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At Daniel’s Art Party, Simon Rocks!

Ken Roht, choreographer-director-writer-performer and all-around theatrical auteur.

By Sharon Smullen

Ken Roht has escaped from Los Angeles. The avant-garde auteur of progressive theater has left the land of films and face-lifts to travel east. Lucky for us he landed in Great Barrington at Simon’s Rock.

Roht’s calling card is “Daniel’s Art Party” (known as DAP). The new festival runs from June 12 to July 1 in the early college’s eponymous Daniel Arts Center, whose director Sandy Cleary is an old friend — they both worked with late Iranian-American experimental theater visionary Reza Abdoh.

It’s the first time Simon’s Rock has produced original work outside the classroom, says Cleary. Costuming will be lavish, she promises — her mom runs Shakespeare & Company’s wardrobe department, after all.

DAP is a smorgasbord of seven separate events designed to engage the community as audience and participants. Tickets are modestly priced; with a $50 pass you can have it all.

Roht describes them as offerings “that give a flavor of where we’d like to go conceptually and artistically in this space.” His tastes range from slightly off-color “Orange Star” dinner theater to revivalist spiritual salvation for the creative soul. Say “Amen” to that, brothers and sisters…

He has made theater for 35 years, as dancer, director, choreographer, actor, writer — doing it all and doing it well. Ten years ago he wowed the crowds at Bard SummerScape’s voluptuous Spiegeltent, creating an alt-cabaret series with top-tier performers. This guy has an eye for talent, and he’s bringing plenty of it with him to the Rock. His DAP tribe includes established troupes, Broadway performers, arts students, farmers, firefighters, girl scouts and salsa dancers.

Top: Actress Lauren Elder and fiber artist/sculptor Huck Elling. Bottom: Moving Arts Exchange’s Ellen Gorman and Andrea Blacklow, and actor James Warwick.

No theater can contain Roht’s imagination — it spills into the hallways and out to the far reaches of the campus. The first event on the schedule invites audiences to explore the Daniel Arts Center with Sir Edward Elgar, played by Shakespeare & Company’s scion Martin Jason Asprey, on a surreal pop-art ballet tour based on the Victorian composer’s Enigma Variations. “He wrote fourteen, one for each of his dearest friends including his dog,” explains Cleary.

Andrea Goodman’s Cantilena Chamber Choir gets a workout under the Victor Borge-esque baton of Maestro Doolally, alter ego of Brit expat James Warwick. The choral music is so moving and powerful, Warwick says, “then I get up and ruin it. It’s a clown show with classical music, going from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Fiber artist Huck Elling’s kinda creepy animal masks become weird creatures skulking around the campus in an interactive scavenger hunt by Michael Counts, a crazy collision of technology and theater.

Hungry for more? “Orange Star Smasharoo!” is a country western musical dinner theater farce starring Broadway belter Lauren Elder and Victor Borge’s daughter Rikke. Eat dinner onstage while an over-the-top Wyoming family drama acts out around you.

Then there’s a Country Fair variety show, with cheese, pickles, a pie-eating contest and some adorable goats. Dominic Palumbo of Moon in the Pond Farm rustles up farmer friends for a harvest hoe-down, playing music till the cows come home.

On a more thoughtful note, local “Leatherheads” firefighters display their courage in a multimedia evening of powerful pictures and stories, with music newly composed by Julien Zotique.

On Sunday, worship at the altar of the Arts, courtesy of Obie-won Chris Wells. The Secret City Revival Show has celebrated creativity on both coasts for a decade with outrageous costumes, music, dance, poetry, you name it. Thanks to Roht, Daniel’s Art Party promises to do all that and more.

People don’t know who I am, says Roht. It’s safe to say that, after DAP, they will.

Daniel’s Art Party
June 12 to July 1, 2018
Daniel Arts Center, Bard College at Simon’s Rock
84 Alford Rd., Great Barrington, MA
Tickets: $10-$15, kids $5. All-Access Pass $50, kids $25.
(413) 528-7400

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Posted by Lisa Green on 06/06/18 at 12:11 PM • Permalink

The Shows Keep Going On at Mac-Haydn And Theater Barn

By Sharon Smullen

Two Columbia County theaters with milestone anniversaries this year are proof that summer stock is alive and kicking up its heels. They both have seasons that will appeal whether you’re drawn to musical theater, comedy or drama. We love that their spirit has not flagged one whit over their combined 85 years of show after show. Here’s how they’ve kept it going, and what’s on their stages this summer.

