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Seven Plays in the Berkshires, Summer 2003

"Travesties" and "Assassins"
"Vita and Virginia"
"The Stillborn Lover" and "The Who's Tommy"
"The Fly Bottle"
"The Darlings"

"Travesties" at Williamstown and "Assassins" at Berkshire Theatre Festival
Reviewed by Chris Rohmann, CRohmann@crocker.com

What if a group of people connected by just one common fact were put together on stage and allowed to interact as they never did in real life? That's the playful what-if that animates both "Assassins" and "Travesties." The two results are wildly different fantasias on this shared premise. In the productions at two Western Massachusetts summer theaters, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Berkshire Theatre Festival, in Stockbridge, both are hugely entertaining.

The tie that binds the nine principals in Steven Sondheim's musical "Assassins" is that they all shot-or at least shot at-a president of the United States. The connecting thread in Tom Stoppard's play "Travesties" is both more solid and more tenuous: in 1917, at the height of World War I, the Irish novelist James Joyce, the Roumanian founder of the Dada art movement, Tristan Tzara, and the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin were all living in Zurich, in neutral Switzerland. It also draws on-or rather, mercilessly exploits-the fact that in that year, Joyce directed a production of the quintessential English drawing-room comedy, "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Stoppard's play is a series of travesties on those two mildly intriguing sets of facts. It's narrated by another real-life figure, Henry Carr, an officer in the British consulate, who acted in Joyce's production. Carr is recalling the story as a doddery old man, and in his leaky memory those long-ago events get scattered and confused, like the nonsense poems Tzara created by cutting up newspaper pages then pulling the words randomly out of a hat. His memoir becomes a hilarious motley of Joyce's stream-of-consciousness, Tzara's whimsical nonsensicality, and Lenin's revolutionary rants, all framed in a surreal paraphrase of Oscar Wilde's play.

Gregory Boyd's production rides high on Stoppard's flood of wordplay. His actors attack their giddy roles with abandon, and most of the highjinks work fine. David Garrison is wonderfully snooty as Carr in his younger days, though it's a puzzle why the elder version of this dignified dandy looks like a tramp emerging from one of Samuel Beckett's trash cans. Stephen Spinella gives Joyce an antic charm and an amusingly terrible Irish accent. and Michael Stuhlbarg's Tzara neatly fits the aesthetic bomb-thrower into the mannered cadences of Oscar Wilde.

Lynn Collins and Kali Rocha complete the Wildean circle as Gwendolyn and Cecily-disciples of Joyce and Lenin, respectively, but named after the two ingenues in "Earnest." Building on the linguistic excesses of the script, the director has given them a pie-throwing cat fight and a couple of breast-baring scenes that are as funny as they are gratuitous.

All three historical figures in "Travesties" are revolutionaries, each of them destined to have a profound influence in his chosen sphere. In 1917, Lenin was heading for Russia to overthrow the capitalist order, Joyce was writing "Ulysses," the novel that would revolutionize 20th-century literature, and Tzara was overturning conventional definitions of art and paving the way for surrealism.

In contrast to these world-shakers, the nine assassins in Sondheim's musical merely think that shooting the president will change the world and make them immortal. From John Wilkes Booth, who killed Lincoln partly out of Confederate fervor and partly because his acting career was on the rocks, to John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan to get Jody Foster's attention, these gun-toting losers see themselves as men-and, in two cases, women-with a mission. Their violent acts are aimed at avenging societal wrongs and personal affronts. They are people for whom the American Dream turned out to be a nightmare, and who think a magic bullet will finally make it come true.

Timothy Douglas's production, in the intimate Unicorn Theatre, imagines a gun shop where the dissatisfied and downtrodden gather to pick up their pistols. In a series of songs and vignettes, we see the frustrations and defeats, the dreams and delusions that feed their fantasies of righteous violence. For most of them, there's a pathetic need to be recognized or to act out an obsession. Charles Guiteau, a failed author, wants to be an ambassador and shoots James A. Garfield when his application is denied. Lee Harvey Oswald, suicidal over the failure of his marriage and his life, decides to shoot John Kennedy instead of himself. Sam Byck, an unemployed Santa Claus, is enraged that his letters to celebrities go unanswered, so he decides to kill Richard Nixon (chillingly, his unsuccessful plot involved hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House).

