Summer theatre festivals abound in nearby Berkshires

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Welcome to the final installment of our series on the abundance of cultural experiences in the Berkshires this summer. Only an hour from the Capital Region, this mecca for the performing arts boasts four regional theatre festivals, each having its own distinctive voice and diverse program offerings.

Barrington Stage Company
One of the fastest growing arts venues in Berkshire County, the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield has an ambitious line-up this season. The not-for-profit theatre had humble beginnings 20 years ago, using the Mt. Everett High School in the south county town of Sheffield for its early productions. It was in the school’s cafeteria that the world premiere of “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” was held and subsequently went onto Broadway. This would be the first of 18 world premieres performed at BSC throughout the years.

After a nomadic journey utilizing a multitude of different spaces, BSC found its permanent home in the former Berkshire Music Hall in Pittsfield in 2006. Now with three venues in two locations – The Main Stage, St. Germain Stage and Mr. Finn’s Cabaret – the company’s mission is to produce compelling work, to develop new plays and musicals and find fresh ways of bringing new audiences into the theatre. This season, the emphasis is on developing new works like “Dancing Lessons”, a romantic comedy by Mark St. Germain centering around a young man with high functioning autism as he tries to navigate a relationship. From BSC’s Music Theatre Lab comes “The Golem of Havana”, the story of a Hungarian-Jewish family living in Batista’s Havana on the brink of the Cuban Revolution. And don’t miss “Working on a Special Day”, a new play about a life-changing encounter between an overworked housewife and a mysterious bachelor set in Mussolini’s Rome.

Not to say the old standards are being ignored. One of several well-known works being performed is “Breaking the Code” by Hugh Whitemore.  The play chronicles the life story of famed mathematician and computer science pioneer Alan Turing who solved the German Enigma code during World War II.

“At BSC we like to balance entertainment with social issues,” says Artistic Director Julianne Boyd.  “If we can help people to understand the past through our performances, then they are on the road to understanding the future.”

Adding to the excitement of BSC’s 20th anniversary line-up is a cabaret series at the hottest night spot in the Berkshires, Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, located on the lower level of the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center.  In addition, there are two special one-night only Mainstage performances, one featuring nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune, the other starring sibling songstresses Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway. 

The season runs from mid-May to mid-October, so Capital Region theater lovers can have access to great performances before and after the tourist season.  Combo passes for both stages are available.

“We produce top notch exciting productions that are performed by the best actors possible. It’s only an hour away to have a great theatre experience,” said Boyd.

Barrington Stage Company
30 Union Street, Pittsfield, MA
Box office: 413.236.8888; www.barringtonstageco.org

Shakespeare & Company
It’s The Bard’s 450th birthday and you can celebrate it at Shakespeare & Company in nearby Lenox, MA.

Shakespearean comedies, tragedies and histories, plus contemporary hits like “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” are among this season’s highlights. In addition to “Julius Caesar”, “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2”, there is lighter Shakespearean fare, the comedy “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” 

Producing plays at Shakespeare & Company is not business as usual; part of its mission is to breathe new life into timeless classics. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is a case in point. Now set in 1930s New Orleans, this production is as fresh and original as it is ageless. 

Adding to the excitement of honoring The Bard is a special production of “Romeo and Juliet” held outdoors at The Mount, Edith Wharton’s turn-of-the-century estate. This performance is particularly poignant because it was the original site of Shakespeare & Company. Founded in 1978 by Tina Packer, Shakespeare and Company moved to its permanent home on Kemble Street in Lenox 13 years ago.

One of only a small number of theaters doing repertory, Shakespeare & Company gives the audience a chance to see their favorite actors as a king or a beggar, all in the same season.  This relates well to the Elizabethan roots of the theatre company and audiences are wowed by seeing their favorites flex their acting muscles.

Like many of the other theaters in the Berkshires, there are several different venues in which to enjoy great theatre. Repurposing the existing buildings on the expansive property has been a labor of love.

Founder’s Theater, now the Tina Packer Playhouse, was formerly a gym and is now one of the most exiting theatrical venues anywhere.   Down the slope is the tented Rose Footprint Theatre. This summer, take the kids to see “A Servant and Two Masters” at this outdoor space.  The Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, located on a different part of the property, has seating at stage level in a u-shaped configuration, resulting in an intimate theatre experience.

 Tony Simotes, artistic director and president says, “All our theatres are created so the actors are close to the theatre-goers. That proximity allows the actors to feel the audience energy and also involves the viewers more intimately with their performance. 

“The actors and directors approach Shakespeare in a way that is meaningful to our lives today. People are surprised to see Shakespeare is live and well and more relevant than ever before.  Shakespearean language coupled with modern interpretations creates an enthralling atmosphere for live theatre.”

Shakespeare & Company
70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA
Box office 413.637.3353; www.shakespeare.org

Berkshire Theatre Group
If only the walls could talk on the stages of the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG). Lunt and Fontanne, Will Rogers, the Barrymores, Al Jolson, Katherine Hepburn, James Cagney, and Gloria Swanson. These famous names just scratch the surface of the long roster of acclaimed actors who have appeared at The Berkshire Theatre Group’s campuses. This list of A-List actors continues on through the decades and to the present day.

