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Sharon Playhouse Plans A Director-Driven Season

By CB Wismar

The barn red buildings of Sharon Playhouse in winter are a stark reminder that cold weather and snow have replaced the drama that inhabits the campus from June to September. Opening night at the Sharon, Conn. Equity theater seems many months away.

But recently, in the warm confines of the intimate Bok Theater, a collection of energetic, imaginative and amazingly dedicated theater professionals began planning for their first show. June will be here soon enough, and the new management and creative teams at Sharon Playhouse are not wasting a moment.

To set the stage, the first announcement came in late fall. The new president of the Playhouse organization, Emily Soell, announced that George Quick had been named the new managing director of the Playhouse. Quick left a successful run as executive director of the Chattanooga Theatre Centre to move north.

Johnson Henshaw and George Quick

Enter, stage right, the holidays. There were rumors of plays to be staged and changes to come. News, however, was hard to get. Then, in mid-January, a new name appeared on the Sharon Playhouse website. Johnson Henshaw, a talented young producer and director with both theater and TV credits had been named artistic director.

But, the big questions — what plays would be staged, and who would direct — remained. What was going to push us through winter and mud season?

On February 1, without fanfare, the lights came up: Sharon Playhouse was going to take its place amid the regional powerhouse theaters — Berkshire Theater Festival, Shakespeare & Company, Williamstown Theater Festival and Barrington Stage. Like its regional colleagues, the Playhouse’s 2017 season wouldn’t be a rehash of “straw hat” favorites, but a real theatrical experience.

Downstage right, back in the pre-production meeting, the critical cast of technical and creative artists gather as the low-angled winter sun played across a table strewn with books and papers. At the head of this group is a highly regarded young director who has captured the imagination of New York theatergoers and who will, at the invitation of Johnson Henshaw, direct the three major works that will anchor the 2017 Sharon Playhouse season. 

Morgan Green

Morgan Green is a rising star, a co-artistic director of the company New Saloon Theater Co., a Brooklyn-based, Bard College-born theater. Her staging of “Minor Character,” which is a sometimes raucous presentation of six simultaneous translations of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya,” has been widely applauded in New York. New York Theatre Review said “Morgan Green’s direction is superb… hysterical, inventive and brilliant.” On June 8, Green and her production partner, actor/playwright Milo Cramer, will bring that enchantment to the Bok stage for a two-week run.

Thanks to a new Sharon Playhouse dedication to showcasing emerging directors, Morgan’s first play will not be her last. Her staging of British playwright Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away” will occupy the Bok from July 6–23, And, for an encore, Morgan will turn to a great American musical, Meredith Wilson’s “The Music Man,” which will run from August 3–20. (On the main stage, the Youth Theater will find new life in a production of “Footloose!” directed by Sarah Combs the weekend of July 14–16.)

It’ll be an interesting change for Morgan. “New York theater is very playwright driven, which is fine,” she says. “Sharon is doing something so refreshing — giving new directors the chance to present their work in a great setting to an eager audience.”

Across the table, George Quick and Johnson Henshaw nod in agreement. “We can only be as vibrant as our relationship will be to the community,” says Henshaw. “We’re going to be true to the community and eagerly invite new audiences to join in the experience.”

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/06/17 at 11:08 AM • Permalink

“Leisure & Lust” Delves Into Edith Wharton’s Personal Life

By Amy Krzanik

Although Edith Wharton is most well known for her fiction writing (The Age of Innocence; Ethan Frome, The House of Mirth), and interior and landscape designers revere her for her nonfiction books on gardens and decorating, some diehard Wharton fans and scholars are equally fascinated by her private life.

At age 23, after a failed engagement, Edith married one of her brother’s friends, Edward (Teddy) Robbins Wharton, who was 12 years her senior. Except for their mutual love of dogs and travel, by all accounts the couple were not well-matched. During the decade the pair lived together at The Mount in Lenox, Mass., Teddy’s mental health declined and Edith began an affair with journalist Morton Fullerton. Eventually, the couple divorced after 28 years of marriage, and Edith moved to France.

This part of Edith’s life, along with her writing style, are what have inspired playwright Sara Farrington to pen a three-part immersive theater experience titled Leisure, Labor, and Lust. The story revolves around “a brilliant woman with an insatiable hunger for romance, and her tortured husband Harry, a closeted man rapidly losing his grip on reality.” The work is site-specific, as it’s written about The Mount and its inhabitants, and is meant to be performed live in its rooms, which it will be on Friday, Jan. 27 and Saturday, Jan. 28.

Some may remember Farrington from her debut appearance at The Mount in January of 2015, where she presented a staged reading of the first act, Leisure. This time around, she’ll bring us both Leisure and Lust. Friday’s performance, at 7 p.m., will include a talkback with Farrington, director Marina McClure, and the actors, as well as a reception and champagne birthday toast to Wharton, who was born on Jan. 24, 1862.