Mac-Haydn Theatre

“Saturday Night Fever,” 2017

Half a century after actress Lynne Haydn and the late writer Linda MacNish said “let’s put a show on right here,” the hot pink sign of the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY marks a classic summer stock company — 7 different productions plus 3 kids’ shows between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day, all of them musicals, from “Damn Yankees” to “Cabaret.”

It’s hard to imagine how these powerhouse plays can work on such a tiny stage, with seating on four sides — theater in the square, so to speak. But they do, in big-voiced productions filled with costume and color, with a tight band and cast that gives their all.

The actors who stage a new show every two weeks are mostly college aged and young professionals building resumes, with “jobbers” completing the roster. New talent emerges from regional tryouts and classic city casting calls. Some may be destined for greatness — after all, this is where Nathan Lane cut his teeth.

“Kids nowadays are focused, they want to do the work,” said Monica Wemitt, company manager and former Broadway actress who toured with Liza Minnelli and subbed for Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly.” In 1973, she crossed the street to see what was happening at her neighborhood Chatham theater. Today she anchors the production team and will play Miss Hannigan in “Annie.”

Haydn and MacNish met at the storied Barbizon Hotel for Women in NYC, and in 1969 decided to produce musical theater near MacNish’s hometown.

“They said, we’ve got a barn, let’s give our friends work,” Wemitt said.

John Saunders

Back then, they staged 8 shows in 8 weeks at a local fairground’s sheep barn, before moving in 1978 to the present 350-seat location.

Artistic Director John Saunders arrived in 2000, first acting, then directing. Recognizing his talents, Haydn handed him the reins in 2012.

Saunders has seen audiences evolve to include more baby boomers.

“It’s unpretentious and fun,” he said. “On any night you’ll see from a 9 year old to 85 year old.”

He is taking more risks, staging new work like ABBA-fest “Mamma Mia!” alongside standards. They draw new faces, he finds, “and they come out loving it!”

These audiences keep coming back. For 50 years and counting…

The Theater Barn

In New Lebanon, New York, Joan Phelps is celebrating 35 years staging summer plays at The Theater Barn, and 60 years married to husband and helpmate Abe.

When the last of three kids left home in 1984, Phelps wondered what to do next. Always an arts fan, she told Abe, “The house is paid for, let’s mortgage it and build a theater.”

Together they turned an old barn on the town’s main drag into a 95-seat stage.

Phelps sought guidance from every theater professional she knew; her child-actor son Allen’s director thought she was crazy. A lover of musicals, she opened with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Late Berkshire reviewer Milton Bass liked the show, but hated the heat. So Phelps bought two big air conditioners. She knew if the audience wasn’t comfortable, they wouldn’t come back. Her strategy worked.

In 1989 they built a bigger theater with 136 seats just down the road, where they remain today. With low risers overlooking an up-close-and-personal stage mere inches high, she finds the intimacy attracts second homeowners, tourists and also locals.

“The Cocktail Hour,” 2016

It’s a family affair. Son Allen handles the technical side and directs a show, while Abe is set designer, builder, handyman and janitor.

Some 50 actors and crew cycle through each season, mostly from NYC where auditions draw hundreds. They also hire local crew and talent including John Trainor, company veteran since 1989, and area favorite Mark “Monk” Schane-Lydon.

Phelps sticks to her proven formula. She opens with a farce, then an Agatha Christie murder mystery. “People love them, she was an amazing writer,” Phelps said.

Three musicals follow, small to large. Phelps likes to mix it up, this year teaming the charming “She Loves Me” based on “The Shop Around the Corner” with Bill Finn’s deliciously barbed “The 25th Annual Putnam Spelling Bee” and the country western “Pump Boys and Dinettes.” The season ends with a comedy for the post-Labor Day crowd.

“Summer is a time to have fun,” Phelps explained.

Summer stock makes that easy. (And, happy anniversaries, Mac-Haydn and Theater Barn!)

Mac-Haydn Theatre
1925 NY-203, Chatham, NY
(518) 392-9292

The Theater Barn
654 Route 20, New Lebanon, NY
(518) 794-8989

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Posted by Lisa Green on 05/22/18 at 09:44 PM • Permalink

Guns In America: A Discussion Starts With Dance And Theater

“Rob Day” photo by Yi-Chun Wu

By Lisa Green

MSNBC and Fox News don’t have a lock on discourse about guns. At Performance Spaces for the 21st Century (PS21) in Chatham, New York, a dancer playing the part of a 9 mm pistol and a male actor voicing the experiences of the female playwright will attempt to open our eyes — and hearts — to an issue that doesn’t, the artists say, have to divide us.

