Fresh Bursts of Energy
Ensemble Achievement
Boston Theatre Turns the Corner Into a New Millenium

Reviewed by G.L.Horton

2001 was a year of big changes and burgeoning hopes in Boston area theatre, and the Best theatre I experienced from my seat on the aisle came in bunches. First there was the Irish Bunch, led by the very first production I saw in January of 2001: Conor McPherson's "The Weir" at the New Repertory Theatre. Rick Lombardo's staging was note perfect, from the deep tones of the worn woodwork and earthy rituals of a pub in rural Ireland, to the subtle evocation of the inhabitants' back country isolation and loss, to the healing fellowship evoked by the unearthly power of a well told story; and it was performed with the exquisite mutual sensitivity of fine chamber music. The experience bordered on the mystical, yet the acting style was pitched well within the boundaries of naturalism. I have seen ensemble acting as good as that in Lombardo's "The Weir" on occasion, and I hope to see it again a few times more before I die-- but better? Acting doesn't get any better than what Richard McElvain, Billy Meleady, Colin Hammell, Barry M. Press, and Dee Nelson achieved at the New Rep last January. Two more contemporary plays, these from the Sugan Theatre, filled up the Irish Bunch o' Bests: the American premiere of Gary Mitchell's "Trust", and a beautifully designed production of Martin McDonaghÕs "The Lonesome West" that was as good as the Druid Theatre original that I saw in Galway. Both were directed by Carmel O'Reilly. The ensemble acting in these was marvelous, too. Debra Wise was especially chilling in "Trust", Colin Hammell equally horrifying-- and hilarious as well-- in his turn in "The Lonesome West", while Billy Meleady came up with another pair of impeccably differentiated Irish characterizations, one in each of these Sugan shows. What is so bracing about these ensemble shows as a phenomenon, and the reason I've bunched them together, is that they are evidence of the accumulation of a common vocabulary in Boston-based actors. Finally, we have in our town a nexus of talented artists who have worked together often enough to have established the kind of trust and understanding that is the basis for world class ensemble acting. The other Bunch of Bests was supplied by Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, where the death of the Company's panoramic old outdoor theatre at The Mount was marked by an embarrassment of riches in a culminating production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" that drew on two decades of labor and love in and around Wharton's mansion. Tina Packer's directorial swan song at The Mount was excessive and magical and site-specific and personal and historical and athletic and bawdy and numinous and intensely moving both as Event and as Art. I made the pilgrimage to the Berkshires to see "Dream" twice, regretfully certain that once S&Co has been evicted from its faery-haunted pine grove I will never look upon its like again. The company's old pros and energetic youngsters and cunning craftspeople demonstrated everything that they have learned from working together for more than twenty years in this particular place. All I can say about their farewell production is "You should have been there". The company made their audience a parting gift of whole worlds of possibility within Shakespeare's "Dream" that simply can't be opened up without the wealth of communal experience that a Packer production brings to bear when performing on its home and holy ground. In the new quarters down the road, Shakespeare and Company opened the comfortable Founders' Theatre with a re-staging of Packer's 2000 season production of "Coriolanus" starring Dan MaCleary-- a brilliant and brutal mini-epic that would make my top ten whatever season it appeared. Following that sprawling brawl into the Founders' was an intense and intimate reading of Donald Margules "Collected Stories" directed by Daniella Varon. Annette Miller as the dying writer demonstrated that the best acting, like the best writing, is simple: just open yourself up and let it bleed. "Collected Stories" is a flawed play: but it is good enough that a brave and talented actress like Miller can use it to lead us to dark places we would flee from if she weren't there ahead of us, shining light on them. This Shakespeare and Company bunch of Bests is more evidence (if more is needed) that what our local theatre artists require to do work that is equal to the best in the world is less time spent competing for work and more time working, together. I was appalled to hear Tina Packer announce that she will be fund raising rather than directing during whatever length of time Shakespeare and Company will spend raising the multimillions needed to build theatres and educational institutions on the huge new Lenox site they have undertaken to develop. Packer is the director of half the Top Ten productions on my lifetime list of "Bests". Never mind my personal sense of deprivation: how can the American theatre afford to lose a director of her caliber? Of course, if Packer turns out to be as good a full time fund raiser as she is a director, what she builds from her efforts could re-orient theatre arts from frills to the center of American education, and change our nation's culture in profound and (I believe) beneficial ways. But, leaving aside the danger full time fund raising presents (e.g. to our Congress), how can Packer possibly succeed in raising these huge sums to spread the gospel of Shakespeare, and of theatre, as the most effective tool of intelligence and tutor of empathy, when the core constituency of the party in charge of setting priorities in this time of recession and war is contemptuous of artists in general and of theatre people in particular? When our righteous warriors denounce intelligent empathy as heresy, and are as determined as Cromwell and his zealots to cut it off and cast it out of One Nation Under the God? Still, miracles do happen. Visionaries make them