If You're Traveling In The North Country: From Williamstown To MASS MoCA
The northern Berkshires can feel like a world unto itself in the summertime. Williams, the college that US News and World Report ranked the No. 1 liberal arts college in the country, is out of session. Tanglewood, to the south, feels farther than the 45 minutes it takes to get there, particularly on a foggy night on Rte. 7.
And despite the best efforts of Roger St. Pierre, proprietor of St. Pierre’s Barbershop, to champion the Red Sox — “only 3 hours from Fenway Park,” reads his Spring Street shingle — Williamstown feels more New York than Boston.
Part of that is that Lenox is closer to Boston and home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra during summer months. There’s also more to do in the Southern Berkshires — more theater, more restaurants, more shopping.
But because the options are more limited, Williamstown has its own groove. Together with MASS MoCA in North Adams, the area makes the idea of getting out of your comfort zone very comfortable.
If Tanglewood is the focal point of Southern Berkshire conversation at inns and B&Bs — “Are you on the lawn or the Shed tonight?” — then the theater festival is the default destination in the north. There’s an assumption that fellow travelers will have seen one or both of the productions on the Main Stage or small stage, named after legendary artistic director Nikos Psacharopoulos.
The festival continues to feature bigger names than the southern theaters, whose artistic directors have successfully forged their own aesthetic identities and Chita Rivera, appearing in a musical adaptation of “The Visit,” is the main draw as the festival concludes this weekend.
Written in 1998, the John Kander and Fred Ebb piece has not had a successful history and the hope was that with the brilliantly imaginative John Doyle directing (“Sweeney Todd,” “Ten Cents a Dance”), cutting it to 95 minutes, and finding a star like Rivera would propel it to Broadway.
All of which is possible, but it’s still not a very good musical. Even at their best (“Cabaret,” “Chicago”), Kander and Ebb try to have things both ways — dark material but easy uplift. Julianne Boyd in her remarkable, no-easy-uplift “Cabaret” is the only director to oversee a fully-satisfying Kander-Ebb musical in my experience.
The story is about a woman who becomes wildly rich after a series of rich husbands’ deaths, who comes back to her impoverished native village, promising millions on the condition that they kill the lover (Roger Rees) who betrayed her. Based on a 1956 play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the musical tries to soften Rivera’s character, to no good theatrical effect, other than crowd-pleasing.
The setting, meanwhile, dominated by a balcony is overly dreary; the townspeople’s monstrousness too facile; and the music too one-dimensional. It sounds as if every song starts out wanting to be “Cabaret” or “All That Jazz,” only to go someplace less interesting.
Much more satisfying is “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” a charming piece of myth-making by the PigPen Theatre Company on the Nikos Stage, which will also be at the Paramount in November as part of ArtsEmerson’s season.
An old man has to constantly fill the moon with liquid light to keep it aglow. His wife, tired of being taken for granted, leaves him and he goes in search of her, while the moon begins to lose its power.
PigPen blends a host of low-tech storytelling devices, including acoustic music that suggests an Irish Mumford and Sons — though the seven guys all met at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in 2008. Shadow puppets, mops as dogs, basic projections all form part of the easily engaging storytelling.
Here’s a look:
It’s a great little piece to introduce kids to the theater, though the old man’s adventure story with a crew of sailors overstays its welcome. But you won’t be thinking about that after its lovely ending.
The Nikos seems to be getting back to its experimental roots this year, which makes “The Old Man and the Old Moon” even more welcome here.
A Modern Art Primer
You could teach a pretty nifty course in modern art just by going around to the three North county museums — the Clark Art Institute, the Williams College Museum of Art and MASS MoCA. (There’s a bus shuttle that takes you from one to the other.)
The Clark, which has been notable for its great 19th century collection, is embracing the 20th Century in a big way with “Make It New: Painting from the National Gallery of Art, 1950-1975” and “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith.” “Make It New” could also apply to the gorgeous new grounds. There’s an exciting new sensibility at work at the Clark that’s not to everybody’s taste. It most likely would not have been to old Sterling Clark’s taste, but who cares. (I do have to say, though, that closing their classy restaurant in favor of cafeteria food, is throwing the baby out with the bath water.)