Guns in America, two weekends of performances and workshops centering on the issue of guns, will be presented by PS21 April 21-22 and April 27-28 as part of its 2018 spring performances season (the first in its new black box theater). Actor Chris Smith will perform a one-person play by playwright E.M. Lewis that explores the role guns play in our lives. The Jamal Jackson Dance Company will take on the theme with a new work, “Rob Day.” Both Jackson and Smith will also be giving workshops for community members where they will have the opportunity share their experiences and perceptions within a creative context.

Although the current zeitgeist might have prompted PS21’s programmers to intentionally choose this theme, it came about organically, said Susan Davies, the center’s administrative director.

“It started as the Actors’ Ensemble’s idea. We reached out to them when we were planning the season, and they suggested we present their work, ‘The Gun Show.’ At the same time, we had been wanting to bring the Jamal Jackson Company back — he comes every summer — and he had a piece about guns and the part they play in our society.”

Chris Smith

On Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, Chris Smith, under the direction of Robert Jordan, will bring “The Gun Show” to the Hudson Valley. It has been performed elsewhere, but, as Smith said, it has become more relevant, not less. The piece reflects Lewis, the writer’s, experience; she grew up in rural Oregon around guns as a way of life. As she matured, she became conflicted about firearms and tells the story of America’s relationship with them through the prism of her own personal experiences.

“The idea is to get people talking and listening to each other,” Smith said. “It’s a yes or no question right now. You’re either for taking all the guns away, or for everybody having guns. It’s so polarizing. She’s saying ‘I wish we could talk to each other about it.’ And the voice that’s coming out is female, but a male is playing her, which speaks to our common humanity.”

At the Saturday workshop, Smith will use acting techniques to get people talking about their own stories and perceptions about guns. PS21 invites participants of all political beliefs, ages, races, gender identification and levels of acting experience to take part in the workshop.

Jamal Jackson

The Jamal Jackson Dance Company will take over the second weekend with “Rob Day.” The title is a letter conversion for a serial number, and is told through the story of the protagonist, a 9mm pistol, played by a female dancer. The gun travels — from the hands of a child soldier to the home of a West Virginia family that carefully locks the gun in a closet — showing different sides of the issue. The work is text heavy, with spoken words as part of the score. There is text from Elizabeth Warren’s filibuster for gun reform, and a recording of a firearm-owning family having a dinner conversation.

“What was most challenging for my company and me is that we all come from a liberal background,” Jackson admitted. “But we didn’t want to tell a random liberal story. We’re trying to show different connections to firearms.”

The evening’s program will also include the company’s “Temple Burn It Down.”

Jackson’s workshop will demonstrate how some of the movement was generated for the piece, and participants will learn to create movement in response to the social and psychic impact of guns.

Davies said that while the program was designed to be an intergenerational series, they’re hoping that teenagers will be able to attend Guns in America performances and take part in the workshops. “It could be a helpful way for them to express what they’re thinking and feeling,” she said.

It could help the rest of us, too.

Guns In America — A series of performances and workshops on guns
April 20-22 and April 27-28
PS21 
2980 Rt. 66, Chatham, NY
(518) 392-6121

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Posted by Lisa Green on 04/08/18 at 04:52 PM • Permalink

Live In The Landscape: “Performing Olana”

By Amy Krzanik

Take two professional theater directors, add one award-winning playwright, one Hudson River School painter’s visually jaw-dropping home and a person who’s keen to share it with others, and what do you get? A unique, immersive event, but one that can only be experienced for a limited time. Olana, the estate of the late painter Frederic Edwin Church, will host Performing Olana from Friday, Sept. 22 through Sunday, Sept. 24. The play was written by nationally recognized stage and screenwriter Darrah Cloud, and is being co-directed by Jeffrey Mousseau and Paul Ricciardi of the Ancram Opera House with help from The Olana Partnership’s Director of Education Amy Hufnagel. Created to be performed on the Olana grounds, the work of historical fiction draws from Church’s paintings, letters and family life, and tackles the big question of how to live artfully in rapidly changing and polarized times.

Audiences will move through the landscape with the actors, traversing the site’s orchard, barns, lake, meadows and forest. The idea is that each stop, each vignette, will resemble a living painting.

The questions posed by the play — “How do you live an artful life?” and “How do you create meaningful experiences for yourself?” — are ones Hufnagel believes Church was trying to answer during his time at Olana. “I contend that a lot of us ask that question,” she says, “and certainly people who have chosen to live in the Hudson Valley.”

