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Who’s on Second? Berkshire Actors Theater, with a Shanley Double-Header

There seems to be a pattern afoot in the nascent Pittsfield-based Berkshire Actors Theater. The company made its debut last summer with John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs and A Bone, and BAT’s sophomore season, which begins June 21, features a remount of that production, along with another Shanley favorite, Doubt: A Parable.

Rural Intelligence Arts These plays have more in common than their author: they’re small, character-driven dramas that actors can really sink their teeth into. The Shanley repertoire is not meant to define BAT, says actress Clover Bell-Devaney, right, the company’s ambitious executive director. The concept is to feature Berkshire-area talent and choose meaty, “actor-friendly” plays.

“There really is such a thing as plays that are not actor-friendly, and plays that don’t really give all of the actors a chance to shine,” she explains. “And so my goal is to pick plays that are small enough and beautifully written enough that every actor is thrilled about the role they’re going to be working on.”

The company’s inaugural production, directed by former Barrington Stage Company associate artistic director Andrew Volkoff, was a thunderous critical hit. The remount, featuring the original cast of Bell-Devaney, Michael Foster, Deann Halper, and Daniel Popowich, runs from July 2 through July 15.

BAT’s season opens, though, with a new production of the alleged-sex-abuse drama Doubt, running June 21 through July 14. After renting out the space typically used by New Stage Performing Arts Center last year, Bell-Devaney has moved this season’s BAT productions to the larger auditorium space of Berkshire Museum, also the home of Little Cinema.

Rural Intelligence ArtsThough Bell-Devaney says she didn’t set out to focus on the works of Shanley, pictured at left, the process has sparked an unexpected friendship with the Pulitzer Prize-, Academy Award-, and Tony Award-winning writer. When planning BAT’s sophomore season, a remount of Four Dogs seemed a sensible place to start. But she also wanted something grittier, something dealing with weighty issues…  something, perhaps, like Doubt. But would it make sense to pair two Shanley plays?

She took the idea straight to the source, hunting down Shanley’s contact info and seeking his input. They struck up a correspondence, and Bell-Devaney began to visit the acclaimed writer in New York City about once a month, she says. (She recently accompanied him to a preview performance of his newest play, Storefront Church, at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York.)

Shanley’s Pulitzer and Tony, by the way, were both awarded for Doubt; he snagged that Oscar for writing the screenplay to the 1987 film Moonstruck. He also directed the 2008 film adaptation of Doubt, which earned an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

Rural Intelligence Arts In addition to making time to talk with Bell-Devaney about his work, Shanley offered her other noteworthy assistance; he put her in touch with Sister Margaret McEntee, Shanley’s first-grade teacher and the inspiration for the Doubt character Sister James.

Armed with face time with the inspiration for her role, Bell-Devaney is playing Sister James in the new production. McEntee herself will be in town for a talkback after the July 1 performance.

Bell-Devaney is the only actor doing double duty in both BAT productions; she said she couldn’t pass up the chance to play Sister James after meeting the real-life model for the character, but notes that in future seasons she will take the “one or none” approach.

Rural Intelligence Arts The Doubt cast also includes Alika Hope, a versatile actor and singer who has worked at Northampton’s New Century Theatre and the Majestic Theater in West Springfield; Peggy Pharr Wilson, a Berkshire resident via Dallas and New York City, who has appeared in several Barrington Stage Company productions (including The Crucible, in which she played Ann Putnum); and Albany-based actor Patrick White (seen here with Bell-Devaney in a rehearsal shot by Arianne Stuerzel ), with credits including the Capital Repertory Theater, who makes his Berkshire debut in this production. Brad Berridge, who has extensive credits as a composer and sound designer (including for Four Dogs), directs.

The launch of BAT provided a way for its founder to get back onstage, after she took a break from acting to raise her son and start two other businesses. She earned an acting degree at Carnegie Mellon University and worked in New York (Playwrights Horizons, New York Theater Workshop) and at regional theaters such as the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Pittsburgh Public Theater, and New Jersey’s George Street Playhouse, before visiting Lenox ten years ago for an instructional program in Kripalu yoga. It was a fortuitous visit: her husband-to-be, Geoff, was a fellow participant. When it became clear they had made a lasting connection, she and the Vancouver resident re-located to the Berkshires.

Rural Intelligence ArtsThey live with their son, Parker, in Lee, where Bell-Devaney opened the erstwhile Clover’s Organic Market. (Geoff is a special education instructor at Richmond School.) Her chief day job is Impeccable Events, her event-planning service specializing in multi-venue parties and weddings. She had started to resume her acting career before founding BAT, appearing in a 2010 reading at Berkshire Theater Festival’s Unicorn Theatre, and starring in the New Stage production of A Thousand Clowns that same year.

Behind this new enterprise is Bell-Devaney’s feeling that now is as good a time as any to start a new theater company in the Berkshires.

“I think it’s really important not to say we don’t have any money, it’s not a good time—because, is there ever a good time to start a theater company?” she says. “If you stop and think about all the reasons not to do it, you would never do it.” —Jeremy D. Goodwin

Berkshire Actors Theatre at Berkshire Museum’s Little Cinema

Doubt: A Parable
By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Brad Berridge
Featuring Clover Bell-Devaney, Alika Hope, Patrick White, and Peggy Pharr Wilson
June 21 - July 14

Four Dogs and a Bone
By John Patrick Shanley
Directed by Andrew Volkoff
Featuring Clover Bell-Devaney, Michael Foster, Deann Halper, and Daniel Popowich
July 2 - 15


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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 06/20/12 at 03:22 PM • Permalink