Some of the critics who review for BerkshireOnStage.com – Gail M. Burns, Roseann Cane, Macey Levin, and Barbara Waldinger – have listed their favorite regional theatre productions of the past calendar year.
Because for the most part we all see and review different shows, our individual picks for our favorite shows, performers, directors, choreographers, and designers range widely across the marvelously diverse theatre offerings in the region.
Take a read and see who you agree with, then drop us a line and add your own. If we get enough responses we’ll share them here, anonymously, so that our readers get a broader picture of the regional theatre scene.
These plays stayed with me long after exiting the theatre.
As I wrote about this road-company production, “I haven’t in recent memory experienced a play that so beautifully informs on so many levels, viscerally, visually, intellectually, emotionally. Joe Mantello keenly directs a devoted, loving, “average” American family, the members of which are at once torn apart and brought together by the pain of their interactions and individual inner turmoil. Karam’s writing and the cast that populates his play are so good that we are able to empathize even while flinching at certain inevitable, and often unconscious, pain these family members inflict on each other. Thanks in no small part to the playwright’s inherent kindness, this 90-minute work both defines and reminds us what it means to be human.”
GAIL BURNS: The Velocity of Autumn (Hubbard Hall) Two of our regions most skillful performers Christine Decker and Oliver Wadsworth brought humor and poignancy this story of the surprising forced reunion of a long-estranged mother and son in this memorable production.
FAVORITE NEW WORK
This world premiere created a portrayal of two profoundly introverted people who struggle to find a way to ask for help. Playwright Adam Rapp and director David Cromer accomplished something extraordinary in making theater about two isolated people, a middle-aged Yale professor (Mary-Louise Parker) and a student with a roiling inner life (Will Hochman), who come together during a time of personal crisis for both. The Sound Inside triumphed in transmitting experiences of solitude, introversion, depression, and the innate human desire for connection.
GAIL BURNS: I agree with Roseann, The Sound Inside (Williamstown Theatre Festival) was a gripping play, sparely told, with fully embodied performances by award-winner Mary Louise Parker and newcomer Will Hochman. I found the lighting and projections subtle and evocative.
The opening production at Sharon Playhouse is an entertaining and energetic celebration of Broadway’s enduring appeal.
On opening night there was even intermission entertainment as a crescent moon and Venus overhead seemed portentous of a new era at Sharon, which is that Sharon Playhouse is doing what it does best: high-level entertainment for the community.
Fun Home is not a fun play. It is thoughtful, insightful and, ironically, entertaining. This particular production brings these elements to the fore.
Ring of Fire, a splendid celebration of the music of Johnny Cash, served up six singing, acting, dancing musicians whose ebullience was delightfully infectious. Audience hooting, hollering, and foot-stomping, not something typically encouraged in the theater, enhanced a rollicking good time.
GAIL BURNS: Stepping outside the Berkshire region, I was absolutely thrilled to see the production of Leonard Bernstein’s Peter Pan (Bard College) This score had never been professionally performed in its entirety until this thoroughly unique, outside the box production. Thank God for Leonard Bernstein’s centennial celebration!
FAVORITE SOLO PERFORMANCE
Skraastad’s command of Kushner’s dense language as she created an unhappy woman with big dreams was astonishing.
FAVORITE ENSEMBLE PRODUCTION
Ripka’s KJ is lovable despite his inability to lead a productive life; he’s not yet a vagrant though he is complacent about his place in life. Vulnerability peeks through as he reveals elements of his past. In Barry’s hands, Jasper is is more emotional than his friend. And, despite being uneducated, he is intellectually-oriented given his ability to write his book and his appreciation of poetry, especially by Bukowski. Both men have a strong stage presence as does Pointrell, whose Shelmerdine (Jasper and KJ do not address him by his first name) grows from insecurity place to a firm sense of direction. He is awkward, but as he is inspired to read Bukowski and to call a girl he’s recently met, that adolescent quality fades. The acting by all three is impressive.
It’s 2008, and we found ourselves inside the breakroom of the last exporting auto plant in Detroit. A decade later, we already know about the collapse of the automobile industry and the devastating effect of its bankruptcy on the city. But in this intimate setting, we experienced its effect on the lives of four individual African-American workers who have a long history with this workplace. All were superbly defined by playwright and actors, and throughout, they were real and consistently engaging.
BARBARA WALDINGER: There is a Happiness That Morning Is (Bridge St. Theatre)—the actors played professors who analyzed the poetry of William Blake and attempted to convince the dean to allow them to hold onto their jobs despite their bizarre behavior, all in rhymed couplets.