“Since this is a work-in-progress, audience input is vital to the cast and crew, and they’re eagerly anticipating hearing from our audience,” says Abbie Wilson, The Mount’s Public Programs Coordinator, about Friday evening’s talkback. “This is a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into the theatrical creative process, hear more about the evolution of the script, and discuss what elements of Edith Wharton’s life and work inspired the piece, all over a glass of wine in [Wharton’s] own drawing room.”

Leisure & Lust Theater Performance at The Mount
2 Plunkett St., Lenox, MA
Opening Night with Talkback & Reception: Friday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m.
Additional Performances: Saturday, Jan. 28 at 11 a.m., 2 p.m. & 5 p.m.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 01/16/17 at 03:45 PM • Permalink

Review: ‘American Son’ At Barrington Stage Company

By Dan Shaw

Barrington Stage Company’s world premiere production of Christopher Demos-Brown’s “American Son” is meant to provoke discussion about race in America. For audience members like myself who arrive in Pittsfield with their white privilege, it’s difficult to analyze the play because any opinions about plot points, character development or an actor’s performance have the potential to seem laden with bias. I wouldn’t dare speculate to know what it’s like to be an African American in the audience. And that seems to be the point of “American Son”: Despite decades of progress since the civil rights movement began, racism remains embedded in our society and all conversations about race are potentially combustible.

Set in the wee hours of a present day Miami-Dade County police station (masterfully rendered by scenic designer Brian Prather with a full drop ceiling illuminated by institutional lighting) the play opens with a bourgeois African American woman in her 40s sitting alone. She is anxiously trying to reach her 18-year-old son, Jamal, on his cell phone and demanding that a young white police officer tell her if he is all right after she’s been told his car was in an “incident.” She is jittery, scared, angry. But should she express her rage so transparently to the officer she wants to help her get information about her son? Shouldn’t she be trying to sweet talk him instead? What would a white mother do? Would a white mother of a white son, who’s about to start his freshman year at West Point, even be in this situation? When the white officer tries to understand and appease her, she shoots back: Do you have any teenage black sons? Let’s skip the empathy tactics—you have no idea. Checkmate or stalemate?

Demos-Brown has written a one act treatise on the limitation of blacks’ and whites’ understanding each other. When Jamal’s white father, who works for the FBI, arrives at the police station, he gets more answers about his son’s whereabouts than his wife did. But his latent white privilege enrages his wife as well as the black police officer he recklessly challenges.

“American Son” is riveting, but that’s partly because you’re anticipating something more shocking and incendiary to happen, which it ultimately does. Tamara Tunie makes the role of Kendra Ellis-Connor, the frantic mother, entirely believable though her performance feels almost too naturalistic; she doesn’t own the stage as she might. As the young white police officer, Luke Smith comes across as a bit naïve for a cop in a big city like Miami; there are moments when he seems like he’d be more at home as the sidekick to Barney Fife on the ancient “Andy Griffith Show.” Michael Hayden, as the white FBI father Scott Connor, is tightly wound but the script has him react to events in a manner that does not quite seem entirely credible (but then I don’t have a child and can’t fully understand his predicament.) But Andre Ware as Lt. John Stokes takes command of the play when he finally arrives on stage. He convincingly captures the double bind that black police officers face today when confronted by young black men that they perceive to be threatening.

Barrington Stage Company commissioned this play knowing it would be mounted in Pittsfield, which has had more than its share of crime problems this spring. BSC has a long tradition of mounting shows that have contemporary relevance, and it’s fitting that BSC, which is committed to local audience engagement, will hold a symposium, “Race, Bias and Culture in Present-Day America,” on July 2 and 3. Directed by Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, “American Son” has sharp dialogue that makes you snap to attention. It grapples with one of the most urgent issues of our time and inevitably leads to unsettling after-theater conversations. Whether you’re white or black (or another minority group that faces racial, religious or ethnic profiling), “American Son” forces you to think deeply as good theater should. It’s 85 minutes of time well spent.

“American Son” (through July 9)
Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-8888

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/23/16 at 08:12 PM • Permalink

Karen Ziemba’s Star Turn In ‘Gypsy’ at Sharon Playhouse

By Dan Shaw

Mama Rose, the nervy and domineering stage mother, is one of the greatest roles in the American musical theater canon. It’s a part for a woman of a certain age and must be portrayed by a seasoned actress like the Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba, who received a Tony Award for “Contact” and Tony nominations for “Steel Pier” and “Never Gonna Dance.” The irony — or inherent logic — of Jules Stein’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Gypsy” is that the star-starved Rose (aka Madam Rose) gets to be the star, albeit tragically. There is madness to her method — ruthless, bone chilling and breathtaking. And it is poignant that an actress of Ziemba’s caliber is playing this part as a wannabe at the Sharon Playhouse, which is traditionally a launch pad for up-and-coming actors rather than a showcase for established stars.

