Traveling in Pursuit of Theater

 

Since I live in New York City, I usually don't take a "theater vacation"-you know, the eight-shows-a-week type of trip to New York or London. Even when I go to London, theater is just one of the activities on my itinerary. But the last three summers, I have found myself in a summer theater destination and have been appreciating more and more the joy of taking my No. 1 pastime on the road.


 

Last August, I extended a trip to Niagara Falls to the charming resort town Niagara-on-the-Lake, 18 miles north of the falls and home to the annuAl Shaw Festival, one of Canada's most prestigious theater ensembles. I saw Merrily We Roll Along and The House of Bernarda Alba. This year, the Shaw Festival presents 11 plays on its three stages from April 3 to Nov. 30, including Misalliance; the Kaufman-Ferber comedy The Royal Family; The Plough and the Stars, by Sean O'Casey; Chekhov's Three Sisters; Brian Friel's Chekhov-inspired Afterplay; a Lizzie Borden post-trial bio, Blood Relations; and the musicals On the Twentieth Century and Happy End. (www.shawfest.com)

 

In July 2001, I took a cruise on the Rhone River in southern France that included a day in Avignon. The city's been at the forefront of worldwide theater news recently, as an actors and technicians strike has forced the cancellation of the 57th Festival d'Avignon, one of two arts festivals held there every July. Together, the Festival d'Avignon and Festival Off-what we in the States might call a "Fringe Festival"-offer more than 500 productions in over 100 venues; in Festival Off, a performance starts approximately every 15 minutes from 10 a.m. to midnight. I selected Georges Feydeau's Mais n'te promene donc pas toute nue! (en anglais: Don't Walk Around Naked! [they didn't]). If you're going to watch a play in a language you don't completely understand, a sex farce may be your best bet since you can get a gist of the plot from the physical antics. And I could still tell the acting was tres bon. (www.festival-avignon.com, www.avignon-off.org; no English translation on the latter site)

 

After dabbling in theater away from home, this year I finally decided to take a vacation getaway planned around theatergoing. New Yorkers and Bostonians have a great theater destination just three hours away: the Berkshire region of western Massachusetts. I stayed only two nights on my recent trip but saw four shows: one from the classical canon, a modern comedy, a musical and a fairly new one-man play. The quantity of theater in the Berkshires has grown so much that the area now promotes itself as "America's Premier Cultural Resort." Other performing arts have something to do with that: The Berkshires, after all, are probably best-known for Tanglewood, the outdoor summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (and famous in theater circles as the place where Leonard Bernstein's career was launched). The region also offers a host of other music and dance festivals and concert and performance series.

 

As for theater, the Berkshires' highest-profile resident is the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where many a Broadway and Hollywood star has summered on stage. It just wrapped up a run of Threepenny Opera featuring Betty Buckley, Jesse L. Martin, Melissa Errico and Karen Ziemba and is now presenting John Guare's Landscape of the Body with Lili Taylor and Sherie Rene Scott. Mandy Patinkin, Dana Ivey and Blythe Danner are also due on the Williamstown stage this summer.


 

But it's far from the only game in town for theatergoers. Decades before Williamstown grabbed the spotlight, the Berkshire Theatre Festival brought stars and top-quality theater to the region, and it's still going strong after 75 years. Richard Chamberlain is currently appearing there as a diplomat in crisis in the world premiere of The Stillborn Lover by Timothy Findley. Other dramas on BTF's 2003 schedule are Talley's Folly, by Lanford Wilson, and a new staging of Peter Pan, co-adapted by Trevor Nunn. Although BTF seems to draw an older audience, it does not shy away from edgy fare: This summer's musicals are Assassins and The Who's Tommy, and both The Stillborn Lover and one of the plays I saw, Nijinsky's Last Dance, contain nude scenes.

 

Nijinsky's Last Dance and Enter Laughing, the other BTF show I saw earlier this summer, have concluded their runs. Directed by Joe Calarco, who did Shakespeare's R&J off-Broadway, Nijinsky was staged in BTF's smaller, arena-style Unicorn Theatre and featured a bravura performance by Jeremy Davidson re-enacting the momentous yet tortured life of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the 20th century's first international celebrities. Enter Laughing, the Carl Reiner autobiographical novel that was adapted for the stage by Joseph Stein (just before he wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof), was cleverly reimagined in "meta" style by director Scott Schwartz: To underscore the comedy's passion-for-theater theme, he made the audience extra aware of the actors' craft by doubling up roles for cast members, keeping lights up as they moved scenery and furnishing upstage like the inside of a theater.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival still performs in its original building, the former Stockbridge Casino designed by legendary architect Stanford White, which is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The company's first production, in 1928, starred Eva LeGallienne; in 1930, as a member of BTF's apprentice program, Katharine Hepburn had tiny roles in three plays. Among those who also have trod the boards at BTF over the years are Gloria Swanson, Jose Ferrer, Maureen Stapleton and Cicely Tyson.

 

One of the Berkshires' newer theater producers is the Barrington Stage Company, which performs at the Consolati Performing Arts Center (a high school auditorium) in Sheffield. This summer-BSC's ninth season-features two world premieres: The Game, a musical version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and Mark St. Germain's Ears on a Beatle, about two FBI agents tailing John Lennon in the 1970s. The latter stars Dan Lauria, the father on TV's The Wonder Years, and Bill Dawes, who appeared in Gross Indecency in New York. BSC is also presenting two plays recently seen off-Broadway, Lobby Hero by Kenneth Lonergan and Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things, as well as the musical Once Upon a Mattress in its family series (with performances in both Sheffield and Pittsfield).