The Royale (Capital Repertory Theatre) a play so beautifully choreographed that every step, clap, and punch had to be timed perfectly, successfully simulating boxing matches without striking a single blow.
GAIL BURNS: Men On Boats, (The Acting Class with Patrick White at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts) This amateur, all-female cast knocked it out of the park in this ensemble treatment of the first Powell Expedition through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River.Using the whole theatre, the performers and director created their own vision of how to present the show using virtually no set, but many props, most notably oars, to create a sense of place.
Three Sisters (Living Room Theatre) Lucy Caldwell’s adaptation Anton Chekhov’s 1899 play Three Sisters sets it in her native Belfast, Northern Ireland, during The Troubles of the 1990’s. Director Christopher McCann maneuvered his superb cast and the audience through four different configurations in the Carriage Barn at the Park-McCullough House, allowing the action to be revealed and concealed in intriguing ways.
Love’s Labors Lost (Shakespeare & Company) Kelly Galvin directed a cast of remarkably talented young actors who functioned both as outstanding individual performers and a cohesive whole in a delightful abbreviated version of this little-known early Shakespearean comedy. Great fun!
FAVORITE ACTOR IN A PLAY
As a man surprised by a visit from his late partner’s angry, despairing mother, Katherine, Bill Mootos elegantly conveyed Cal Porter’s capacity for forgiveness. His steady, knowing portrayal, emanating loving kindness even as he steeled himself for Katherine’s resentment, graced us with a deeply affecting embodiment of a man who has learned to accept and embrace life’s changes.
These talented actors on top of their game created unforgettable characters while cooking meals (Hoon Lee) and boxing (Thomas Silcott)—requiring intense concentration and preparation
GAIL BURNS: Oliver Wadsworth in The Velocity of Autumn (Hubbard Hall) A warm and honest portrait of a son reunited with his estranged mother for a last ditch effort to get her to accept the reality of her aging with grace rather than with violence.
FAVORITE ACTRESS IN A PLAY
As Katherine Gerard, who lost her son to AIDS 20 years earlier, Annette Miller played a lonely woman compelled to visit her late son’s partner. Wrestling with despair, anger, and regret, burrowing mightily through sadness and resentment, Miller’s quietly blistering performance was masterful.
A daring, multi-faceted performance—comic and heartbreaking, shattering stereotypes
Ms. Tyo is charming in Afong Moy’s early years and becomes more and more reflective and harder, evaluating her past actions, as she ages. Without a change in makeup she morphs from the 14-year-old girl to the 82-year-old woman (and even older) in her physical carriage and speech patterns. It is a luminous, delicious performance.
FAVORITE ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
A sexy Berger indeed, Brandon Contreras led a Tribe of joyful, exuberant young actors in this gem of a musical cherished by Baby Boomers.
Paul Urriola in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (The Theater Barn) Urriola made William Barfee entirely human while retaining the annoying traits that make the character both instantly recognizable and hilarious.
FAVORITE ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
I was at once curious and concerned about the actress cast as Fanny Brice in The Mac-Haydn’s production. Barbra Streisand, superstar, created a legendary portrait of Brice, and Funny Girl is the show that catapulted Streisand to international fame. But I needn’t have worried. From very early in the show, Lauren Palmeri proved herself a sensation in her own right, a triple-threat (actor/singer/dancer) to be reckoned with.
GAIL BURNS: Alexandra Foley in She Loves Me (The Theater Barn) A fine operatic soprano and an engaging performer, Foley was enchanting as the romantically inept Amalia. Her rendition of The Ice Cream Song was just as charming as it could (and should) be.
FAVORITE SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A PLAY
David Gow’s portrayal of Will Ogden seemed effortless and natural, and the tender attachment between husbands Cal and Will was palpable, as was the love for their bright, energetic son.
BARBARA WALDINGER: These performers stood out because of their tremendous energy and ability to handle physically demanding roles, and a variety of different characters.
Ronnie Wilde (Brooks Ashmanskas,) a stitch as an exuberant, middle-aged gay man, arrives at the office and insists on renting the apartment.
FAVORITE SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A PLAY
BARBARA WALDINGER: There were so many wonderful performances in this category. My three favorites were:
Ruff’s understated but powerful second act performance was the reason to see this revival.
What fun it was to see Chesser turning a male fool into a female nanny!
Ceesay’s journey from beginning to end of this serio-comic play was a lesson in acting
Macy is a firebrand defending her sexuality and her relationship with Jen. A charismatic Ceesay holds the stage in her scenes with both Della and Jen bringing difficult subjects to the fore. Her opinions are bluntly stated with intensity; in her softer moments she is warm and charming.