Playwright Darrah Cloud, known for her work documenting women’s lives, will focus in on Frederic Church’s wife, Isabel, and her mother for this piece, telling stories that never make it into Olana’s normal property tours. “With a theater project, we can really go into untold narratives,” says Hufnagel. “A site like Olana should never have one story, one official house tour. We should always be adding voices, handing interpretation over to other people. My experience to date has been that amazing things happen when you do that.”

Performing Olana: Frederic Church living his art
Olana State Historic Site, 5720 State Rt. 9G, Hudson, NY
(518) 828-0135
Friday, Sept. 22 at 6 p.m.; Saturday, Sept. 23 & Sunday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.
Member: $10, Non-Member: $15, Family (up to 5): $40. 
Pre-registration is recommended, as only 30 people will be allowed at each performance.

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Posted by Amy Krzanik on 09/12/17 at 08:30 AM • Permalink

Review: A Welcome Revival Of “Company” At Barrington Stage

By Dan Shaw

As I sat spellbound at Barrington Stage Company’s sassy production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company,” a kaleidoscope of vintage pop-culture images from that year shimmered in my brain. I flashbacked to television shows (“Laugh-In” and “Love American Style”), movies (“Diary of a Mad Housewife” and “The Boys in the Band”), and Tom Wolfe’s landmark New York magazine article “Radical Chic” about the party Felicia and Leonard Bernstein hosted for the Black Panthers.

Sondheim was at the Bernsteins’ party four months before “Company” opened on Broadway, and his musical is a contemporaneous dispatch from the frontlines of the Upper East Side when the denizens of Park Avenue started wearing bellbottoms and smoking grass. Director Julianne Boyd’s production — with right-on costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti — has a verisimilitude that captures the achingly groovy haute bourgeoisie of Manhattan at the tail end of the Mad Men era. But it’s misleading to describe “Company” as a period piece, because it’s a timeless take on the vicissitudes of love, marriage, loneliness, and friendship.

The scenario is simple: Five married couples are concerned that their 35-year-old bachelor friend Bobby (Aaron Tveit) will never settle down and know the unique pleasures of wedded bliss — nor the exquisite pain that only someone who “loves you too much” can arouse. Is Bobby the smart one who can ride forever the merry-go-round of the sexual revolution and bypass the heartbreak that befalls even the happiest husbands and wives? As one of his friends observes: “You know, a person like Bob doesn’t have the good things and he doesn’t have the bad things, but he doesn’t have the good things either.”

The essence of “Company” is its bipolarity, and Boyd has teased out all the pathos and humor not only in the musical numbers but also in the comedic sketches by book writer George Furth that provide a thin narrative to set up the songs.

“Company” is easy to love but not so easy to produce because of the complexity of the music and vocal arrangements. Boyd and musical director Dan Pardo have done a mostly excellent job of getting the cast to articulate the lyrics so you can appreciate every clever nugget (with the exception of the daffy “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” that is difficult to fully appreciate if you do not already know the words). Other numbers are pure poetry delivered with the precision of ballistic missiles. It’s impossible not to have chills when Bobby asks one of the husbands if he’s ever sorry he got married, and he’s told: “You’re always sorry/You’re always grateful/You hold her thinking, ‘I’m not alone’/You’re still alone.”

The best songs — and performances — in “Company” belong to the women. Lauren Marcus as Amy stops the show as the manic bride who isn’t “Getting Married Today.” Mara Davi as the endearingly vapid stewardess April is loony and lovely in the “Barcelona” duet with Bobby. And raise a glass to Ellen Harvey as Joanne, who has the daunting challenge of performing the 11 o’clock number, “Ladies Who Lunch,” which Elaine Stritch introduced in the original Broadway production and made her anthem for the next 44 years. Harvey, who has a commanding stage presence that brings to mind Lauren Bacall, deservedly gets a roar of applause for making “Ladies Who Lunch” her very own.

Tveit faces the challenge of any actor who plays Bobby. While his friends continually profess their love for him, it’s not actually clear what’s so endearing about Bobby besides his being a reliable third wheel who helps keep his friends’ marriages intact; in return, these married couples keep Bobby company so he doesn’t have to settle down. (“One’s impossible, two is dreary/Three is company safe and cheery,” he sings.) In the finale, Tveit reveals that Bobby’s been paying attention to his friends, and he delivers “Being Alive” with the gusto of a pilgrim who has finally glimpsed the promised land.

On a summer evening in the Berkshires, Barrington Stage’s production of “Company” is the best possible company. 

“Company”
Barrington Stage Company (through Sept. 10)
30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA
(413) 236-8888

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Posted by Lisa Green on 08/16/17 at 12:44 PM • Permalink