As the Berkshires reopened this summer, following the devastating blow to the Western Massachusetts economy from COVID-19 last year, ARTery writers Ed Siegel and Jacquinn Sinclair took to the hills to witness the local arts organizations and restaurant scene spring back to life. In comparing notes about what they saw, they talk about the many high points along with a few low points while they also survey whether the Berkshires, with its overwhelmingly white audiences, have responded to growing calls for diversity in the arts. Over three installments, the pair discuss the live theater, arts and dance they experienced. First up: theater.
Heading to the Berkshires
Ed Siegel: Jacquinn, I first came out to the Berkshires in 1984 to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra and while the concert was sensational, I just fell in love with the area and I’ve been back every year since ’86. The way that art and nature blend in with each other, you can’t beat it, certainly not anywhere else in New England.
Jacquinn Sinclair: I can see why you return year after year. Tiny, idyllic towns pop up beneath towering green and blue mountains which make for stunning vistas and the stillness urges us to slow down. There’s also a rich arts scene that unfolds indoors and out. For instance, meandering walks on the grounds of arts institutions are filled with surprises.
Also, with so much open space, the Berkshires satisfied my desire to get out of town without getting too close to others. I took pictures of the trees and the sky at Olivia’s Overlook, wandered the halls of MASS MoCA and perused the boutiques in downtown Lenox.
Siegel: Right, the Berkshires were even more of a getaway post-vaccine. It was exhilarating to see Reed Birney and his son confront/console each other in person instead of on Zoom at Barrington Stage; the Boston Symphony Orchestra musicians file out on stage for the first time at Tanglewood in two years (and what a show they put on); or to hear indigenous DJ Annawon Weeden say about the Jacob’s Pillow dancers and audiences at the Eastern Woodland Dances, “It’s a beautiful thing when we’re all together, isn’t it?”
On the Stage
Siegel: As I said, I came out for Tanglewood, but that was just my gateway drug. I’d drive around and think, “Oh, look, a Shakespeare company at Edith Wharton’s old mansion! A restaurant on Laurel Lake! Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward walking down the street to the Williamstown Theatre Festival!"
It turned out that the Shakespeare group was Shakespeare & Company, though they’re no longer at the Mount. They soon became one of my favorite theater companies, in part because the training that the actors went through resulted in some of the crispest, accessible Elizabethan dialogue I’ve ever heard. Actors spoke in their natural tongue; no faux British accents here. Founder Tina Packer’s analyses of the canon were spot-on.
This year, they’ve taken some grief for bringing in Christopher Lloyd, who received several negative reviews in the title role when "King Lear" opened (it plays through Aug. 28). I was actually quite touched by him. I’ve seen so many over-the-top Lears, including Olympia Dukakis' "Queen Lear" in a Shake & Co. production, that I thought Lloyd’s understated delivery tuned in to contemporary concerns about dementia quite affectingly, even if his raspy voice couldn’t match the declamatory powers of company all-stars Jonathan Epstein, Nigel Gore and artistic director Allyn Burrows. Lloyd might not have been a Lear for the ages, but he was a Lear for the aged. Sorry.
Sinclair: It was my first time seeing “King Lear” and I was excited to see Christopher Lloyd, whom I’ve long adored for his role in “Back to the Future,” onstage. I do wish there was a microphone to help carry his raspy voice further. Too bad we didn’t get to see the play performed outdoors at the New Spruce Theatre. The ubiquitous rain demanded that we move indoors. The outdoor stage, which wraps around giant spruce trees and makes use of damaged wood for a backdrop, was lovely.
Siegel: I have to say that I’m glad they didn’t mic him. I love hearing the “acoustic” voices unfiltered. While microphones on Boston Common are necessary, I think mics would really distort Shakespeare & Company’s mission. The one thing I do worry about, though, is that the company does not seem to be developing a great new generation to follow the old. Bryce Michael Wood was excellent as Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son, but other young actors tended to speak in italics, a common problem with young actors tackling Shakespeare, but one that the company seemed to be more adept at drilling out of their actors in years past. Hats off, though, to Ryan Winkles, a good actor and an excellent fight director.
Sinclair: Agreed. I enjoyed Wood and I also noticed how diverse the cast of “King Lear” was. I wasn’t expecting that. Also, what did you think about Debra Ann Byrd’s "Becoming Othello: A Black Girl’s Journey"? (Through July 25 in the Rose Garden Theatre.) It was fascinating to hear how Byrd triumphed over trauma through her love of God, theater and Shakespeare. Her delivery sounded like a Baptist preacher when she recited Shakespeare, but she skillfully used music to convey emotion from ballads to Negro spirituals and even a little hip-hop.
I was pleasantly surprised by some of the Berkshires’ offerings including "The Niceties," centered on a Black college student, which was canceled the night we were going due to the unrelenting rain (through July 25, Chester Theatre Company at Hancock Shaker Village) and Williamstown Theatre Festival’s "Outside on Main: Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination" (through July 25), which had nine short plays by Black playwrights. Of the three we saw, a futuristic story about the late Eartha Kitt, played by Antwayn Hopper, was particularly intriguing.
While there were a number of diverse stories and actors represented on stages, I’m still curious about the hiring practices of the local arts organizations. I didn’t see many leaders of color at these events.
Siegel: Yes, the diversity is in the programming and production at this point. It’s obvious that Shakespeare & Company is serious about diversity, given that almost half the "Lear" cast is Black. I agree with you about “Becoming Othello,” though I thought it should have been 90 minutes rather than two hours. I also agree about her “preacher” delivery though I thought she was often too stentorian and I would have preferred the voice she uses to tell the rest of the story. Getting back to Shake & Co. training, I think Packer, who directed this, might have redirected her declamation if she had gotten hold of Byrd when she was younger.
Julianne Boyd and Barrington Stage Company have also been leaders in having diverse, balanced programming, along with Mandy Greenfield in Williamstown. The two Barrington shows I saw while I was out here, “Chester Bailey” and "Eleanor," address other issues, but the new musical “A Crossing” (about border crossings, Sept. 23-Oct. 17) and their “Celebration of Black Voices” (Aug. 4-8) are extensions of the stellar work they’ve done in this area in the seasons leading up to the pandemic.
More from WBUR
As for the plays I saw, it was terrific to see live actors as good as the father-and-son Birneys in "Chester Bailey" as Reed Birney plays a doctor who wonders whether he should try to bring his patient (Ephraim Birney) back to a horrible reality or let him live in his fantasy.
I hate to say it, but that thrill of watching live actors onstage instead of on Zoom washed away pretty quickly. I thought Harriet Harris was excellent as Eleanor Roosevelt in Mark St. Germain's one-woman show (through Aug. 7) and the production was also very good. I found myself, though, reverting to my pre-pandemic thinking that theater has to offer something that television and movies don't and I found St. Germain's "and then I wrote" approach not nearly as intellectually or emotionally involving as, say, the Eleanor Roosevelt segments of Ken Burns' "The Roosevelts."
Sinclair: The thrill is still there for me. Now, the challenge is to witness as much theater as possible. As the fall and winter seasons draw near, I hope that we’re able to continue gathering together for the arts.
Next up in the Berkshires Notebook — dance, art and music.