While she may not have the box office draw for today’s celebrity-obsessed Broadway audiences, Ziemba is the undeniable reason why this production of “Gypsy” is so powerful and unforgettable.  Pushing her younger daughter, Dainty June (Julia Hemp), to be a star and dragging along her older daughter, Louise (Kyra Kennedy), Ziemba’s Rose is obviously treacherous and indomitable. Still, for much of the first act, the show is played as comedy. Rose puts her daughters — and the young children she adopts along the way as their backup dancers — in variations on the same ridiculous routine as she denies they’ve turned into adults. They are prisoners of her unbridled ambition. She is just as determined to hold onto her agent and suitor, Herbie (Rufus Collins), an obsession that escalates through numbers like “Small World” and “You’ll Never Get Away from Me.”  That she is also a fun-loving monster is evident in “Mr. Goldstone,” the endearingly manic charm song.  And even the daughters’ lament, “If Momma Was Married,” is a duet that is humorous and heartening because of Sondheim’s incomparable lyrics.

After June escapes her mother’s clutches and Rose turns her attention to making Louise a star, it’s certain this show will not have a conventional happy ending.  The intense, dangerous nature of Rose’s iron will is visceral as the curtain comes down on Act One after Ziemba belts out with spine-tingling gusto “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” the illusory show biz anthem.

Like all good stage actresses, Ziemba is a team player. But she is also a star and “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is rousing and unsettling and Ziemba leaves you begging for more at the intermission. But in Act Two, she has competition from the three actresses who play strippers in the riotous “You Gotta Get a Gimmick,” the show stopper featuring the brassy Carly Sakolove, the cheeky Sarah Cline and local favorite Emily Soell, another woman of a certain age who plays the past-her-prime Electra with pitch-perfect comic timing and finesse. Soell also gives a scene-stealing performance as the secretary to a powerful theatrical producer.

Since it’s fairly likely that everyone in the audience has seen “Gypsy” before, the evening’s suspense is whether or not Ziemba can bring down the house (following in the formidable footsteps of Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Tyne Daly) with “Rose’s Turn,” the aptly timed “11 o’clock number” that expresses all of Rose’s yearnings, disappointments and unrelenting perseverance.  Happily, it is more than worth the wait. It’s hard to imagine any actress delivering this cri de couer with more fury, frenzy and feeling. Rose may never be a genuine star, but Ziemba undeniably is.

Gypsy” at Sharon Playhouse (through July 3)
49 Amenia Road, Sharon, CT
(860) 364-7469

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/19/16 at 12:03 PM • Permalink

A New March Tradition: MASS MoCA’s High Mud Comedy Fest

By Amy Krzanik

Here comes MASS MoCA again, giving you something you didn’t know you needed—a comedy festival for the in-between months. The aptly titled High Mud Comedy Fest will run Friday, March 11 and Saturday, March 12, joining the museum’s roster of already popular music festivals: Solid Sound every other summer and FreshGrass each fall.

With curation help from television comedy writer (and MASS MoCA trustee) Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, The Carol Burnett Show), the fest will feature established comedians alongside regional favorites.

High Mud’s headliner, Tig Notaro, a hilarious and highly praised stand-up adored both by fans and fellow comedians, also is an actress known for her roles on The Sarah Silverman Program and the excellent Inside Amy Schumer where she doubles a writer. Notaro, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on July 30, 2012, addressed the issue four days later during a live performance at Largo in Los Angeles. The set has been described as “instantly legendary,” and Notaro was urged by comedian Louis C.K. to release the audio of the show online so more people could hear it.

High Mud headliner Tig Notaro.

Wilco fans may have caught Notaro at last year’s Solid Sound, says Sue Killam, MASS MoCA’s director of performing arts. “Rachel Chanoff and I both go to the Sundance Film Festival, and we saw Tig’s film and the performance by her last year. She’s hilarious, which is the most important, but also we love everything she stands for and who she is.”

Festival host Ophira Eisenberg is the host of NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” but locals may know her from her appearances at the Mount during the Literary Death Match and Speak Up! storytelling shows. Brooklyn- and Hollywood-based live wire Sean Patton, and writer, musician, actor, radio host and man-about-town Dave Hill round out the roster of national acts.

A handful of “Berkshire’s inspired” comedians who are from here, have ties to the region or have performed here in the past will bring the laughs post-mainstage, at late-night gigs at local venues including The Mohawk Tavern, Desperados and the Freight Yard Pub.

The late-night pub shows will extend the festival feeling, says Killam, as will Saturday’s stand-up workshop with Dave Hill and screening of Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip.

High Mud Comedy Fest at MASS MoCA
Friday, March 11 & Saturday, March 12
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams, MA
(413) 662-2111
Tickets: $32—$75

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 03/01/16 at 11:22 AM • Permalink