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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

review Beauty Queen of Leenane

Review Beauty Queen of Leenane at Shakespeare & Company  by Bob Goepfert

LENOX, Mass.  – Martin McDonagh is a contemporary Irish playwright who is the heir to other great Irish playwrights like John Synge, Sean O’Casey and Brendan Behan who made tragic figures out of flawed common people.

His play, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” which is playing at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Mass., through September 15 is dark, comic, and insightful.  But McDonagh takes it one step further by adding brutal consequences to the situation.  “Beauty Queen…” is a play that is painfully honest and disturbingly violent in its portrait of people held together through of fear of being alone.

“Beauty Queen” centers on the dysfunctional relationship between 40 year old Maureen and her mother Mag.  Maureen is almost an indentured servant to her slovenly 70-year old mother.  It’s made clear Maureen has given up her life to care for her bullying mother to the point she is still a virgin.

Mag knows she is dependent on Maureen and will go any length to keep her from having a life outside their small, impoverished home.  When Pato Dooley shows romantic interest in Maureen, Mag’s behavior becomes extreme and tensions between mother and daughter become dangerously high.

The production is excellent, especially during the dark second act when Maureen comes to realize how her mother has betrayed her.  When her resentment boils over the relationship becomes searing and the unleashed emotions become powerful.  Though the play’s fierce climax is almost painful in its fury, the true pain comes when at play’s end Aspenlieder makes clear the price she must play for her freedom.

Tina Packer offers a carefully crafted portrayal of a controlling woman which helps the audience to understand Maureen’s frustrations.  Packer’s passive-aggressive manipulations demonstrate her cunning control of Maureen and soon the audience comes to understand Maureen needs Mag as much as Mag needs Maureen.

Director Matthew Penn stages the first act as a simple story of a daughter unwillingly trapped by a needy mother.  There are sweet moments and enough humor to make the turns in act two as surprising as they are gruesome.

In supporting roles David Sedgwick plays Pato as a decent, awkward man who might rescue Maureen.   However, it is Edmund Donovan who brings the necessary lightness to the production that the plays with a funny and charming portray of Ray Dooley, Pato’s dimwitted brother.

My quarrel with the production is technical as Maureen’s costumes are too sophisticated and seem contrary to the woman who is described as dressing “strangely.”  And because the home is open and neat it fails to set the claustrophobic mood of the play to reflect the mind set of the characters.

“Beauty Queen of Leenane” is not a play for the faint of heart, but it is excellent theater for people who want to understand the humanity of love, even when it goes amuck.

“Beauty Queen of Leenane” in the Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.   Performances Tuesday through Sunday until September 15.  Tickets $15-$50.  413- 637-3353,


Thursday, August 8, 2013

review Musical of Bridges of Madison County at WTF

Review Bridges of Madison County by Bob Goepfert

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass.  “The Bridges of Madison County,” which is being given its world premiere at the Williamstown Theatre Festival through August 18, is a musical that is often beautifully romantic.  At other times the production boarders on the tedious and cloyingly sentimental.

The work, which is scheduled to open on Broadway in February of 2014, is based on the novel by Robert James Waller, which was also the source of the Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep film.  Both were so popular there is probably a core audience that will automatically adore this musical adaptation.

Even those (like me) who find the material predictable and sometimes overwrought, will find it difficult not to be moved by the gorgeous score of Jason Robert Brown which defines characters and captures the emotional turmoil of two decent individuals who unintentionally fall in love knowing their love is doomed.

Too, there is no denying the emotional pull of the story about a four day love affair that touches lives forever.  Anyone who has ever been in a loving relationship that is destined to fail will understand the heartbreak of the characters.  And because the love between Robert and Francesca is so sincere and honest, many who have not had such an experience might feel they’ve been denied a life-altering experience.

Without denying the inherent charm of the material, it is not a story that should take three hours to tell.  While there is hardly a song that is not a pleasure to hear, the long expositional aspects of the story tend to make Brown’s remarkable score seem repetitive.  This is true mostly for the first act and a drawn out ending.

However, when the work focuses on the passion of the couple the music soars and the story is tender and touching.  The second act duet “One Second More and a Million Miles” is breathtaking in its passion and Francesca’s solo “Almost Real” is as character defining as it is beautiful to hear.  The same can be said for Robert’s first act “The World Inside a Frame.”  

Brown is not only a great composer, he is a brilliant orchestrator and his lyrics create lovely stories within a story.  By the way, the 9-piece pit orchestra, conducted by Tom Murray, is phenomenal as they bring an added lushness to a rich score.