happen. Already S&Co has raised enough money to make a down payment and build two indoor theatres, and the company was recently awarded a million government dollars toward a reconstruction of The Rose Theatre, "where Shakespeare likely was first staged" on the site. If S&Co. builds it, if public school teachers come to study and are converted to Shakespeare in the necessary numbers to evangelize from sea to shining sea, maybe we'll all be changed--- into something rich and strange. Back in Boston, further 2001 Bests included two big productions by smallish theatres. "The Laramie Project" at Boston Theatre Works was a passionate but precise staging by Jason Southerland and Nancy Curran Willis of the documentary theater piece by Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater. The 60 denizens of Wyoming portrayed by the ensemble added up to a portrait of the nation's heartland, big as all outdoors. BTW's cast was another bonded ensemble, and they bonded us to them, too. The performance of "Laramie" felt like a community's self-examination. The audience became first part of that wounded community, and then embraced larger and larger circles of humanity. Spiro Veloudos' Lyric Stage Company of Boston put a conceptually huge production of the Sondheim/Lapine "Sunday in the Park with George" into a playing space whose dimensions aren't much bigger than those of the Grande Jatte painting itself. Designer Janie E. Howland worked like a magician in that space, and Jon Goldberg's musical direction was wizardry of the highest order. The BTW cast's splendid performance wasn't a miracle -- it was the result of years of patient nurture and teamwork, much of it under the tutelage of this same directorial pair. The movement flowed, the ensemble sound was sumptuous, Maryann Zschau sang another of her brilliant characterizations as Dot, almost erasing my memory of Bernadette Peters, and I actually preferred Chris Chew's Seurat at the Lyric to Mandy Patinkin's original George. Other unexpected blessings showered on the Boston area in 2001 were the inauguration of the Annual African American Theatre Festival at the Boston Center for the Arts under the inspirational direction of actor-teacher-playwright-musician Jacqui Parker, and the founding of the feisty Market Theatre in Harvard Square, helmed by Tom Cole. The Market has a generous New Economy patron, and interesting connections to the American Repertory Theatre and MIT, and the Market company put together a quirky but promising first season. I was most impressed by "Swimming in March" a modern American re-working of "Woyzeck" written by Kate Robin, and directed by Calab Wertenbaker, with a visual and sound design by Tal Yarden and the best mutimedia team I've seen in a Boston-based theatre. The African-Am Festival is quirky too in its blend of old and new, but Parker's Our Place Theatre Project has a clear purpose: to honor their heritage, and give African American theatre artists a showcase worthy of their talents. 2001 got the event off to an award-winning start, and (getting ahead of myself, now) the Festival's 2002 production of Alice Childress' "Wine in the Wilderness" was every bit as good as the Olivier-winning revival I saw at the Tricycle in London. As for the city's Big Players, Broadway in Boston has been bringing short runs of productions that were praised in NYC to the Wilber Theatre, giving us the standard against which the local talent should be measured. Local audiences having the chance to see a touring production of "Dinner With Friends" is a Good Thing -- so long as BinB doesn't drain off every available ticket dollar and send them all to NYC. The ART and the Huntington are both in transition, and whether they will prove to be community-defining institutions or outposts of movements whose center of attention is elsewhere is yet to be determined. I didn't share the enthusiasm of the large paper critics for Nicholas Martin's prettified "Hedda", but I was glad to have the opportunity to see Hungarian director Janos Szasz's staging of "Mother Courage" at the American Repertory Theatre, even though I thought it rather perverse. Szasz turned Bertolt Brecht's gritty and cynical anti-epic into a cornucopia of lush visuals and overripe orchestrations. But what do I know from Brecht? I'm just a provincial, in a country whose wars have been fought overseas for five generations. Brecht is produced so seldom in our neck of the woods that I have only seen eleven productions of four of his plays in forty years-- and three of those were "The Jewish Wife". "Mother" was certainly a BIG show, with choreographed battles and all, and in the busy midst of it Karen MacDonald held focus and made choices and kept on keeping on. She, and the production, had gumption. I think if "Mother Courage" were a staple of the American stage and I had seen as many productions of it as I have of "Salesman" I might have benefited from Szasz's fresh take on it. Commonwealth Shakespeare finally got its Free Shakespeare on the Common act together after half a decade of good intentions, and, sparked by Richard McElvain, Karen MacDonald and Will Lebow, did a "Twelfth Night" that was a notch above the struggling Boston Publick Theatre's standard and 80% as good as the average Shakespeare staged by Tina Packer. Local companies from SpeakEasy to the Newton Country Players drew on the world class musical talent turned out by our four or five top rank conservatories to do astonishingly good premieres and revivals of challenging music theatre such as "Floyd Collins" and "Follies", and there was an unprecedented outpouring of new scripts in premiere productions, staged readings, and workshops-- far more openings than this devotee of new plays could possibly see. A very good start to a new millennium, 2001. But will 2002 confirm that Boston is at last on its way to being a Good Theatre Town? Or are all the exciting and expansive plans doomed to disappointment, because they are based on income that is supposed to trickle down from sources that have since dried up?