangers – launched NYSAF and Powerhouse to emphasize experimentation and risk-taking, qualities most Broadway producers abhor. “We value the artist, and the impulse,” says Linn-Baker. “We give the work a chance to grow on its own terms. There are fewer and fewer places to do that.”

Each summer, New York Stage & Film imports 250 pros — directors, actors, technicians, playwrights, screenwriters — and 50 apprentices to Vassar’s sylvan setting, on which sits a century-old red brick building that once housed the generators used to power the college (hence the name). Extensively revamped, the Powerhouse now contains a main stage, plus smaller theaters for readings and workshops. Inspired by Lee Strasberg’s legendary Group Theater, which fled Manhattan summers to work in the Connecticut woods, NYSAF founders specifically chose a locale two hours from urban distractions, where creative juices flow unimpeded amid the natural beauty of the Hudson Valley.

“Vassar is fertile soil,” says John Patrick Shanley, whose Savage In Limbo was part of Powerhouse’s first season way back in 1985. “It’s got an energy that’s emanating from New York City, like satellite radio coming in to this strange, pastoral dream of a place.”

Kyra Sedgwick, who appears in Shanley’s The Danish Widow, from July 16 -27, appreciates the distance from paparazzi and the press. “There aren’t many places where people can be imperfect,” she says. “At Powerhouse, you can try new things, and have a place to play without being criticized.”

For audiences, the Powerhouse season offers chances to witness and even influence art in its infancy. “The audience is genius,” says Shanley. “You just have to listen to them. The response is warm, but they’re not fools. If it sucks, it sucks.”

Adesola Osakulumi and Oneika Phillips in rehearsal for “In Your Arms.”

Artistic director Johanna Pfaelzer treasures the unique audience-as-creative-force aspect of Powerhouse. She notes how feedback to this summer’s acclaimed dance-theater-video piece In Your Arms affected the show’s development, a one-of-a-kind collaboration between Tony-award-winning choreographer Christopher Gattelli and ten playwrights, including Carrie Fisher and Christopher Durang, with music by Stephen Flaherty (Rocky, Ragtime, Seussical) and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens (Ragtime, Anastasia). “The creators gauged how the audience reacted to the first three performances, and they re-crafted the opening accordingly,” she says. “And our audiences know their reactions impact the work, and that’s thrilling for them.”

Apparently, word gets around; attendance to Powerhouse productions increases every year, even in light of the current Golden Age of Television, plus Netflix, et al. “TV writing in particular is at an all time high,” Pfaelzer says. “But rather than try to compete with that, we recognize the experience of going to the theatre, of a story told to a collective group, is no more or less valuable, just wildly different. It’s always scary to see shifts in taste and practice, but there’s something really transformative that happens to people in the collective experience of live theater.”

The next few weeks of Powerhouse include The Danish Widow (starring Kyra Sedgwick), the musical adaptation of the 1999 movie A Walk On the Moon (directed by Michael Greif), and a reading of Laugh, a new play by Beth Henley (Crimes of the Heart).

Powerhouse Theater, through July 27
Vassar College, 124 Raymond Avenue, Poughkeepsie
(845) 437-5599

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Posted by Lisa Green on 07/15/14 at 10:08 AM • Permalink