LENOX, Mass. — The Boston Symphony Orchestra has packed up its bassoons and cellos and headed back to Boston, leaving the Tanglewood stage to "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" and the Pops. And many of the summer theatrical sensations from “The Merchant of Venice,” to the “Pirates of Penzance” have wrapped up.
But don’t despair, o ye vultures of culture. Shakespeare & Company and Barrington Stage Company are still going strong so there’s still some fine theater if you’re looking for a final fling before the fall. And with naked people at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown and, much more shockingly, abstract art at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Labor Day weekend still beckons out west.
Here are four plays we caught up with last week:
“Or,” | Shakespeare & Company mainstage, through Sept. 4
Like many Shakespeare companies across the country, the Lenox troupe is doing less Shakespeare and more Company. Over the years, though, S&C has surrounded the Bard with kissing cousins and Aphra Behn is certainly one of them.
She is generally regarded as the first female playwright and if you haven’t heard of her it’s more because there isn’t a huge market for Restoration comedy these days. Behn is the subject, not the playwright, of “Or,” which takes its name from the penchant of classic playwrights doubling down on their titles (“Twelfth Night or What You Will”).
Here it symbolizes an embrace of theatrical ambiguity, though Liz Duffy Adams’ play is more an embrace of theatrical fun. Two of S&C’s great veterans, Tod Randolph as Behn and Allyn Burrows in three roles, including Charles II, are joined by the more youthful Nehassaiu deGannes as actress Nell Gwynne and two other women.
The trio are a total delight, reveling in Behn’s bawdy ménage a trois (or maybe quatre). Randolph’s performance reminds you of her winning turns as Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton in the past (back when the company was at the Mount) while the other two turn on a dime in their roles.
There are crowd-pleasing entrances and exits, a thoroughly successful wedding of past and present themes and performance styles, and at all times reminders of what makes theater, and this company, so special.
Burrows, now the artistic director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston, also reminds you of what made the glory days of the company so glorious. With S&C looking for a new artistic director after the turmoil of the last few years, you can’t help but wonder about whether the searchers have an eye on Burrows.
“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” | Shakespeare & Company mainstage, through Sept. 4
Not that there are any flies on acting interim director Jonathan Croy, at least when it comes to directing. He’s fashioned a charming production out of Shakespeare’s early comedy, one that presages a lot of tropes to come in later plays like “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Twelfth Night” and even many of the tragedies.
Still, it’s the work of a playwright who hadn’t put it all together and it can use all the goosing that Croy gives it from a flying fish to Ella, a scene-stealing real dog. Oh, and the actors. They mostly show what’s special about the company’s Shakespearean production values.
Tamara Hickey, Michael Fuchs and John Hadden as Launce have a ball in their roles. Hadden's character is the owner of the dog Crab and Hadden is the owner of Ella. He sometimes looks like he wishes he had listened to W.C. Fields’ advice about working with animals and children as Ella is usually more interested in the doting audience than in Shakespearean plot development.
Perhaps the audience is, too, but maybe one eventually leads to the other. Shakespeare & Company has been one of the great bridge builders to the Bard and Ella only helps the cause. As does Jason Asprey, who’s more than up to Speed, the comic servant to Valentine, one of the main characters. Valentine is in love with Sylvia and bromantically involved with Proteus. The latter is all eyes for Julia until he espies Sylvia and then it’s so much for loyalty to either Julia or Valentine.
For those who know Asprey from “Hamlet” or “Julius Caesar,” be advised that he’s a great comedic actor and is as much a crowd favorite in this production as Ella, and that’s saying something. He’s also a great bridge builder himself. When he sits next to a young girl in the front row and complains to her about what’s happening onstage he’s probably made a Shakespearean convert for life.
Kate Abbruzzese and Cloteal L. Horne are a dynamic duo as the two female leads; alas, not so Ryan Winkles and Thomas Brazzle as an understated Valentine and over-italicized Proteus. Winkles doesn’t get to show off his excellent comedic moves, though Brazzle does bring the house down with a disco-rap infused ode to Sylvia.
And the four lovers are excellent in the final scene, imaginatively and courageously staged by Croy. Even Ella couldn’t steal that confrontation among the principals.