For some of these assassins, squeezing the trigger is political as well as personal. When Leon Czolgosz takes aim at William McKinley, he's acting for all the oppressed slaves of capitalist industry. Giuseppe Zangara's poverty and bad luck have given him ulcers, and it's that pain more than social outrage that drives him to fire at Franklin Roosevelt's motorcade.

Charles Manson's sometime girlfriend, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, and Sara Jane Moore, a bored neurotic housewife, both tried to kill Gerald Ford (of all people), on separate occasions. Here, the librettist, John Wideman, brings them together in a mutual plot that is planned and executed in a series of Chaplinesque misadventures.

Some of the musical score, played by pianist Ken Clark, is pure Sondheim. But most of the songs are composed in styles of the period they reflect. The story of John Wilkes Booth is told by a banjo-playing balladeer. Charles Guiteau's song from the gallows is a 19th-century hymn. And John Hinckley and Squeaky Fromme sing to their respective fantasy lovers in a sappy '70s pop duet a la the Carpenters.

The Unicorn production sustains a macabre liveliness that keeps the gristly theme and its unsavory characters entertaining without trivializing them. The 15 cast members may look too youthful for some of their roles but they perform with polished skill. "Assassins" was a bit of a flop in its New York debut, but this revival consistently hits the target.

"Vita & Virginia", Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
Reviewed by Donna Bailey-Thompson, desbyt@localnet.com

"Vita & Virginia," is dynamic, engrossing, intense, spiced with humor that bites or delights—and more—qualities woven throughout the dramatized correspondence between two women whose love affair with language sparks and sustains their 20-year relationship. Tod Randolph as Virginia Woolf and Catherine Taylor-Williams as Vita Sackville-West give bravura performances that keep the audience engaged and enthralled. The fervor of the applause imparted a fraction of the emotional impact generated by the actors' skill at bringing to life these literary trailblazers, both prolific published writers, through the letters they wrote to one another between 1922 and 1941.

Taylor-Williams' Vita is suffused with energy, both physical and cerebral. On a stage barely big enough to swing a cat, she struts, glides, wheels, sprawls, and occasionally strikes a mannered pose. In conversational tones, she taps the feelings behind the words Vita wrote more than 60 years ago. As Vita, she is a flapper from her bobbed hair down to her swingy skirts. Her energy never flags.

Whereas Randolph's Virginia, although only 40 to Vita's 30, appears decades older—dowdy, dour, wary. At the mercy of bipolar illness most of her life, Randolph's quick, decisive steps capture the ebulliency of the manic moods. When in the anguish of despair, her body sags.. The moment she realizes that Vita's affection for her has progressed from friendship to love, her expressive face reflects surprise and exquisite joy. She blossoms. As important as this affair was to Virginia, in the suicide note she left for her husband, she wrote, "I owe all my happiness to you..."

Dan McCleary's directorial debut brings high polish to a multi-faceted gem. Costume Designer Jennifer Halpern's costumes bespeak the period and the personalities. Even in daylight, Lighting Designer Nathan Towne-Smith scores. Sound Designer Jason Fitzgerald shatters tranquility.

"The Stillborn Lover" and "The Who's Tommy" at Berkshire Theatre Festival
Reviewed by Chris Rohmann

Two contrasting productions exemplify the old and new BTF. The two plays that ran in August at the Berkshire Theatre Festival's 75th anniversary season illustrate the variety of fare on its summer menu and epitomize the difference between BTF's two performance venues. The historic mainstage, where "The Stillborn Lover" is playing, generally holds to mainstream fare and attracts an older, staider clientele, while the intimate Unicorn Theatre appeals to a younger, hipper crowd.

"The Stillborn Lover" is Richard Chamberlain's coming-out party. It can't be a coincidence that he's playing a prominent closeted gay man just as his newly published autobiography, "Shattered Love," reveals this longtime TV heartthrob's homosexuality. I can't think of another good reason for bringing on the first professional U.S. production of this creaky ten-year-old Canadian play.