As Alex Klein, Keira Naughton spectacularly embodied a complex, hardworking Democrat from New York who is devoted to her politics-makes-strange-bedfellows job as campaign manager of a Republican North Carolinian candidate for the Senate.
FAVORITE SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL
As John Barrymore stand-in Tony Cavendish, Will Swenson was delicious, all swagger and self-importance. His perfectly executed acrobatics, along with his histrionic machismo, also paid homage to Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn in this lavishly entertaining musical.
Ali Louis Bourzgui in She Loves Me (The Theater Barn) This young Berkshire native was seen on many stages this summer, and was quite simply a stand-out in this strong cast, bringing youthful buoyancy and professional panache to the role of Arpad.
FAVORITE SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL
Laura Michelle Kelly’s Julie was a beautiful, graceful firecracker, confident in her craft, conflicted about her love life. Her singing voice was astonishing in its range and depth, and how I wish she (along with the rest of the cast) hadn’t been mic’d.
At The Theater Barn, young performers often appear in all three musicals, and such was the case with Alexa Renee, who played Prudie Cupp in Pump Boys and Dinettes, Ilona in She Loves Me, and then starred as Olive Ostrovsky in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In total she had a great season, and was an excellent Olive, but her supporting role in She Loves Me was her best.
FAVORITE DIRECTOR, PLAY
David Cromer has been quoted as saying, “I was struck by this really intangible, very-difficult-to-grasp idea that watching this play was going to be like reading prose alone in the dark with just a little lamp and a chair by yourself….We’re hoping it’s a slightly new kind of experience in the theater….I think it subverts normal expectations of watching a play.” (From an interview with Benjamin Cassidy, Williamstown Theatre Festival: Thoughts Preside in The Sound Inside, The Berkshire Eagle, June 29, 2018)
In this breathtakingly original play, Cromer brilliantly guided two actors who transmitted experiences of solitude, introversion, depression, and the innate human desire for connection.
Gorgeous work: Seared for its combination of physical action and emotional punch as art and commerce battled for supremacy; The Cake for its powerful characterizations and uncanny ability, in our politicized times, to see both sides of a difficult situation; and The Royale for the presentational approach to its story
Director, and Chester’s artistic director, Daniel Elihu Kramer, straightforward staging recognizes that Baker’s work is more effective when it is simply allowed to happen. Had he encumbered it with a lot of busyness it would be contrary to her intent. His characters are comfortable in the environment created by set designer Ed Check and Lara Dubin’s lighting.
FAVORITE DIRECTOR, MUSICAL
I called John Rando “a preternaturally gifted director” in my review of The Royal Family... His direction of this sweetly silly behemoth of an old-fashioned musical gave us an evening of theater that was lavishly entertaining and very funny
Joshua Bergasse’s choreography of The Royal Family… was a veritable visual feast. As I wrote, “The energy of the entire ensemble, which included people of varying ages, shapes, and sizes, would be dizzying if it weren’t so good.”
Ferver, who also played Tinker Bell, created a Neverland movement-scape that often had performers dancing “together” while inches, or even yards, apart. It was astonishing and other worldly, just like Peter Pan himself.
FAVORITE SCENIC DESIGN
Skeleton Crew’s set design was as crucial as any character in the play. In my review, I wrote that “Kristen Robinson’s set design marries exceedingly well with Joey Moro’s projection design, presenting us with a naturalistic factory breakroom, complete with lockers, a table, refrigerator, and a microwave under an enormous projection screen. Between scenes the projections of an assembly line come alive, and the contrast of the human drama and the bleak, mechanical repetition is vivid and graphic.”
The fittingly dingy set designed by Wilson Chin allows Auburn to create stage pictures that subtly suggest the ebb and flow of the various confrontations. The set is also peppered by props that unmistakably denote the time period.
On a vast chartreuse stage a (working) amusement park ride sat stage left, while stage right was open for the series of Awfully Big Adventures that comprised this unique staging of J. M. Barrie’s classic.
FAVORITE COSTUME DESIGN
Alejo Vietti’s lush, period-perfect costumes were glorious
FAVORITE LIGHTING DESIGN
Mike Riggs’s lighting design enhanced the action, partnering beautifully with this blast of a show.
Richards for the fantasy sequences in The Cake, and Lap Chi Chu and his scene designer Dane Laffrey for establishing far-flung places and spaces, from London to South Africa
FAVORITE SOUND DESIGN
Kudos to Rider Q. Stanton, whose sound design skillfully and seamlessly intensified the action.