Berkshire Theatre Group was created in 2010 by the merger of two of Berkshire County’s oldest cultural organizations – The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge founded in 1928, and the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, established in 1903.

Artistic Director and CEO Kate McGuire likes to say that the Pittsfield location is home to BTG’s oldest and newest stages – The Colonial Theatre and The Garage. The Colonial re-opened in 2006, following a $21 million restoration. This historic venue with its Gilded Age architecture and state-of-the-art technical systems now provides a great space for family entertainment, comedy, live music and more. Best of all, it’s open year round. The Garage, located in the lobby, is a newly developed venue dedicated to regional music performers and comedians.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge presents works at three locations with The Fitzpatrick Main Stage presenting classical theatre and world premieres. The smaller Unicorn Theater is the home of new and emerging artists, and according to McGuire, “is a place at which provocative, challenging works and emerging talent converge.”  The Neil Ellenoff Stage is an outdoor area focusing on family entertainment.

“Design for Living”, the classic Noel Coward romantic comedy being performed at the Unicorn Theatre, features young actors from Yale Drama School.  Then there is “Benefactors” set in 1960s London, which examines the fragility of human relationships. It is both thought-provoking and current.  Those coming to the Berkshires for fall foliage will also be able to see interesting theater here with a creative adaptation of Edgar Alan Poe stories.

Back at the Fitzpatrick Mainstage, the productions feature mostly equity performers. “A Hatful of Rain”, is a gritty American classic about a returning veteran battling addiction, and again, seems totally current. “Cedars”, a thoughtful and witty look at an estranged father-son relationship, stars Tony Award winner James Naughton.  In addition, there is the campy comedy, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” as well as Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical, “A Little Night Music”.

Family fun also abounds at the Berkshire Theatre Group this summer.  Check out the production of “Seussical The Musical”, at the Colonial Theatre.  The Colonial’s world-class acoustics and large pit for musicians enable the theater company to produce musicals of this scope.

According to Kate McGuire, “The Berkshire Theatre Group offers the public a way to see great theatre while sitting in a place of theatrical history.  The Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Colonial Theatre provide an historical repository of great American theater.”

Berkshire Theatre Group
111 South Street, Pittsfield, MA
Stockbridge Ticket Office: 413.298.5576
Colonial Ticket Office: 413.997.4444
www.berkshiretheatregroup.org

Williamstown Theatre Festival

Did you know that “The Bridges of Madison County”, the current Broadway hit based on the best-selling novel, had its premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last season?

Or that the upcoming fall production of “Elephant Man” with Bradley Cooper is also slated to go to the Great White Way?

Stars of opera, stage and screen grace the Festival’s 60th season productions. In addition, there is always a core group of resident company equity actors who appear in multiple shows to the delight of returning theatre-goers. Powerful female roles abound this summer, especially on the Main Stage.

In “The Visit”, Chita Rivera stars in a musical adaptation of the Kander and Ebb musical. World-renowned soprano Renee Fleming plays none other than an opera diva in “Living on Love”. Then there is “June Moon“ by legendary humorists Ring Lardner and George S. Kaufman which is directed by Jessica Stone, one of many female directors and choreographers on staff this year.

Two of the productions on the Nikos Stage will be the East Coast premiere of the thought-provoking ”Great Wilderness” and  “The Old Man and the Old Moon”.  The latter is a PigPen Theatre Co. production performed by seven Carnegie Mellon graduates who have joined forces to create imaginative theater.  Also on the Nikos will be Sam Shepard’s “Fool For Love”, a play about two former lovers and their tangled relationship, starring Chris Pine and Lauren Ambrose.

In addition to the Mainstage and the Nikos Theatre, the Festival offers much more that the public may not realize.  There is a non-equity company of 20 to 25 graduate students coming to Williamstown for the opportunity to perform onstage with the union actors. And, for more entertainment options, there is late night cabaret, workshops and an outdoor theatre included in the Festival’s offerings.

The goals of the Festival are to attract top talent, cultivate young artists and produce reinterpreted versions of the classics and new plays.  Pursuing this mission has resulted in many honors for the festival, including the 2002 Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre and the 2011 Commonwealth Award for Achievement, the highest cultural honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Originating at the Adams Memorial Theatre on the Williams College campus in 1955, the Festival’s Main Street setting is reminiscent of a New England picture postcard. After outgrowing it original digs, a new state-of-the-art facility, the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, opened in 2005.

Stephen Kaus, WTF producer, encourages Capital Region theater lovers to attend a performance.

“You live so close to us that we’re practically neighbors,” he says. “It’s an easy day trip to come to the Williamstown Theatre Festival, but it’s also fun to take in all the Berkshire attractions for a weekend.”

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main Street (Rte. 2), Williamstown, MA
Box office:: 413.597.3400; www.wtfestival.org

 

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