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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

Review: “Falsettos” at Sharon Playhouse

By Dan Shaw

William Finn’s 1992 Tony Award-winning musical Falsettos now at Tri Arts Sharon Playhouse (through July 20) begins in 1979 (Act I) and ends in 1981 (Act II). The first act was originally its own musical written before the AIDS crisis, and it tells a quintessential 1970s Manhattan story about Marvin (Kyle Barisich) who has a son, Jason (Tyler Attomari), with his wife, Trina (Leslie Henstock), but realizes he is attracted to men, especially to a hot guy named Whizzer (Donald Coggin). The opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” lets you know that this is an irreverent, humorous, hyper-articulate and painfully honest portrait of neurotic New Yorkers coping in the era of Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman, when the Me Generation became Yuppies (who are lampooned in a scene set in the psychiatrist Mendel’s office).

Act II is set in 1981 at the dawn of the AIDS crisis; it debuted as a stand-alone musical Off Broadway in 1990, and the two parts were put together as a single show on Broadway in 1992. The players are still neurotic — they are stressed about planning Jason’s bar mitzvah, and though Trina has remarried her ex-husband’s ex-psychiatrist, the former husband and wife are bound by joint custody and planning a big shindig for their son. There are two new characters introduced in the second act, “the lesbians from next door” — a nouvelle kosher cuisine caterer (a concept that seemed delightfully ridiculous 22 years ago but not anymore) and a physician who treats Whizzer and otherwise young, healthy men who are taking ill and dying very suddenly. “Something bad is happening,” she sings. ‘Bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave, weeks later, unenlightened.”

As seen through the prism of today and the marriage equality movement, Falsettos seems more about the epic changes made in how we see same-sex couples than a period piece about the AIDS crisis. And that’s a mixed blessing. Falsettos is proof that “unconventional” families have become quotidian and that seeing two men on stage — even in the old-fashioned setting of the Sharon Playhouse barn-like theater — no longer seems risqué.

And yet the play demands to be contextualized. When I saw the original Off Broadway production in 1991, it seemed a certainty that everyone in the theater had been touched personally by HIV/AIDS, which was still an unequivocal death sentence. One knew that many of the men in the audience were, in fact, dying. One left the theater on Christopher Street and could feel the ghosts on what had once been Manhattan’s prime block for cruising. One knew that the AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s Hospital was just a few blocks away. Falsettos was not an isolated story of a gay man dying in his lover’s arms surrounded by disbelieving friends; it was an everyday New York story that defined the era from 1981 to 1996, when effective drugs transformed HIV/AIDS into a livable condition.

William Finn’s music and lyrics — clever, complex, hyper-energetic — remain a musical theater triumph and the score is given a rousing rendition by the small band at Sharon Playhouse. To my mind, the actor who best embodies the spirit of the original is Brenton Schraff, who plays Mendel, the psychiatrist — his powerful voice is matched by his convincing portrayal of a kvetching shrink. While every member of the cast has strong American Idol-worthy voices, they don’t always quite capture the quirky neuroses of early 1980s New Yorkers. The “lesbians from next door” smiled too much for my taste and did not seem suitably rattled by the horrors of their friend’s tragic death. It would have been useful for Sharon Playhouse to include an AIDS timeline with its program, so theatergoers would be reminded that tens of thousands of Whizzers died in the 1980s and 1990s.

But, of course, Falsettos was not supposed to be a downer — it’s a musical comedy that was desperately needed in those dark days of the plague era. And it remains a powerful, unforgettable, timeless celebration of friendship and family in a time of sorrow.

TriArts Sharon Playhouse
49 Amenia Road, Route 343, Sharon, CT

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Posted by Dan Shaw on 07/15/14 at 08:25 AM • Permalink

At Shakespeare & Co., A ‘Midsummer’ And All That Jazz

Briana Maia, Michael F. Toomey and Atalanta Seigel. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

Jazz is a music of possibilities. So too is the music of theater.