Timothy Findley's drama, based loosely on a number of real events in Canadian politics, takes place in the 1970s, when the Cold War still dominated world affairs and drove international policy. The Canadian ambassador to Moscow, Harry Raymond, has been suddenly called home. He and his wife, joined by their grown daughter, are squirrelled away in a secluded country house and kept under watch by two government policemen. Marion Raymond is in the early stages of Alzheimer's-slipping between lucid moments and lost confusion, entertaining rosy memories of the past, then lashing out in angry frustration at her condition and their current situation.

It soon transpires that the Raymonds have been unceremoniously recalled because of the murder of a male prostitute in Moscow-someone they knew. The plot revolves around the questions surrounding this murder. Who killed him? Harry? Marion? The KGB? Was it because of jealousy, or blackmail, or Cold War gamesmanship?

Stirring this pot of intrigue is Mike Riordan, Harry Raymond's longtime friend, now a powerful politician poised to become Prime Minister-if only he can keep this scandal under control. So the play turns on questions of loyalty-to country, to friendship, to loved ones, and most of all, to one's true self.

The play is primarily a study of Harry and Marion. Both have spent their lives squelching their truest impulses in the cause of what they took to be a greater good. For each of them, their deepest love has been compromised or denied-as the playwright puts it, stillborn.

The potential of this material is continually sabotaged by the playwright's remarkably clunky stagecraft-a script that reads like a made-for-TV drama with semi-literary pretensions; a play in which two characters go offstage for a crucial conversation that lasts less than a minute; a play where people spend a lot of time telling each other things they already know for the purpose of exposition; a play in which the first-act curtain comes down on a shocking revelation that is no surprise at all.

Like the script, Martin Rabbett's production is an odd melange of intrigue, sentiment, and symbolism. He has allowed scenic designer Michael Downs to create a series of sliding wood-and-rice-paper panels-a Japanese house, not a Canadian one, apparently intended to evoke the Raymonds' first diplomatic posting, in their long-lost idealistic youth. And the two episodes of nudity are so self-consciously distracting that they undermine their own dramatic and symbolic purpose.

The material is not well served by Richard Chamberlain's performance either. For this desperately self-contained character it's appropriately restrained, but he's so stiff that it's hard to work up any sympathy for the guy. Chamberlain is joined by a well-known trio of his contemporaries. Lois Nettleton, as Marion, gets the most emotional moments in the play, and shows us the most complex character, a woman clinging to the matrimonial bargain she made even as she's losing her grip on life. Keir Dullea, an underappreciated actor, makes the most of his supporting role as the smooth, ruthless politician, and Jessica Walter is smart and acerbic as the quintessential political wife.

Jennifer Van Dyck makes a good job of her functional role as the Raymonds' daughter-a sounding board for them and a foil for the two cops who shadow the family. In these two roles, Robert Emmet Lunney is affably sinister as the senior officer and Kaleo Griffith (who looks remarkably like the young Treat Williams) is serviceable in a part that mainly requires him to show off every inch of his well-muscled body.

The stage version of "The Who's Tommy" is also ten this year, but unlike "The Stillborn Lover", it's enjoyed great success and numerous productions in the U.S.A. This live edition of the rock opera captures the high spirits and spiritual highs of Pete Townshend's masterpiece far better than Ken Russell's gaudy 1975 pop-art movie version, even while reversing the outcome of the original. Here, the deaf, dumb and blind kid who becomes a pinball wizard and then a cult hero ends up renouncing his messianic role in favor of normalcy and individuality, only to be turned on by his followers who would rather be slaves to a charismatic icon.

Jared Coseglia's production in Stockbridge is anything but a carbon copy of the Broadway version and its touring offshoots. It's a completely reenvisioned staging-not as technologically spectacular, perhaps, but equally satisfying ... and just as loud. Instead of the original's postwar English setting, this one is transplanted and updated to the day after tomorrow in America-a bleak, violent place peopled with bored, angry teenagers, where the grownups are grasping, clueless, or just irrelevant. Coseglia also changes the conclusion yet again, giving "Tommy" a bleak, violent end that is chillingly effective and deeply cynical.

