Review: Theatre Festivals rule in the Berkshires

Danniel K. Isaac and Shannon Tyo in "The Chinese Lady."

My annual summer trek to the Berkshires and the various theatre festivals in the area did not disappoint again this year. I recently spent a long weekend with friends in the hills of western Massachusetts for an event we have come to call, “Theatrepalooza!,” as we took in six plays over four days. It was a memorable visit.

In the Berkshires several theatre companies are all within minutes of each other including the four we selected: Shakespeare and Company (Lenox), the Williamstown Theatre Festival, Berkshire Theatre Group (Stockbridge) and Barrington Stage Company (Pittsfield). At Barrington, which has a Mainstage as well as its more intimate St. Germain Stage, we were able to catch two plays that both, coincidentally, had something to add to the #metoo movement: Lucas Hnath’s recent Broadway hit, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” and the world premiere of “The Chinese Lady” by Lloyd Suh.

A Tony Award winner from last season, “A Doll’s House, Part 2” was given a sterling production at Barrington’s Mainstage under the direction of Joe Calarco. The luminous Lalia Robins proved an ideal Nora, Henrik Ibsen’s frustrated housewife who returns in Hnath’s clever and timely version to ask her ex-husband for a favor. The play’s wit was razor sharp with an exemplary cast that included not only Robins but Ashley Bufkin, Christopher Innvar and Mary Stout.

“The Chinese Lady” is a fascinating two-character drama based on historical fact about a woman, Afong Moy, who was brought from Beijing to America in 1834 to work as a side show entertainer. Under Ralph Pena’s sensitive direction, this true story is given enormous power by the performance of Shannon Tyo, devastating as the young woman whose American journey indicts us all. The play is set to be presented off-Broadway soon, so seek it out.

At the Berkshire Theatre Group it was a nostalgic visit seeing the company’s lively revival of “Hair” as well as Christopher Durang’s modern classic from the 1980s, “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You”. The 1960s came back to boisterous life in “Hair” whose enduring score by Galt McDermot, Gerome Ragni and James Rando was given full voice by a company clearly too young to remember anything about hippie culture. In the still-controversial “Sister Mary”, the great Harriet Harris took on the title character in a riveting performance that is both chilling and uproarious as conservative Catholic dogma is skewered. If the supporting company around Harris is never quite up to snuff, it doesn’t diminish Harris’ commanding presence.

A visceral and bloody “Macbeth” held court at Shakespeare and Company in the Tina Packer Playhouse. While some of the choices by director Melia Bensussen in this tense rendering seemed questionable, there’s no doubt that leads Jonathan Croy and Tod Randolph made for a formidable Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Thomas Brazzle also registered as a compelling Macduff while NIgel Gore stole scenes in his two roles as Duncan and the Porter. Mr. Gore also delivered a most entertaining curtain speech at the performance we caught.

Our group was thrilled at the number of new works we got to see in the Berkshires this summer. One of the most impressive was “Lempicka” at Williamstown. This world premiere musical by Cason Kreitzer and Matt Gould is based on the life of artist Tamara de Lempicka. She was embodied onstage by Eden Espinosa in the kind of powerhouse performance that recalls Patti LuPone in “Evita”. The musical, itself, owes a debt to the Andrew Lloyd Webber hit with its contrary heroine and bombastic score. Carmen Cusack is a revelation as Lempicka’s lover and, even at an early preview, the whole production, under Rachel Chavkin’s unerring direction, seemed polished and ready for its inevitable Broadway transfer.

Williamstown (www.wtfestival.org) is closed for the season now but upcoming for the Berkshire Theatre Group (www.berkshiretheatregroup.org) is a rare staging of Luigi Pirandello’s “Naked”. Shakespeare and Company (www.shakespeare.org) has “Mothers and Sons” by Terrence McNally, “HIR” by Taylor Mack and “Pride and Prejudice by Jon Jory” on the menu. Barrington Stage (www.barringtonstageco.org) will be producing Tennessee Williams’ classic, “The Glass Menagerie” and a world premiere play, “Well Intentioned White People”” by Rachel Lynett. For complete schedules and ticket information visit the theatre websites.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.