“Sotto Voce” | Shakespeare & Company, through Sept. 11
Nilo Cruz is not an easy playwright to stage. I was underwhelmed by SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics,” as was my WBUR colleague Louise Kennedy. I was equally unmoved by this production of his more recent play, first staged in 2014, which deals with an 80-year-old writer, Bemadette, shutting herself up in a New York apartment, unable to come to terms with the death of her former Jewish lover, a refugee on the St. Louis, the ship that was turned away from Cuba and Miami and which ultimately had to return to Nazi Germany during World War II.
It’s hard to tell, though, whether the problems are with the plays or the productions. My sense is that Cruz occupies a middle ground between naturalism and a more poetic, dream-like performance and production style. championed by the pre-Paulus American Repertory Theater.
It’s easy to see why director Daniel Gidron and actor Annette Miller, who teamed for “Golda’s Balcony,” opt more for naturalism. There are echoes of the Holocaust, obviously, and today’s immigration crisis so there are real-world themes in the air.
The production becomes frustrating, then, when those themes aren’t at all developed. Cruz has specifically said that the play is not about the Holocaust or the St. Louis, but “a metaphor for grief and pain.”
“Memory is very important for the Jewish people, and I thought I had to write a play about that permanence of memory,” he says. “For me, the play is not really about the St. Louis. It’s a point of departure, the beginning of a journey. … I didn’t want it to be another Holocaust play. I wanted it to be a metaphor for grief and pain.”
But hardly a straightforward one. Bemadette (Miller) is being hounded by Saquiel Rafaeli (Jaime Carrillo), a Cuban in America on a work visa who’s doing research on the St. Louis. Bemadette refuses to see him, but gradually enters an email/phone/virtual reality relationship with him, expedited by her maid Lucila (Evelyn Howe).
So already we’re not in Kansas anymore. But the production seems grounded in the New York City apartment, despite all the flights of memory elsewhere.
Also, just as there are Shakespearean cadences to master, there are Cruz cadences to come to terms with. Howe is the only one onstage who seems fully comfortable with Cruz’ poetic diction. Carrillo was too matter of fact and Miller too tremulous, at least in the final preview. Howe, the Elliot Norton Award-winning actress from Speakeasy’s “The Motherf---er with the Hat” is equally luminous in this much quieter, lonely role. What a pity it was for Boston to lose her to New York.
“Broadway Bounty Hunter” | Barrington Stage Company, through Sept. 4
There’s a similar problem at the center of the otherwise enjoyable “Broadway Bounty Hunter” at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield. You’re not going to believe the premise of the world premiere and you’re not supposed to. Broadway singer Annie Golden plays an out of work Broadway singer Annie Golden, who’s recruited to join a Charlie’s Angels-like group of bounty hunters.
The deliberately wacky premise is cloaked as a ‘70s Blaxploitation plot, complete with giant Afros, sculpted bodies and a cheeky “Shaft”-like score by Joe Iconis. Shaft, you might remember, was played by Richard Roundtree and here the villain is Mac Roundtree, played with gusto by BSC stalwart (and associate artist) Jeff McCarthy.
Golden, however, not only plays a fish out of water in the story (co-written by Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams), but Golden looks like a fish out of water surrounded by such a talented cast of actors, singers and dancers.
Being a stranger in a strange land is part of the point, of course, but in such a farcical send-up, the main character needs to be a farceur. Think of the actors who’ve played the horrible singer Florence Foster Jenkins, whether Meryl Streep, Judy Kaye or Leigh Barrett. Golden brings only an awkward presence to the table.
Despite that, the two-hour show maintains its winning goofiness throughout. For all its trafficking in Blaxploitation stereotypes the show never feels like it’s exploiting those stereotypes, just sending them up. BSC founder and artistic director Julianne Boyd — and musical director extraordinaire — had to step in when the original director had the proverbial creative differences with the writers and brings her trademark intelligence to the proceedings.
Boyd, choreographer Jeffrey Page and Iconis are on the same fun-filled page, but if “Broadway Bounty Hunter” aims to follow in the great tradition of BSC shows going on to Broadway — “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “On the Town” — everything needs to be amped up from the constraints of the small St. Germain stage. (Time didn’t permit us to see the BSC mainstage production of Nina Raine’s “Tribes,” which had such a fine production at SpeakEasy Stage, but if you missed it in Boston and New York, here’s your chance.)