Saturday, August 14, 2010

Summer Theatre in the Berkshires

A view from the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, MA

As the slings and arrows of outrageous retirement have increased, it is probably not too surprising that my thoughts should go toward more frequent travels to see theatre than to stay home and do theatre. In that vein you could do a lot worse than the Berkshires in northwestern Massachusetts.  It’s a bit further for us than the Stratford or Shaw Festivals, but if you feel the need for an out of the Midwest vacation with a theatre component,  this is a place to head for.  The Berkshires are currently reveling in their pick by “National Geographic Traveler” magazine as the seventh best out of 133 travel destinations in the US. The countryside is wooded and rolling and the towns in the thirty miles or so surrounding Pittsfield, MA are filled with quaint general stores, quirky antique shops, the homes of the famous, art galleries, and scads of eateries.  It's all interstate and turnpike to get there, but five minutes out of the toll booth puts you into a relaxing world of winding two lane roads and drop dead gorgeous scenery.

This is the view of Mt. Greylock, Massachusetts’s highest mountain, that Herman Melville saw from his study while writing Moby Dick. In the winter when covered with snow, Melville said, it looked just like a giant white whale.

The theatre is first rate and the main companies are all Equity and loaded with New York actors taking a bit of a summer hiatus. We saw two shows at Shakespeare and Company—a moving The Winter’s Tale and a splendid Richard III with last year’s Broadway sensation Othello John Douglas Thompson in the role of the grand manipulator.

Stockbridge, MA is home to the Berkshire Theatre Festival. It has been going strong for eighty-two years. We saw a gently humorous The Guardsman by Molnar. This seldom produced show was a long run triumph for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne back in the 1920’s. Molnar is perhaps better known as the author of Lilliom, which was turned into the Broadway musical Carousel. This year’s season also features plays by Albee, Beckett, Shakespeare, and Rogers and Hart.

At Pittsfield, MA we visited the home of the Barrington Stage Company. They are located in a nicely remodeled old former vaudeville/movie house. We saw a somewhat problematic production of Yazmina Reza’s Art, but had we been around longer there would have been a rich variety of other shows ranging from Sondheim, Miller, and Ayckbourn to the world premiere of a new musical call Pool Boy.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival was our final stop. It is centered in the splendid new theatres on the Williams College campus.
The Williams College Theatres, home of the Williamstown Theatre Festival

We saw a beautifully acted new play called After the Revolution that is prepping for a fall Off Broadway opening and an Our Town that had a controversial scene design element featuring a vertical curtain of empty chairs and tables about thirty feet upstage. Several were removed at the start of the show to make for a center exit. Some in our group thought it distracted from Wilder’s “empty stage” concept; others found it a powerful new metaphor (especially when lit from behind) for all the graves waiting for us.

Each of the theatres mentioned have full programs of shows throughout the summer and they all have excellent training and intern programs as well. For those times when you want a rest from theatre going, you can pick and choose from other cultural activities. The Jacobs Pillow Dance Theatre and Tanglewood (The Boston Symphony’s Ravinia) are nearby. The Clark Institute of Art and the Williams College Museum of Art are in Pittsfield just a few miles away the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adam. During the day you can tour a variety of historic homes, including those of Herbert Melville, Edith Wharton, and Susan B. Anthony.

All in all I would highly recommend a trip to the Berkshires for your next summer’s vacation.

P.S.  As time permits over the next few weeks I will be doing more coverage of our two Road Scholar theatre trips to the Berkshires.

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