Cricket's Notebook by Larry Stark - "How I Spent My Summer Vacation...Part Two"

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide


Thursday - Saturday, 19 - 21 July, 2001:
"How I Spent My Summer Vacation --- Part TWO"

Go West, Old Man!

When Geralyn Horton told me she and her David were going to kidnap me and whisk me off to the Left Coast of Massachusetts to experience SHAKESPEARE & CO., I instinctively replied "That's impossible! I've already promised to see the second 'Summer Shorts' program at HOVEY, and the 'Midsummer' that SHAKESPEARE NOW! is doing at the New Rep, and COMMONWEALTH SHAKESPEARE opens '12th Night' that week, and there's a party for the new BOSTON BRIDGE! I couldn't Possibly disappoint them!"
But, well, I could, and I did. Never underestimate the sharp elbows of a theater-critic scorned....

Of course, I'm very glad I did! David grew up in Pittsfield, his mother and sister still live there, and the Lenox-Lee-Stockbridge countryside is maybe the most delightful, prettiest in the state, with drivers that actually Do stop at cross-walking pedestrians, and sidewalks that disappear into grass every once in a while, and more, taller, greener trees everywhere than anyplace I've been in years, even D.C.! It may not be any more up-and-down than Boston, but with so much big grassy or wooded Room between buildings the Berkshires certainly Look more mountainy, and you can see the sky --- which when it wasn't blue (and dry) was full of the most fascinating clouds. We were put up at David's sister's, and had dinner with and were served a big breakfast by his mother, and nothing could have been more different from and more restfully Beautiful than those Bostonian ruts I'd been swimming through. Oh Bre'r Bear, please don't throw me in dat brier-patch agin!!!

But I was there to find out about SHAKESPEARE & CO. --- a sprawling, multi-buildinged, multi-staged, multi-purpose theatrical institution that is what we thought the A.R.T. might grow up to be when Brustein moved it up from Yale. It's a place where everyone teaches and learns from one another, where people are encouraged to try things, to push themselves to the limits of their abilities, and to work to improve those abilities and to learn new skills they can take back into the rest of the theatrical world where, hopefully, the glow of summer will not fade. I saw four plays out there, each one fascinating for widely different reasons.

The first, that first evening, was in their new Founders' Theatre --- an incredibly comfortable fully flexible house which, though inside a sturdy new building, has canvas walls enveloping the audience in warm-sand coloring and crisscross lashings threaded through big brass grommets --- emphasizing the airy freedom-feel of the space. It felt as cozily insubstantial as a play, as though we could come back after act-break to find everything altered.

I'd seen the play --- Donald Margulies' "Collected Stories" --- before, but in a Boston Directors' Lab (Others may have seen a Huntington Theatre production, which I didn't). Here Annette Miller (in her sixth season with the company) played the ageing, successful teacher/writer and Christianna Nelson (in her second) the fawning acolyte growing into independence and her own success. I was surprised and pleased to see Lauren Kurki's single writer's-room set had no walls ... simply rows and rows of neatly arranged, blank-jacketed books extending into the distance. Both ladies tore into the script, handling the with-it quips and literary-lion references with snap, the delicate differences in relationship in each of the six scenes as though there really were a year or two of growing familiarity between each of them. It was press-night after a week, and the actresses nervously asking opinions and advice after, but though they obviously felt not through with the work yet, I felt they nailed it.

Trouble was, I had made up my mind when I saw that workshop production that I knew how the play had to end, and here Director Daniela Varon gave me something else! (Since the play ends its run tomorrow, I'm going to depart from my normal reviewing stance and give away that ending. Sorry.) In my mind the play is about the generosity and the ruthlessness of the artist. The writer of world-famous short-stories here never did a novel and here, at the end of that life with too little time left, she never will. Her pupil, as an act of love, decides to write it for her, using clues and confessions and, yes, confidences about a blazing youthful love-affair the woman could not, would not make into fiction. What she has taught throughout the play is a kind of iron-willed dedication to making mere life into art no matter what the cost, to whom --- and yet she feels betrayed by what she sees as another artist "stealing" her life to make a "mere" piece of fiction. This production ended with her unforgiving, and her student wrong --- and I happen to think the reverse should really be true. (But I am a strange old man!)