The most interesting revision here is the presentation of Tommy himself. While the autistic child stares sightlessly into a mirror and silently endures sexual and physical abuse, an alter-ego figure stands above the action, feeling his pain and sounding his thoughts. Cory Grant has the looks, the voice, the sexual energy and the steel-and-leather getup of a heavy-metal star, and he plays the role like a bewildered but volatile Frankenstein costumed by Aerosmith. Some other performers I particularly enjoyed in the dynamic young cast were Christopher Mowod as a sadistic adolescent headbanger; Stephanie Girard as Tommy's Barbie-lookalike mother; James Barry as his ineffectual father; Dalane Mason as his slimy uncle; and Thay Floyd as a stupendously outrageous Acid Queen, with the emphasis on queen.

In Paul Hudson's set design, the small stage is dominated by a strange rusted-iron cylinder that seems to have crashed through the wall into young Tommy's suburban house. It's apparently meant to represent the chaotic energy that possesses the child. In another thematic image, all the posters, banners and newspaper headlines that appear onstage are written backwards, so that we are seeing the world through the same mirror that Tommy stares into so profoundly.

The tight six-piece band, led by musical director Ken Clark, achieves the raw energy of the Who's original recording more successfully than the more lavish Broadway arrangements. And with the puzzling exception of conventional chorus-line choreography by Julian Alexander Barnett, who also plays the teenage Tommy (and looks remarkably like the young Gary Oldman), this production thrillingly captures the musical passion, intellectual adventurousness and guitar-smashing rebellion of this rock'n'roll monument.

"The Fly-Bottle" at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
Reviewed by Donna Bailey-Thompson

"The Fly-Bottle," a high wire act of cerebral gymnastics, is, almost literally, mind-blowing. Two colossal egos clash when philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Michael Hammond) contends there are no such things as problems, rather they are puzzles to be solved, whereas philosopher Karl Raimund Popper (Dave Demke) claims such a position is not only ridiculous but beneath contempt. Within ten minutes of their historic meeting, Wittgenstein storms out.

Playwright David Egan, a recent Harvard graduate with a degree in philosophy and a love for theater, has extrapolated contradictory eyewitness accounts of that actual encounter in October 1946, into a Roshoman-like, riveting drama. By immersing himself in the recollections of those who were there—especially as presented in the book, "Wittgenstein's Poker" by David Edmonds and John Eidinow— as well as the personal lives of the two Austrian combatants, he says, "I've found my own voice in the work" and is able to pepper the intense, intellectual argument with flashes of humor. Middle-class Popper speaks of growing up in a cultured home where the music of Brahms filled the air. The aristocratic Wittgenstein counters with, "Brahms gave piano lessons to my sister." Completing the cast is their common mentor, the brilliant mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell (Dennis Krausnick), an equally eccentric intellectual, who in contrast to the raging protagonists, presents an air of serenity. This seasoned cast, under the direction of Tina Packer, maintains their fervid convictions throughout 90 uninterrupted minutes.

"The Fly-Bottle" spews dialogue at breakneck pace; philosophical points whiz by too fast to catch, to ruminate about later. This suggests the play's dual purpose is to entertain and to stimulate curiosity about the contributions of these 20th century philosophical giants. When pitted against their creative thinking, who said what to whom 57 years ago is merely a blip of juicy gossip.

- Donna Bailey-Thompson

"The Fly-Bottle"
Final performances August 15, 22, 23, 24
Lenox, MA

"The Darlings," A modern riff on "Peter Pan" at the Miniature Theatre of Chester (world premiere)
Reviewed by Chris Rohmann

At the beginning of J. M. Barrie's "Peter Pan" (the classic fable is 99 this year), posh Londoners Mr. and Mrs. Darling go out for the evening, leaving their children, Wendy, John, and Michael, in the care of their governess, an Old English sheepdog. Nana is an efficient guardian of her flock, but she can't keep the youngsters from flying off to Never Never Land with that mischievous lost boy. In those early Edwardian days, upperclass English parents saw little of their children, leaving them to be raised by nannies and limiting visitation rights to the nightly children's hour.