One thing that “Make It New” shares in common with many of the previous Clark exhibits is that it’s not overwhelming. There are just five rooms that begin with Jackson Pollock’s “Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist) and Mark Rothko’s “No. 1” From there the exhibit is broken down into post-Pollockian confrontations with the abstract: “Color Field” (Helen Frankenthaler); “Shape” (Jasper Johns); “Pattern” (Cy Twombly); and “Texture” (Robert Ryman).
If you’re at all like me you have a tendency to let non-narrative art wash over you, particularly in large doses. The beauty of this exhibit is that you can spend some time with each of these sub-sets of Expressionism and find out what makes them all tick. I highly recommend the media guide as a way of slowing yourself down and sniffing the roses, or lack thereof. I think the Clark could have targeted even more of the art for media-guide discussion, but at least it gives you a grounding.
Pollock’s abstraction was based on the premise that political events of the 20th century had made representative art obsolescent – somewhat the same premise of Schoenberg in music.
Today, that seems like a shaky premise as representative painting and tonal music — both in different forms than in the past — are still going strong, arguably more vital than their abstract cousins.
But none of that negates the work that Pollock and company did and the exhibit is a pleasant tour of the hows and whys of what they accomplished, particularly formalistically. You can spend a little more time with one of them, with “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith.” “Make It New” is in the new Clark Center and Smith is at the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, a shuttle ride away or a good five-minute walk — though it is up a hill so you should be in decent shape. It’s worth the visit, though.
Smith’s five circle sculptures were made for the Adirondacks, but they work perfectly well, as you might expect, in the Berkshires.
The Williams College Museum of Art
If contemporary art is still finding its way at the Clark, and the Clark’s patrons still finding their way to contemporary art, the centuries have always gotten along swimmingly at the Williams college museum. Mr. Homer, meet Mr. Hopper. Mr Goya, meet Mr. Stella.
In fact, the WCMA has always done a great job of mixing up its excellent collection of art in imaginative ways. At the moment you can see two examples of that, but get there before Williams is back in session because some of the art — including Kitagawa Utamaro, Giorgio de Chirico, and Winslow Homer will be leaving the museum for student dorm rooms. You can see them now at “WALLS.”
One Williams grad told me that she would not have wanted some of her friends having such irreplaceable work on their dorm walls, but Williams seems convinced that those willing to engage in the program can be trusted. As one museum employee told a visitor, if anything happens the students “have to give up their first-born.”
Another fascinating exhibition is “Material Friction: Americana and American Art,” in which pieces from the permanent collection are exhibited with folk art – though the exhibit frowns on the term – from the collection of Jonathan and Karin Fielding.
Which is high art and which is low? Do those terms even have any meaning? “Material Friction” puts your precepts to the test in a way that’s both fun and exciting.
You can move from there to the contemporary exhibits of Mitchell, Benglis, Wilke, a bite-size look at how three artists approach abstraction now — it almost picks up where the Clark abstraction leaves off.
And then to segue to the next stop on the tour, there’s Franz West and his playful, erotic mixed media attempts to make everyday objects the lifeblood of his art. How seriously should we take it? West, who died a couple of years ago, wonders the same thing — about all art. He’s having a good time, and so should we.
And for a really good time, call West at
West’s “Les Pommes d’Adam” lines one of the streets in the MASS MoCA complex down the road from Williamstown in North Adams. MASS MoCA is one of the stranger stories in that it’s kind of a political darling as well as a critical one, and how many times do you see politicians embrace contemporary art?
But if the Clark and Williams are part of the well-heeled tradition of Williamstown and the beauty of the surrounding mountains, MASS MoCA throws itself wholeheartedly into the factory-town complex it took over in down-and-almost-out North Adams. If many of the residents are bewildered by what goes on inside the walls of the place, no one is complaining about the added jobs and tourist dollars.
