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Play reviews: Berkshire Theater Festival, Stockbridge, Massachusetts

The Berkshire Theater Festival offers something for everyone, from the traditional to the adventurous. Rohmann offers critical reviews of two current productions.

The conventional recipe for summer theater is for light, easygoing fare -- equal parts comedy, musical, and Agatha Christie. But in this region especially, many audiences demand a more substantial diet. One way the bigger companies have found to satisfy both appetites is by multiplying their theaters -- catering to the mainstream on the mainstage and putting more adventurous fare on a second, smaller stage. One such enterprise is the venerable Berkshire Theater Festival, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, whose mainstage is now in its 74th season, and whose intimate Unicorn Theatre is now fully professional.

There's an irony in the two shows playing at BTF this week. On paper, one of them has potential disaster written all over it, but on stage, it overwhelms all doubts. The other one, on paper, looks like great fun with a great cast, but is a disaster on stage.

The good news is August Strindberg's "Miss Julie," now playing in the Unicorn. Written in 1888, it's a study in Victorian-era inhibitions and class divisions. Swedish director Anders Cato wanted to come up with an English-language version that resonates in the contemporary American ear without harming the original -- a seeming contradiction. But playwright Craig Lucas has delivered a lively, muscular adaptation that deftly captures Strindberg's tragic vision.

On Midsummer's Eve, the long, light Scandinavian night celebrated with dancing, drinking and breaking rules, two prisoners of the class system seduce each other in pursuit of their respective dreams. Julie, the headstrong daughter of a landed aristocrat, longs to break free of the strictures of her social position, while her father's valet, Jean, dreams of bigger things than shining the master's boots. The first part of the play is a reckless dance of flirtation, across the lines of privilege that separate them, and behind the back of Jean's super-proper fiancee, Kristine.

Three outstanding performances support Cato's headlong production. Marin Hinkle's Julie is passionate and reckless, first flirting with fire, then throwing herself into a doomed escape fantasy. Mark Feuerstein, as Jean, is a marvelous compound of proud and charming, arrogant and ruthlessly pragmatic. And Rebecca Creskoff makes rigid Kristine more human and sympathetic than Strindberg did.

Down the path from the Unicorn, in BTF's graceful main theater, is the American premiere of a British comedy, "Quartet." This must have seemed like a winner to the people planning BTF's season: a quartet of veteran stars playing charmingly quirky geriatrics for BTF's largely elderly mainstage audience. But that formula can only work if the script works and if the cast can pull it off. Sadly, Ronald Harwood's play is as creaky as its characters and, with one exception, Vivian Matalon's cast is as sluggish as her staging.

The quartet of the title are four former opera singers living in a home for retired musicians. These old troupers, who have lost their voices but not their longings, bicker and bitch their way toward an upcoming house concert in which they are slated to reprise one of their classic numbers, the quartet from Verdi's "Rigoletto." They are also hiding old secrets and jealousies, and these unsurprising surprises come limping out in an outrageously mechanical final scene.

The two main star attractions here are the film and TV actor Robert Vaughn, best known as the man from U.N.C.L.E., and the great stage comedienne Kaye Ballard. Vaughn plays a cranky old ex-tenor, and Ballard is the beefy contralto with an unpredictable memory. Elizabeth Seal plays the has-been diva who still flaunts her prima-donna airs. And Paul Hecht is the earthy baritone, a randy old goat whose every other thought is lecherous.

Of all these old pros, only Hecht manages to make his one-note character more than a monotone. His pitch-perfect comic timing gets more guffaws than all of his colleagues combined. Ballard's batty character is appealing, but even she can't seem to nail half her potential laughs. When it comes to the poignant moments, Seal is the one who makes them at all believable and touching. Vaughn, though, is so stiff he seems nearly immobilized, as if he'd wandered onstage by mistake and doesn't know how to get off.

"Quartet" is charming in parts, and funny in parts, and fond of grand statements on the power of art, and ultimately as manipulative and superficial as a sitcom.


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