Flash forward a hundred years to an elegant New York townhouse, where a thoroughly modern Mr. and Mrs. Darling are preparing to go out for the evening. But not together. She's going to accept an award for her volunteer work on behalf of a politically trendy cause. He, a high-rolling corporate CEO, is about to be indicted for securities fraud, and is off to meet with a federal prosecutor to try to stay out of jail.

The children—Wendy, John, and Michael—are safely locked in their wing of the house, and the parents make sure to check on them before going out—not in person, mind you, but via intercom. A few hours later, when the parents return, the kids are nowhere to be found. The sprinkling of fairy-dust on the window sill is assumed to be glitter the kids have been playing with.

Susan Eve Haar's play is part literary joke, part social satire, and part sketch comedy. There are sly references to the original, as when Mrs. Darling recalls that Wendy had been having nightmares about a sinister man we recognize as Captain Hook. The playwright's satirical target is the lifestyles of the rich and narcissistic. Mrs. Darling is a mom who hasn't taken a picture of her kids since their infancy. The parents are upset over their offsprings' disappearance, but their anxiety keeps circling back to themselves. Mr. D's first reaction is to worry that this mess will make his legal troubles even worse.

These Darlings are parodies of a certain class of all-too-easily recognizable Americans—materialistic, solipsistic, self-satisfied but vaguely dissatisfied with the lack of human connection in their lives. George Darling's best friend is, literally, the dog, with whom he shares late-night confessionals and shots of bourbon. Mark Giordano and Anastasia Barzee play these caricatures with the right combination of panache and restraint, giving us a couple we wouldn't want to know but get a kick out of watching. Barzee in particular is able to elicit not only laughs but a little sympathy for her exasperating character.

The Darlings are hardly full-blown dramatic figures, but they are positively three-dimensional next to the play's other caricatures, who are paper-thin lampoons of even easier targets. All six of these people—well, five people and a dog—are played by two versatile and entertaining actors, Glynis Bell and Andy Prosky. With quick changes of costume, voice and gesture they become the procession of strange visitors who show up in the Darlings' living room in the hours following the children's departure.

First on is the detective who responds to the Darlings' 911 call to report the missing children. He's a smug specialist in domestic crisis, for whom the parents' predicament may be an opportunity to get his own smarmy face on the national news. When he finds out that all three kids have gone missing he froths over: "Jackpot! Never had a triple."

While Mr. D is out looking for the kids, Mrs. Darling is visited by her friend Portica, an interior designer who brings plans for the decoration of the new, even more isolated children's wing and is annoyed that her client is so distracted from the business at hand.

These broad vignettes are amusing, but sometimes as thin and dopey as a Saturday Night Live skit. A case in point is Prosky's clairvoyant swami, who is both very funny and very clichéd. Called on to divine the children's whereabouts, this fortune teller instead homes in on a vision of George's potential future: "I see a jail cell, with a nice man. No! he is not a nice man. His name is Leroy and he wants you to be his wife."

The final visitors to the Darling home are a cloyingly upbeat couple bent on alleviating parental guilt over lost children. They offer an alternative vision, expressed in a platitudinous set of New Age affirmations. The solution to the pangs of parenthood and the unfortunate attachment to one's children, they suggest, is contained in accepting a simple truth: "Children are obstacles cast before us on the path to self-realization."

Twice during her long night of anxiety, Mrs. Darling is visited by her mother, who has been dead for ten years. This apparition is, in every sense of the word, a nightmare. This harpy can't stand to be touched, even-or, it seems, especially-by her own daughter, and as she recoils she recalls burning her infant daughter to make her stop suckling. In these dream sequences-and they get even more bizarre-we see why Mrs. Darling has become a distant mother herself.

But that's not Susan Haar's point. Her purpose here is to flippantly examine parenthood in the age of instant gratification. Vicki R. Davis's setting places the Darlings' ultra-modern living room in a framework of tangled silver brambles—a shiny Never Never Land they've woven around themselves. If the script itself were not so hooked on the instant gratification of easy laughs, this play would be a more satisfying riff on parents who don't want to grow up.


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