Even in the midst of a long run, each performance of a given production is meant to rise anew from the mysterious stew of creative possibilities. There’s the sense, even if illusory, that the action could break this way or that way, that the resolution to the onstage events is in doubt. Even with the much-studied words of Shakespeare, the best performers emulate the ineffable kismet of improvisation.

Enter the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream now onstage at Shakespeare & Company. Director Tony Simotes’ inspired conceit is that the enchanted happenings of that play could find full voice when set in an early-20th century New Orleans milieu. It turns out the faded, mysterious, deeply soulful vibe conjured by this vision of New Orleans fits in with the wild journey of Oberon and Puck, Helena and Hermia and all the rest, as snugly as a Harmon mute in the bell of a trumpet.

Johnny Lee Davenport and Merritt Janson. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

Music is everywhere in this production, from the Rude Mechanicals forming a crack band to express their sadness at the disappearance of their compatriot Bottom, to a stomping rendition of “I’ll Fly Away” that begins in the theater lobby. Composer and musical director Alex Sovronsky (who is also onstage as Snug) does much to evoke the sound of New Orleans jazz, and Barbara Allen’s choreography helps turn Theseus’s court into a debauched ballroom. 

Dangling Spanish moss and curling tree limbs overlap with man-made light fixtures in Travis George’s set design, creating a sense of the creeping influence of the mysterious woods not far from the orderly court. Period-appropriate costumes designed by Deborah A. Brothers work in harmony with Simotes’ vision.

Simotes, of course, knows from Midsummer; he played Puck in S&Co.’s first-ever production, on the lawn of The Mount back in 1978. And the play has continued to loom large in the history of the company — though this is only its second turn indoors at the Tina Packer Playhouse (nee Founders’ Theatre), following a 2007 version that felt a little “off-brand,” featuring several company newcomers who have not been heard from since.

Rocco Sisto, Colby Lewis, Cloteal L. Horne, David Joseph, and Michael F. Toomey. Photo by Kevin Sprague.

As usual, the success of the play really turns on the four lovers who are set loose in the woods, changing their romantic affections under the influence of a fairy king’s magic. The quartet here is formed by Kelly Galvin and David Joseph, familiar faces who make the most of this featured turn, and S&Co. first-timers Cloteal L. Horne and Colby Lewis. The petite-ness of Galvin’s frame helps fuel the hilarity of a well-executed, acrobatic sequence in which she tosses around Lewis, who plays a sapping but caddish Demetrius. Joseph shows fantastic comedic chops, though Horne’s sledgehammer-y approach suggests she’s still learning the subtleties of massaging the humor in Shakespeare’s text.

Rocco Sisto brings a suitably regal air to Oberon, the fairy king. Merritt Janson has winningly played some of Shakespeare’s greatest female roles in this theatre (Desdemona, Rosalind, Viola); here she is a calm, confident Titania. Michael Toomey, whose work at S&Co. and with the Split Knuckle Theater (of which he’s a co-founder) has made him the troupe’s leading clown, is a loud and silly Puck, even if he doesn’t cut loose as much as one might expect.

Photo by Kevin Sprague

The world-weary countenance and achy-bone movements Johnny Lee Davenport gives to Bottom lend an air of pathos, and most of his cohorts among the Rude Mechanicals are also of a certain age. Their subplot feels uncharacteristically played-down here, especially the climactic play-within-a-play which can otherwise pull a production off course by way of prolonged chaos. You kind of want your money’s worth when it comes to the onstage death of Bottom-as-Pyramus, but Davenport doesn’t milk it. Instead, the enduring image from his performance is the beautiful moment when a leftover token from Titania reminds Bottom of the supposed “dream” in which he won her affections.

Along the fluid line between waking life and sleep (or, as the play has it, “fairy time”) lie infinite possibilities; you can see Bottom glimpse one of those possibilities, and then discard it. It’s deliciously heartbreaking.

Helena — not the character, but a friend’s precocious daughter, then five years old — once described a Louis Armstrong solo as “happy and sad together.” That’s also the sweet spot of a good Midsummer. This production aims for that note, and hits it. 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA
(413) 637-3353
Now through August 30

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 07/07/14 at 05:10 PM • Permalink