Late that next morning we took advantage of another Berkshire delight: The Norman Rockwell Museum. I'm still undecided as to whether he was a commercial hack, a contemporary genre-painter, or just a cartoonist, but the half-dozen rooms housing many sacred icons of America's sentimental history display a permanent charm and a deceptive craftsmanship their ephemeral final use cannot devalue. Though moved (intact) from its original site, a short walk brings you to his studio, full of sophisticated artefacts and knickknacks, where --- like some playwrights I know --- he worked every day of his life.

Then it was off to The Spring Lawn Theatre, where the aura of Edith Wharton's formal teas is preserved, and short-stories by her and others are turned every summer into period playlets, with ranks of risered chairs flanking a playing area in front of sunny French-windows leading to a wide balcony. Lemonade and cookies (and coffee on the sideboard) graced the break, and from the balcony could be seen sumptuous grounds and the place, in days to come, where an exact replica of The Rose, a tall octagonal Globe-like playhouse in Shakespeare's time, is to be built. The period feeling of "The Wharton One-Acts" puts a kind of keystone to the unbroken sense of unhurried history at Shakespeare & Co.

The first story wasn't a Wharton, it was "An International Episode" by Henry James, examining yet again the difference between American and English society, but also between naive young and wiser mature women. The visiting young Marquis may really love a young American, but class trumps love every time --- at least in James, and at least in 1875. Here seven actors got to wear Govane Lohbauer's elaborate period costumes, and insinuate subtexts with pauses and fans and glances that James only occasionally took the trouble to explain.

The second was "The Rembrandt" --- a frothy romp that actually as by Wharton, involving a sprightly young bulldozer of a woman getting an MFA Assistant Curator to support a destitute (and perhaps dissembling) woman's trip to healthier climes by buying (and rashly authenticating) her obviously spurious painting. Seeing everyone much of the more serious first play's cast flounce back on for this comedy --- in no less elaborate 1902 costumes! --- spoke volumes about their range and experience.

And no wonder! Diana Prusha who played the painting's owner, and earlier the Marquis' haughty mother, was back for her Twenty-Third Berkshire Summer, and Kate Holland (the bulldozer) for her eleventh. That made Boston's own John Rahal Sarrouf (of "Davis Square on the tube) a mere stripling in his Fourth! With such familiarity, it must have been easy to slide into styles from those by-gone, mannered eras.

That night, however, was first night for "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for which Empressaria Tina Packer revisited and reworked the first show performed out of doors by Shakespeare & Co. twenty-two summers ago. Not a critical breath could be uttered till days later so I am sworn to secrecy about the show, which has one more month to run. What I can say however is, if people don't make the effort to get out to Lenox to see this show, What FOOLS those mortals be!

I can say, I think, that the playing-area stretched before a hillside of chairs is a football-field wide, with tall old pines in manicured, fat-trunked groves stretching what look like miles off in the distance where lights pick out flitting faeries in loosely slashed leather --- and even without mikes, every word is heard, clear, and expressively uttered. I can say the cast is unbelievably athletic on the sloping ground, and that surprise after surprise explodes in lines you may think you've never heard before, their contexts may have freshened so much. It is a sprawling, brawling, bubbly show, as new today as it was when the ink was wet in 1594.

The next morning --- the Berkshire air that week was excellent for sleeping! --- we availed ourselves of yet another indigenous art-form by taking advantage of the BSO's rehearsal for their Tanglewood Concerts. It was a violin concerto, it was by Brahms, and all I really remember was a whole white field of sprouting violin-bows rising in unison again and again, and looking around to find that with pockets of dutiful exception, everyone in the Music Shed that morning was probably my age.

I was whisked off to yet a third theater-space, The Stables Theatre, where what is called the Summer Performance Institute was doing a knockabout production of "The Comedy of Errors" done by young actors of all sorts and backgrounds --- all of them (I had to keep reminding myself) girls. Kevin G. Coleman the Director and Jonathan Croy his Assistant Director proudly added " /Fight Choreographer" to their titles, which may hint at the rough physicality of this show --- which may tour to high schools. They did all Shakespeare's lines, but with an inventive vigor and exaggeration that sometimes illuminated, sometimes undercut them entirely. But it certainly was a laugh riot on whatever level you chose.

That was a matinee, after which I got in some truly spectacular cloud-gazing until David and Geralyn in his shriek-red, tachometered jellybean of a car whisked me out of paradise and off down the highway to a spot of dinner at their Newton home, after which she and I drove over to Waltham where I downed another ten 10-minute "Summer Shorts" by The Hovey Players, and I got driven home slightly drunk on many things, including days of really excellent theater.


THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide