Monday, June 29, 2009

Paris 1890 Unlaced!
at Ventfort Hall, Lenox, MA

Paris 1890 Unlaced!
Kevin Sprague photos.

There was a full house for the Opening Night performance and Reception for Paris, 1890, Unlaced at Ventfrot Hall Mansion and Museum of the Gilded Age. The play was commissioned by Ventfort Hall from playwright and author Juliane Hiam and features the marvelous Anne Undeland in multiple roles. Sarah Taylor, formerly of Shakespeare & Company, directed. For more information please go to Most of the wonderful photos are by Kevin Sprague, who seems to have become the documentarian for theatrical history in the Berkshires.

Juliane Hiam who wrote the play was able to travel back in time and conjures up the memories of a young courtesan from the era when the Eiffel Tower was built. It was the period in which Monet, Renoir, Degas and Toulouse-Latrec walked the streets of Paris and frequented the nightclubs. 1890 was the year that Debussy composed Claire de Lune. It was a very different time, one of sexual repression but in Paris, things were already becoming more modern. The 1890's are also when the first playwrights began writing realistic theatre, the plays of Ibsen, Shaw, and yes, even Feydeau that are the foundation of modern theatre.

Undeland in performance.

Anne Undeland captures the Belle Époque in her characterizations of the four or five women we meet in the play. They were known as The Grand Horizontals. I can not help but wonder if the customers were called The Grand Verticals. Or possible the Petite Perpendiculars.

In mid-nineteenth-century France, frigid and frail was fashionable. The perfect woman was timid, submissive, and lacked "sexual feeling of any kind." Just when it seemed that it was possible to keep women quiet and under control, the Grand Horizontals appeared. These famous courtesans wreaked havoc in Paris for almost twenty years. They were relentless hedonists in the true sense of the word: they loved pleasure, money, and mastered the art of seduction.

Each afternoon at 5pm they rolled through town in custom carriages while mobs of flustered onlookers watched from the sidelines. The tabloids recorded their adventures in details: "masked balls, dinners of peacock galantine, and preposterous stunts." From The Fact Box Blog

The lacing and unlacing was a turn-on.

At the performance I attended, there were five women for every man there, perhaps to learn a few tricks, or for pure historical background. It did seem to me that in delivering her performance, Anne Undeland engaged her audience directly, fixing her gaze on each and every person seated there, drawing them in - seducing them, even - into her world of pleasure. Many members of the audience had smiles on their faces throughout the show. As much as it is a testament to the power of a good performance, it also speaks volumes about seduction and sexual attraction.

The play keeps moving thanks to the swift pacing of director Sarah Taylor, and brings to light an intriguing mystery featuring five women – all performed by Ms. Undeland: “Juliette,” a contemporary Gilded Age Museum director, “La Crème,” an infamous Parisian courtesan; “Hettie,” the wife of La Crème’s benefactor; “La Chapellier,” a very talkative milliner; “Gertrude,” an American innocent abroad; and finally, “The Virgin,” a flash-in-the-pan celebrity in the Montmarte nightclub scene – singer, dancer, aspiring courtesan. In Citizen Kane style, as we hear from each successive character, we come a little closer to solving the mystery around which the entire play is constructed.

Ventfort Hall is one of 75 Gilded Age mansions built in Lenox.

My friend and colleague Gail Burns has written a marvelous review and overview of this play at Gail Sez. It's a historic and fun look at this from the woman's perspective. Paris 1890 Unlaced plays until September 6, 2009 and if you are the least bit interested in this period of history, or in how incredibly magnetic these courtesans were, you should not miss this play. It runs just over an hour without any intermission, and tickets are $22.00. Yes, it is slightly risqué.

Nicole Kidman played a courtesin in Moulin Rouge.

You can reserve tickets by calling 413.637.3206 or visiting Ventfort Hall is located at 104 Walker Street, Lenox, MA 01240 but keep alert, they are set back in the woods, and their street entrance sign is tiny.

The playing space is intimate.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On Cellphones, Blackberries, Theatre Etiquette

Patti LuPone recently reprimanded yet another inconsiderate audience member publicly, and the discussion has raged on. But this is the best summary of the issue that I have seen.

If the President of the United States can manage to make it through a 2-hour theatre-going experience without disturbing his fellow theatregoers with his much-beloved Blackberry, then *anyone* should be able to do the same.

That said, it should have been the house management enforcing the ban. That same blue light that annoys nearby patrons should be readily visible to any relatively attentive ushers.

In the Berkshires, this is not much of a problem since people seem to be a bit more civilized, and the volunteer ushers are sitting right there, with the audience.

Great Ticket Deal from
Williamstown Theatre Festival

Judith Light and James Waterston in Children.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

For five days only, today until June 30, you can buy TWO tickets to the Williamstown Theatre Festival for just $55.00, that's an amazing $27.50 each for what is arguably the best live theatre outside of Broadway. This offer is being made to the Berkshire Community to help us share in their Fifty Fifth Anniversary Season. Regular ticket prices are $50-59 for Children on the Main Stage and $30-35 for Knickerbocker at the Nikos.

The offer is only valid for performances of Children and Knickerbocker both of which open soon.

by A.R. Gurney
directed by John Tillinger
July 1-12

Tony-nominee John Tillinger directs this timeless Gurney classic set in a large summer home on an island off the coast of Massachusetts. When an estranged brother’s return and a mother’s impending marriage recall painful memories of their father’s death, seething arguments reignite one family’s struggle with its tragic past and uncertain future.

With Mary Bacon, Katie Finneran, Judith Light, James Waterston

by Jonathan Marc Sherman
directed by Nicholas Martin
July 8-19

Are you ready? The question looms over Jerry as the months tick by and his unborn son grows from the size of a peach to the size of, well, a baby. As the birth date creeps ever nearer, will the advice, encouragement and warnings of friends and family make Jerry more or less ready? The awe and terror of becoming a new parent shines through Sherman’s newest play as he examines whether one can ever truly be ready for parenthood. Artistic Director Nicholas Martin directs this world premiere.

With Brooks Ashmanskas, Peter Dinklage, Bob Dishy, Rightor Doyle, Annie Parisse, Susan Pourfar, Reg Rogers.

WTF Artistic Director Nicholas Martin.

There is a new and exclusive interview of Nicholas Martin in Berkshire Fine Arts which reveals that his directorial and artistic magic touch is still a much sought after commodity on Broadway, despite the stroke he suffered last fall. Theatre people never slow down, they just soldier on.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival box office is open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sundays 11 to 4, and closed on Mondays. Offer valid through June 30, 2009 only for any performance of CHILDREN or KNICKERBOCKER. Tickets must be purchased either by phone at 413.597.3400 or in person at the box office using the code “55–2009.” This offer cannot be combined with any other discount and is not applicable to previously purchased tickets. Tickets and seating subject to availability. Standard box office policies apply. All sales are final. No refunds or exchanges.


Monday, June 22, 2009

CAROUSEL - A Review in Photos and Words

The Company. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Looking through the photographs Kevin Sprague took of Carousel, now at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, you are immediately drawn to the story behind them. Sprague, perhaps the most gifted of the Berkshire's many fine photographers has outdone himself on this show, masterfully bringing the art and craft of photography together in a series of unforgettable images. We are pleased to present them here, and you can click on those you like to get a larger, more detailed image.

Aaron Ramey and Christopher Innvar as Billy and Jigger, up to no good. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Carousel opens the 15th Anniversary Season of Barrington Stage Company, and artistic director Julianne Boyd has developed a well deserved reputation as the master of the musical. This time out, however, there are several masters at work since musicals are always a collaborative effort. The other key artists are of course, Richard Rodgers who wrote the music, and Oscar Hammerstein Ii who wrote both the lyrics and the book of the show. Carousel was first presented in 1945 and has been performed countless times since. It is a classic. It followed their first venture, Oklahoma! which was born in 1943.

Kristen Paulicelli and Al Blackstone, Principal Dancers. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Both Carousel and Oklahoma included ballet sequences, a stunning innovation in their day, created by the legendary Agnes De Mille. Boyd retains this wonderful element which successfully integrated dance into the musical's plot. Instead of functioning as an interlude or divertissement, the ballet provided key insights into the heroine's emotional state. The Barrington version is not an exact duplicate of the De Mille, but close, and is staged by Joshua Bergasse. Working with principal dancers Kristen Paulicelli and Al Blackstone, the dance sequences steal the show, creating moments of both rare beauty and deep emotion. Bravi.

Kristen Pauliceli captured the spirit of Louise perfectly, as did photographer Kevin Sprague.

Patricia Noonan as Julie Jordan and Aaron Ramey as Billy Bigelow are the innocent girl and carnival barker whose tentative relationship is the hinge upon which their fortunes swing. Their passionate, ill-fated love affair – set against a backdrop of such glorious songs as “If I Loved You,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” is the heart of this masterwork, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s personal favorite. Contrasting the two lovers, R & H created the roles of Carrie Pipperidge and Enoch Snow to be the more "normal" couple, leading happy, productive lives with a gaggle of children in contrast to the frustrating relationship of Julie and Billie and their unplanned daughter.

Sara Jean Ford and Patricia Noonan. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Carousel is based on Liliom by Ferenc Molnar, though transferred to the New England seacoast. The musical is considered the first to have blended the dialog and music into a seamless whole, the classic example being the song, "If I Loved You." It was also an early example of how R & H were able to get people who just met to sing love songs to each other through the use of the conditional tense, as in "IF I loved you" .

Five of the Snow Drop Kids line up for papa. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Like its original story, Carousel is written with imaginative daring, an uncanny blending of naturalism and fantasy, humor and pathos, tenderness and tragedy into a single dramatic structure. Every dramatic turn is as closely matched to the next as pearls on a string.

Aaron Ramey and Patricia Noonan play the ill fated lovers. Kevin Sprague photo.

The tragic lives of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan should be some sort of lesson in the values of good and evil, but in the end Billy ends up in an act two Heaven that his own imagination dreamed up in act one. The only difference between a bully, one who would hit his own greatest love, and the saint, the one who would allow his children to pick on other innocent children, is the supposed moral superiority society gives the lesser transgressor.

Naughty, naughty. Christopher Innvar tricks Sara Jean Ford into knoodling. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Patricia Noonan and Aaron Ramey had strong pleasing voices (if annoyingly over-amplified, a Barrington tradition) but the surprise singers of the evening were Sara Jean Ford and Todd Buonopane who were simply stunning. Another superb standout was Teri Ralston as Nettie Flowler, owner of the Clam Shack whose authoritative voice dominated the proceedings whenever she was on stage.

Teri Ralston and Patricia Noonan as Nettie and Julie during a difficult moment. Kevin Sprague Photo.

The direction by Julianne Boyd kept things moving at a fast clip, with scene changes that were close to seamless. The crew on the rigging, however, needs a little more practice to make the rise and fall of drops more organic and less herky-jerky.

Frisky boys. Al Blackstone, Neil O'Brien, Ronnie Nelson, and Daniel Kermidas. Kevin Sprague Photo.

The music was provided by twin pianos, under music director Darren Cohen. This cut in the pit band was necessitated by budget considerations - 8-12 musicians in the pit can be a very large expense. I am sure this pained Julianne Boyd more than us. Yet with a score as luscious as this one, it was very sorely missed. Maybe it was the constant rain and shifting weather but the two instruments were ever so slightly out of tune with each other. And I mean beyond the usual tinny upper two octaves which are notoriously shrill on upright/spinet pianos. Will some music loving member of the audience please find this wonderful company decent pianos, maybe a baby grand or two?

Edmund Bagnell, whose violin playing was the surprise of the evening.

But wait. There's good news here, too. The austerity of the music budget was ameliorated to some degree by the presence of Edmund Bagnell who played Enoch Snow, Jr, and doubled on the violin. For one scene his addition of the live violin raised the music from earth to heaven, and simply delighted many in the audience. During the applause following that scene I heard my neighbors happily commenting on the unexpected addition, and in another we were treated, briefly, to the addition of a couple of rhythm instruments. Very clever. Who knows, if Julianne keeps this up, we may end up with a one of those avant garde musicals in which the actors play all the instruments next season. It's already been done elsewhere with Sweeney Todd and Company.

The Company. Kevin Sprague Photo.

One final note. Perhaps, for one performance of these musicals, an unamplified performance could be scheduled so that those of us brought up on acoustic theatre, not amplified, can return to the golden days of the pre-1960's when technique was replaced by technology. It would reveal who the good singers really are, and aren't.

Still, my personal preferences aside, this show gets my recommendation. It is a beautiful production that is well sung, nicely acted, and offers a ballet sequence that will melt even the iciest hearts. The set and costumes are pretty nifty too. Go and enjoy. This is a rare treat.

The Company. Kevin Sprague Photo.

Carousel is at Barrington Stage, 30 Union Street, Pittsfield. Showtimes are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7pm, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Wednesday and Friday matinees at 2pm, and Sunday at 5pm. As part of its 15th Anniversary Season, BSC makes 15 tickets available for every performance at $15. Tickets can be purchased ahead at the box office, by calling 413-236-8888 or visiting

Monday, June 15, 2009

Playwrights say the darndest things - Quotable Kushner

Tony Kushner, the playwright.

Tony Kushner, who wrote Angels in America, is one of our most fascinating playwrights and totally fearless in what he says.

"For all the hyperbole that greeted President Obama’s nomination of Broadway impresario Rocco Landesman to chair the endowment — “potentially the best news the arts community in the United States has had since the birth of Walt Whitman,” playwright Tony Kushner said — neither the appointment nor the $50 million in stimulus money the president is steering the endowment’s way is likely to bring about a change in its culture."
Quoted in the The National Review

"I was excited to see a bus go by a couple of months ago when I first got to Minneapolis and the only words you could make out as the bus went by were 'homosexual' and 'socialism,'" Kushner says, adding that the first thing he did when he saw it was call his husband back home in New York City."
Quoted by CNN

"When Tony Kushner agreed to premiere a new play at the Guthrie Theater, the artistic director wanted to know what it would be called. Kushner responded with a mouthful of a title that had been knocking around in his head for more than a decade: "The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures." Kushner explained: "Joe Dowling needed a title, and I figured well, I can make this play about absolutely anything and somehow or another, that title will carry it,"
Reported in Broadway World

"It's becoming harder and harder for people to make a living if they try to make it purely from writing plays," he says. "Most playwrights do what I do - screenplays, lectures, teach - to supplement their income."
Greensboro, NC News Record

Harper Pitt: In my church we don't believe in homosexuals.
Prior: In my church we don't believe in Mormons. (From Angels in America)

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Berkshire Theatre Openings for Summer 2009

It's going to be another whirlwind summer for those of us who love the theatre and cabaret, and here's a list of the significant openings that are on our calendar. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are the ones we plan to attend and either review or do a special preview in Berkshire Fine Arts or here. Also included are several quasi-theatrical events that may also be of interest to you.

JUNE 2009

13 Pinters Mirror at Shakespeare and Company
13 Mandy Patinkin at the Colonial Theatre*
14 Freud's Last Session at Barrington Stage Company*
17 Golda's Balcony at Shakespeare & Company
20 Toad of Toad Hall at Shakespeare & Company
20 Broadway by the Year at Berkshire Theatre Festival*
21 Carousel at Barrington Stage Company*
27 Hamlet at Shakespeare & Company
30 PDQ Bach at the Colonial Theatre* (Preview-Interview with Prof. Peter Schickele)

JULY 2009

1 Dov and Ali at Chester Theatre Company
2 Children at Williamstown Theatre Festival
2 Amanda McBroom at Barrington Stage Company
4 The Einstein Project at Berkshire Theatre Festival*
5 Othello at Shakespeare & Company
6 Shirley Jones at Barrington Stage Company
9 Knickerbocker at Williamstown Theatre Festival
11 Candide at Berkshire Theatre Festival*
11 Bebe Neuwirth at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
12 Under the Lintel Tree at Barrington Stage Company*
15 Love Song at Chester Theatre Company
16 True West at Williamstown Theatre Festival
16 Berkshire Fringe opens at Simon's Rock
18 Measure for Measure at Shakespeare & Company*
19 Sleuth at Barrington Stage Company
23 What is the Cause of Thunder at Williamstown Theatre Festival
25 The Prisoner of Second Avenue at Berkshire Theatre Festival*
29 Railroad Bill at Chester Theatre Company
30 Torch Bearers at Wiliamstown Theatre Festival
31 Twelfth Night at Shakespeare & Company*
31 Bill Nelson's All Male Review at Barrington Stage Company


1 Devil's Advocate at Shakespeare & Company
4 Steve Ross - "Live at the Algonquin" at the Colonial Theatre
5 Camelot at Goodspeed Opera (Connecticut)* (Preview-Interview with Rob Ruggiero, director)
6 Caroline in Jersey at Williamstown Theatre Festival
7 The Longing and The Short of It - Daniel Mate Songs
8 A Dreamer Examines His Pillow at Shakespeare & Company*
9 A Streetcar Named Desire at Barrington Stage Company*
12 A Body of Water at Chester Theatre Company
13 Quartermaine's Terms at Williamstown Theatre Festival
14 Ghosts at Berkshire Theatre Festival *(Preview-Interview with Randy Harrison)
17 Andrea Marcovicci at the Colonial Theatre*
20 I'll be Damned at Barrington Stage Company*
22 Sick at Berkshire Theatre Festival*
23 White People at Shakespeare & Comapny

The dates above are the official opening hight dates, and in most cases there are additional performances before and after the one given. Contact the theatre for specific information.

Barrington Stage Company
(Berkshire Fringe Site not yet updated)
Berkshire Theatre Festival
Chester Theatre Company
The Colonial Theatre (turn your sound down first)
Goodspeed Musicals
Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
Shakespeare & Company
Williamstown Theatre Festival

For details on what is playing right now, always check the current preview/guide story on the home page of Berkshire Fine Arts. For information on other theatres not listed here, including many well beyond the Berkshires, you will find that Gail Sez is an invaluable resource, too.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Thank you. Anthony Amato, for Introducing me to Opera

The crowd arrives for the final performance.

After 61 years of making opera available and affordable to all the people, Anthony Amato, now 88, presided over the last performance of his company, Amato Opera, in his little building in the Bowery of lower Manhattan. His lifelong quest to showcase rising opera singers and present Grand Opera in a miniscule 130 seat space has come to its end. He deserves my applause, and tears of sadness that such a simple operation has reached its conclusion. Without Amato, I would have never found the joys of opera.

The final curtain call.

While I was still attending High School, I used to sneak out of the house and venture into Manhattan on the Long Island Railroad for long weekend days and nights of Radio City Music Hall, the old Roxy Theatre, half price tickets to Broadway shows via the Stubs promotion, and standing room at the Met when it was on 39th Street. Most tickets were a buck or so, though even standing room at the old Met was more than my meager lawn-mowing and caddying money could support. When I discovered Amato, back when he was in even smaller quarters on Bleecker Street, it was a voluntary contribution that got me in, and some kid throwing two bits into the basket didn't bother them in the least. That is why they were there.

Amato with his beloved Sally he loved dearly.

And, oh, the operas I heard! Mostly Verdi and Mozart, but once in a while some of the others like Bizet's Carmen, simply produced and gloriously sung. I can still close my eyes and see Amato waggling his baton at the twin pianos that were his orchestra for many years. In recent years, this has been supplanted by synthesizers and woodwinds and whatever other players he could recruit.

Amato's La Boheme with supertitles.

There is a collection of wonderful, evocative photographs on photographer and fellow blogger Stefan Falke's Eye site which I urge you to view. If you ever dropped by their building at 319 Bowery, his images will bring back that experience. And they are wonderful images as well.

But don't think we have heard the last of Amato. Following the final performance on May 31, he promised that we would be hearing from him again. He has plans to establish a scholarship program for opera singers, conductors and directors. His life's work continues.

Thank you, Anthony. Mille grazie.