 

BSC's first show this summer was Funny Girl, now in the final week of its run. It's an ambitious and pleasurable production of a play that is so heavily identified with one performer it seemingly discourages revivals. But Jeanne Goodman fearlessly makes Fanny Brice her own; the times she does resemble Barbra Streisand are probably less the result of imitation than of her being ideally suited for the role. To say Goodman was born to play Fanny is not an overstatement, considering the extraordinary combination of vocal demands (she sings almost every song in the show) and physical attributes required for the part. Her Nicky Arnstein is a BSC favorite, Christopher Yates, a leading man in the BSC productions of Cabaret and On the Twentieth Century.

 

Funny Girl is directed by Barrington Stage Company founder Julianne Boyd, who directed Eubie! on Broadway in 1978-79 and conceived the AMy Name Is Alice feminist musical revues. Her Berkshires company has had amazing success in its first decade, transferring Cabaret to the Hasty Pudding Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., for an extended run and winning awards from Massachusetts critics for such shows as Mack and Mabel, South Pacific, The Diary of Anne Frank, Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill and the American premiere of A View From the Roof.


Another of the Berkshires' acclaimed theater producers is Shakespeare & Company, which rode a record-breaking 2002 box office into this season. Last year the organization tallied a million dollars in ticket sales for the first time since it originated in 1978, as a resident company of the Mount, Edith Wharton's chateau-like former residence in Lenox. In those early years the company produced one outdoor Shakespeare play and a parlor staging of Wharton stories each summer, but it now offers a dozen productions from May to December. The 2003 program includes a Much Ado About Nothing set in 1950s Sicily, King Lear, The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed by only eight actors, Wharton's Ethan Frome, Vita & Virginia and the comic montage The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). S&C has also brought back one of last season's hits, The Fly-Bottle, about philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, while a play it sold out in 2002, Golda's Balcony, is now Broadway-bound.

 



 

Shakespeare & Company left the Mount in 2001 and now has its own home, a 63-acre property in Lenox with three performance spaces (and more planned, including a replica of Shakespeare's Rose Playhouse with surrounding Elizabethan village). One of those venues, the Spring Lawn Theatre, is where I saw The Chekhov One-Acts. This classical troupe has done Chekhov only once before, but this year it replaced its usual Wharton one-acts with short works by the Russian master. Like the Wharton pieces, the Chekhov plays have a drawing room ambience, even if they don't all take place in a drawing room-so that's precisely where they are performed. The Spring Lawn is actually a room in an old mansion, with a rectangular section in the middle staked out as the stage, the audience seated on two sides, and the room's fireplace, terrace and glass doors incorporated into the set. (There's even complimentary tea and cookies in the foyer at intermission.)

 

The standout among the four one-acts is the closer, The Brute, in which a farmer and the widow of the man who died in debt to him plan to settle their disagreement with a duel. Miles Herter makes an incredible transformation from his earlier appearance as a sickly, woeful clerk in The Celebration to his confident and forceful character in The Brute, a performance enhanced by Herter's sonorous voice. His adversary is played by Diane Prusha, who also portrays an aging actress recalling her heyday in the near-monologue Swan Song, an interesting work marred by a translation that discordantly uses the F-word. The true monologue The Harmfulness of Tobacco gets laughs for performer Spencer Trova. All the playlets are definitely Chekhovian, so how much you enjoy them may depend on how much you enjoy that type of humor and drama; regardless, they showcase Shakespeare & Company's exemplary production values (costumes and sets are lovely) and consummate hand with literary theater.

 

Other theater companies in the Berkshires area include Main Street Stage in North Adams, whose August production is The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and the Miniature Theatre of Chester, which is world-premiering The Darlings (the family from Peter Pan transplanted to present-day Manhattan) and following it with the one-man show Bother!, based on the works of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne.

 

What makes the Berkshires special for such a theater-rich destination-especially if you usually get your theater in a city-is that it's a rural area. Right before getting ready for the theater, you may find yourself hiking, biking or swimming in one of the region's many state parks or picking your own fruit at an orchard. Yet the cultural immersion is not limited to the entertainment: Among the historic sites to visit in the Berkshires are former homes of Wharton, author Herman Melville, sculptor Daniel Chester French and artist Norman Rockwell. For more information and links to all theaters and attractions, go to www.berkshires.org.


 

Photos, from top: Daniel Pearce, Jesse Bernstein and Rebecca Creskoff in Enter Laughing; Jeanne Goodman in Funny Girl; Miles Herter and Diane Prusha in The Chekhov One-Acts. [Credits: Kevin Sprague; Joe Schuyler; Kevin Sprague]

 

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Adrienne Onofri Adrienne Onofri, one of BroadwayWorld's original columnists, created and writes the Gypsy of the Month feature on the website. She also does interviews and event coverage for BroadwayWorld, and is a member of the Drama Desk. Adrienne is also a travel writer and the author of the book "Walking Brooklyn: 30 Tours Exploring Historical Legacies, Neighborhood Culture, Side Streets, and Waterways," published by Wilderness Press.


 
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