This is the American premiere of “Les Pommes,” previously installed in the Place Vendôme in Paris. According to the MASS MoCA website, “the exhibition curators noted that the sculpture took its name and inspiration from the Adam’s apple, pointing to the distinctive anatomical profile of a man’s throat. The public, however, interpreted the gathering of bubblegum-pink sculptures in a slightly more provocative way, locating the reference lower on the male torso. West would have reveled in the confusion, having once said, ‘It doesn’t matter what art looks like, but how it is used.’ ”
It’s indicative of how MASS MoCA uses its vast acreage for installation art that would have difficulty finding a home in traditional museums. There’s a Flash Gordon-ish spaceship designed to launch you into outer space, courtesy of Michael Oatman’s “all utopias fell” and that’s just the outdoor art.
Inside there’s a dizzying array of exhibits, not all of them as playful as West and Oatman. My favorite was the Hall Art Foundation’s installation of Anselm Kiefer works next to “Les Pommes,” including the majestic “Velimir Chlebnikov,” a series of 30 paintings in its own pavilion that takes naval battles as its jumping off point, but the more you look and read, the richer it becomes.
In a way Kiefer's work pairs with Winslow Homer’s sea paintings at the Clark. The elemental nature of Homer’s and Kiefer’s work can be overpowering.
I was just about to enter the intriguing-looking “Izhar Patkin: The Wandering Veil” when they closed up shop, which was also a signal that it was time for one of my favorite aspects of MASS MoCA, the weekend music event or, in this case, the music and movie event with the Alloy Orchestra accompanying Lon Chaney’s silent film of revenge, “He Who Gets Slapped.”
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the choices that one faces in Boston, or even in Lenox. There’s something to be said for just giving yourself over to other people’s expertise and letting them guide you to things you might not otherwise be exposed to, particularly in an age of stratified tastes. In this case, the person to put your trust in is Rachel Charnoff, curator of performing arts.
A few years ago I saw a great Jim White concert at MASS MoCA and the film and movie experience in the Courtyard was no different, with a hamburger,a glass of wine and the stars to accompany them. (Hey, Tanglewood, if MASS MoCA can make a good hamburger, why can’t you?)
I’ve been meaning to see the Alloys forever at the Coolidge or Somerville, but there’s always the latest must-see “Snowpiercer” or whatever to push them aside, so at long last love. You could write a thesis about how the three musicians match word and image, and how that differs from – say – piano accompaniment. But after a day of “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” “Les Pommes,” a spaceship, Anselm Kiefer et al, there’s something to be said for just letting something wash over you.
Hope to see you again sometime soon, Alloys.
The same sense of giving yourself over to someone else’s taste is true of the Images Cinema on Spring Street, a single-screen theater that specializes in art films and if I have the time I like going over there no matter what’s playing.
To be honest I was disappointed that “Boyhood” and “Magic in the Moonlight” were in the future and that the documentary, “Roger Ebert: Life Itself” was there instead. Documentaries aren’t films that I normally gravitate to, but when you plunk me down in front of a good one it makes me wish I had more time for them.
And this was a good one, not only entertainingly telling the story of a fascinating life, but unsparingly telling the story of a painful, debilitating death from cancer. I’m not sure what the takeaway is from the latter, but “Life Itself” is the story of how people can make a difference — Ebert’s wife, Chaz, as well as Ebert. The fact that a critic could change lives, including Martin Scorsese’s, is pretty inspirational.
No trip to Williamstown is complete without a trip to Toonerville Trolley, the used vinyl and CD store on Water street that Hal March keeps on truckin’ with despite the shift to downloads. March is kind of the Berkshires version of Stereo Jack in Cambridge, someone who can talk knowledgeably about the Budapest String Quartet, Chuck Berry or Bud Powell.
And Toonerville reflects his taste. Here, take a tour.
March wasn’t there when I stopped in before leaving the Berkshires, but I loaded up with George Szell’s Haydn, Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Sibelius, and “Cookin’/With the Miles Davis Quintet,” right before Miles, John Coltrane et al left Prestige and went “Kind of Blue” with Columbia.
It was the perfect way to take the northern Berkshires back with me on the drive back to Boston.