Last summer’s inaugural Berkshire Actors Theatre show, Four Dogs and a Bone by John Patrick Shanley, was that rarest of wonders: a small show in a tiny space by an unknown group that compared favorably with the Berkshire theater giants’ productions in their intimate spaces. Described in Metroland’s review as a “stripped to the bare bones, fast-paced production that jolts its way to each of the four scenes. . . . B.A.T.’s stagecraft is ideal for the space and play.” Four Dogs and a Bonealso made our end-of-year, best productions of 2011 list.
So how does a fledgling troupe follow up on one of the surprising hits of last summer? It’s a particularly tough act for artistic director Clover Bell-Devaney to follow, because she was also one of the leads of Bone: playing “bouncing brunette Brenda in a break-out role,” Bell-Devaney gave a star turn as a young actress desperate to give a star turn in this comedy about making an indie film. One answer is to re-mount Four Dogs and a Bone at a larger venue in Pittsfield, the Berkshire Museum, with the same cast and director as last year. The other is to present another Shanley play, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Doubt, a Parable.
“The Shanley idea popped into my head” Bell-Devaney said in a phone interview during Saturday’s hectic load-in at the Berkshire Museum’s theater, usually the home for film screenings. ”He’s a playwright I admire and I loved Four Dogs and a Bone, so there it was last year. Basically it was a hit, but it was over before people read the great reviews. We had a tiny budget, no build up with publicity, and a space that was very small [the New Stage Performing Center on North Street in Pittsfield]. But now I had the set, the same cast and director, and a great offer at Berkshire Museum: Little Cinema stage, 220 seats, with a six-foot extension that we’re building. Now more people get a chance to see a known quality.”
But why Doubt as a second production when the play not only has made its rounds through the Equity theaters, community theaters and colleges, but was turned into a 2008 Academy Award-nominated film version starring Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, Amy Adams as Sister James and Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller?
“Well, I got in touch with [Shanley] last fall and told him about our production. We became friends, he gave me some insights and advice, and I thought, ‘I’ll do these two plays in repertory.’ He’s been great, though he’s a little tired of talking about the autobiographical aspects. So that’s something other productions haven’t had,” she laughed.
I asked if the four person cast of Bone would in true repertory fashion take on the four character Doubt.
“I’m the only one to double up, playing Sister James, the Amy Adams role, in Doubt.
“The best thing Patrick Shanley did,” said Bell-Devaney, “was introduce me to the real Sister James, Sister Margaret Entee. She’s 76 now and so cute. She was 21 then, his first grade teacher. We met in November and she took me to meet the Sisters of Charity, and then Mount St. Vincent College, where the film was shot and she showed me where she was and where she’d talked to Meryl Streep; Sister Margaret was a consultant on the movie. It was like she re-lived her movie experience. She actually lived it. She’s a character I’m playing. It was particularly awesome. Sister Margaret will be up for July 1 Q&A after the performance, so there’s something else that makes our production of Doubt unique.”
Brad Berridge directs Berkshire Actors Theatre’s Doubt, which opens June 21 and runs through July 14. Four Dogs and a Bone runs July 2-15. Both B.A.T. productions are at the Berkshire Museum (39 South St., Pittsfield, Mass.); for tickets and info, call (413) 443-7171.