Steve Pasquale is gentle, smart and sexy as Robert the National Geographic photographer who in1965 spends a couple of days in Madison County, Iowa to photograph their covered bridges.  He is an exceptional actor with a dynamic singing voice who creates a finely etched portrayal of a loner who surprises himself at the depth of his love for Francesca.

In this Marsha Norman version of the story, Francesca is the focus of the work.  She is an Italian World War II war bride, who lives a content life with a caring but dull husband (Daniel Jenkins) and two constantly quarreling kids (Caitlin Kinnunen and Nick Bailey).  Elena Shaddow  is lovely as the woman who discovers the dissatisfaction with her life and is courageous enough to grasp happiness and noble enough to sacrifice it up out of love for her family.

One of the strongest aspects of Norman’s book is the creation of Marge (Cass Morgan)and Charlie (Michael X. Martin) the long-married, neighbors who are happy with their simple existence.  Having Morgan sing “Get Closer” as Robert and Francesca physically draw closer is a genius idea that defines the universality of longing.

The entire cast is ideal but special mention should be given to Whitney Bashor who gives a breakout  performance singing the marvelous “Another Life” as Robert’s former wife and the touching “He Forgave Me’ as Francisca’s sister. 

It’s all played on an awesome set designed by Michael Yeargan and period perfect costumes by Catherine Zuber.  The most important technical success is the mood defining lighting by Donald Holder.

“The Bridges of Madison County” is an erratic and sometimes slow moving show but it is never the fault of director Bartlett Sher who ingenuously keeps the movement fluid and the focus of the show on the love between Francisca and Robert.

This is a superior production that sometimes falls victim to the flaws of the source material.

“The Bridges of Madison County” through August 18 at the mainstage of Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass.  Tickets $65-$70.  413-597-3400,



Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mother Courage - Brecht without Brecht

Review Mother Courage by Bob Goepfert

LENOX, Mass. – “Mother Courage and Her Children,” a play written by Bertolt Brecht in 1939, is considered to be one of the great plays of the 20th century.  Yet, it is rarely produced. at least in the United States.

This production which runs at Shakespeare & Company through August 25 both displays the greatness of the material and helps one understand why the theater companies avoid the material.

Overall this is a tame version of a play that should be almost harsh.  Instead of offering the material in what is known as “Brechtian-epic” fashion, which means stripping away all theatrical elements for a bare bones in-your-face style, director Tony Simotes offers the play in a more traditional and conventional style with moody lighting, and genuine characters.

This choice makes the play more emotionally accessible but it mutes the confrontational and didactic aspects of Brecht’s approach to Parable Theater and makes the work seem tame and even vague.

However the brilliance and passion of Brecht’s material remains. Written as a response to Hitler and the start of World War II, “Mother Courage” is an honest, harsh look at the insanity of war and the human cost of living in a perpetual state of terror.  It forces the audience to look into their own conscience and wonder to what degree we all sustain and support  wars because they good for business.

Academy-Award winning Olympia Dukakis plays “Mother Courage” as a street-smart single-minded woman whose only interest is the survival of her children.  The second most-important thing in her life is her wagon filled with supplies from which she sells goods to the soldiers during the years 1624-1636 in the midst of the European Thirty Year War.

The tragedy of the play is that her business eventually costs the lives of her two sons and daughter.  Each dies because of an excess of a single virtue – kindness, bravery and honesty which Brecht makes clear in times of war those traits are weaknesses rather than a virtues.  

Even if you disagree with Dukakis’ single-note stoic performance you will respect her choice which succeeds more often than not.  For sure you will leave the Tina Packer Playhouse with respect for her courageous performance and admiration for this 82 year old actress willingness to tackle this monstrously demanding role.

Brooke Parks, is wonderful as the mute daughter Kattrin, Apollo Dukakis grows into the role of The Chaplin and the charismatic John Douglas Thompson,( though too young for The Cook) finds moments of brilliance with the character.  Paula Langton is delightful as the whore Yvette Pottier and, arguably, comes closest to capturing the performance style associated with Brecht.  The rest of the large cast is uneven, often because they permitted to utilize a confusing variety of performance styles. 

This Shakespeare & Company production of “Mother Courage” is not the epic theater one associates or craves from a Brecht play – but it is a decent production of an important play.

“Mother Courage and Her Children,” at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.  Through August 25, in rolling repertory at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass.  413-637-3353,