STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. – Let’s hear it for dead white men. I’m as happy as anyone about the emergence of organizations like Company One Theatre and SpeakEasy Stage Company championing the works of exciting new playwrights, many of whom are women, people of color or both.
But two excellent productions in the Berkshires, Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” remind us that the men of the 20th Century — and until the last quarter of the century they were mostly men — carved out a different kind of modernist literary genius, both on stage and on the page. And a third, “Veils,” is a lesson that all the intelligence and contemporary pro-social sentiment driving much of contemporary theater does not a great play make.
There are a lot of good reasons to go to the Berkshires in the autumn and it’s delightful that the three main Southern Berkshires theaters have extended their seasons into the fall.
Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Or nonsensical to make sense. Teddy (David Barlow) has finally, unannounced, brought his beautiful wife home to meet his father, uncle and two brothers.
Don’t ask why about this or anything else. The father (Rocco Sisto) is a lout’s lout, calling her a “whore” as soon as he meets her. One brother, Lenny (Joey Collins), is a crook of some sort and seems to live to get under Teddy’s skin. Ruth’s skin, that’s another matter.
What’s it all about, Lenny? Again, it might be better not to ask and go the “Against Interpretation” route. Director Eric Hill does a masterful job of making the obliqueness of Pinter’s plot seem a virtue. A bizarre “Doll’s House” in which Ruth (Tara Franklin) finds a certain deliverance with this family out of a Cockney-style “Deliverance”?
Sure, why not. But then, why bother? Taking in the peeling wallpaper, the theater-of-cruelty interplay, the Pinter-styled power plays — Hill makes it all seem deliciously abstract without ever losing sight of how important every pause, every gesture is to the mixture of absurd comedy and seismic dread.
And he’s assembled a crack cast to play the assembled crackpots. Shakespeare & Company veteran Rocco Sisto is laugh out loud funny as well as physically frightening as the mad patriarch, his sarcasm slithering off his tongue while his eyes are bulging in cartoon-like humor. Collins’s more foppish sarcasm is equally funny, but you wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.
Franklin has grown tremendously under Hill’s and BTF’s tutelage since she was a student. She’s the best onstage at the thematic underpinnings of power politics in the 20th Century, her eyes conveying a mix of confusion, sadness, longing, satisfaction. It’s a beautiful performance.
You wouldn’t want to go home with these characters, but this production makes you glad you spent a couple of hours in their perverse, oddly liberating, presence.
Shakespeare & Company has two shows running this fall, one of them its own production of “An Iliad,” starring Michael F. Toomey. Having seen Denis O’Hare star in his and Lisa Peterson’s “An Iliad” at ArtsEmerson, giving the visiting Ark Theatre Company a chance seemed like the thing to do.
If its production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, “Babylon Revisited,” is any indication we hope to see a lot more of the New York company. This could fit right in at the ArtsEmerson black box as it’s staged within the Studio One black box theater in Lenox.
“Babylon Revisited” is a jazz-age story about Charlie Wales, a widower who lived the booze-soaked high life as the stock market soared and fell to pieces when it crashed and after his wife died, which he might have been responsible for. He left his daughter with his sister-in-law and is now in France a few years later, trying to reclaim her as his fortunes have improved, as has his sobriety.
It’s an elegantly told story by Fitzgerald and Ark has done a nearly perfect job in staging it in an hour. Anthony Nikolchev, who also co-adapted and co-directed it, turns in a bravura performance in something of a one-man show. There are plenty of other actors, but they’re on film, projected onto white sheets draped over furniture. Nikolchev gradually takes the sheets off, revealing furniture and other artifacts, which then become screens for the dialogue between him and the actors on film.
There is the occasional piece of dialogue that sounds clunky as it goes from the third person on the page to the first person onstage, but otherwise this is a seamless and creative way of telling Fitzgerald’s tender, tragic story. The story ends rather plaintively so Nikolchev and co-director-adapter Donald Marcus add on a hint of resolution. I don’t like the addition on principle, but perhaps a more dramatic coda is needed than the story has.
In any event, the sophisticated storytelling that goes into this production is reminiscent of how Shakespeare & Company used to tell Edith Wharton stories, though there wasn’t any mixed media for Wharton. But they both make you want to rush out and reacquaint yourself with the authors.
Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, through Oct. 18
Tom Coash’s play, set in Cairo shortly before and during the revolution that brought down Hosni Mubarak, poses an interesting debate between an African-American woman, Intisar, who’s a practicing Muslim, and an Egyptian woman, Samar, who sees Intisar’s veils, defined as head scarfs and other coverings, as a sign of oppression and backwards thinking. Intisar says Allah is liberating, not oppressive.
Unfortunately, “Veils” is pretty much a debate forum between the two, not a play. Director Leah C. Gardiner does a good job of enlivening the debate with large video set changes, and the play does an edifying job of personifying the issues. Even so, Donnetta Lavinia Grays (Intisar) and Hend Ayoub (Samar) don’t have much to work with dramatically. It’s to their credit that we end up caring about the two characters as much as we do.
Ed Siegel is editor and critic at large for The ARTery.