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Who’s your Daddy? Eric Hill in The Father.

Laugh While It Hurts
By Ralph Hammann

The Father

By August Strindberg, adapted and directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, through July 16

There is a conspiracy underway at the Unicorn Theatre. It involves nothing less than rendering the relentlessly bleak and often stultifying Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s rarefied classics into vigorous, pulse- quickening works of contemporary immediacy. The chief conspirator is Anders Cato, who (aided by Marin Hinkle) previously reinvigorated the troublesome Miss Julie. Now, aided by Eric Hill’s sensational performance in the title role, Cato has turned The Father into a gloriously engrossing and entertaining thriller that rivals any blockbuster likely to appear in the cineplexes this summer.

While The Father is more than a genre piece, the archetypal thriller that it most resembles is Patrick Hamilton’s Gaslight (aka Angel Street), the work to which most psychological thrillers with domestic settings can trace their blood-tinged roots. In that piece, which gave us the term “gas-lighting,” a woman was slowly driven to think she was insane by her psychopathic husband. In The Father (to which Hamilton must owe some remote debt) the roles are reversed, societal dramatic underpinnings are greater and the psychological suspense is even more harrowing.

Besides melodrama of the class of Lillian Hellman, The Father is tragedy of Shakespearean reach and Sophoclean pacing, and, in Cato’s production anyway, true (and truly surprising) black comedy. It is one of the rare instances of that later genre where the laughter doesn’t spring from cruel irony but, instead, from actual horror. So effective, treacherous and realistically character-driven are the plot twists that one must laugh in place of screaming at the stage.

It helps to have the complex (and refreshingly politically incorrect) villain of Charlotte Maier’s placidly implacable Laura. Like her costume, designed by the remarkable Olivera Gajic, Laura is a very dry Burgundy decanted in sharply cut crystal. So visceral is her cunning work that it is only the aforementioned laughter that prevents one from wanting to pummel her into Karl Eigsti’s portentous, crimson-gashed scenery. I exaggerate, but only barely.

Far from the misogyny of which fools accuse Strindberg, Laura’s actions are grounded in clear motivations and caused by an unjust social hierarchy. Under other circumstances she would be the victim as in Miss Julie or Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, but in this case the woman is clearly and dangerously demented, and the husband’s actions are compelling. Not only is Captain Adolf a force of reason in a household ruled by its matriarchs’ superstitions and ignorance, but he is also trying to save the youngest member, his daughter, Bertha, from the corrosive and smothering force of her mother.

But as Gajic’s costuming frighteningly suggests, Bertha is doomed. Arrestingly played by Jill Renee Baker, Bertha is an intense presence whose angular facial features seem to have been fiercely chipped from a block of ice.

So deeply immersed in his character is Hill that his own strong presence is completely submerged and it takes several minutes to recognize that Captain Adolf is actually being played by Hill. It seems the reverse, that the character is playing the actor, which probably is as it should be. With sharply timed delivery, keen attention to details, and a general air of innate decency and vulnerability, Hill achieves tremendous empathy for his character, an intellectual outsider. Watching him gradually come apart under Laura’s slow evisceration is riveting, disturbing and the stuff of drama at its most primal.

Sing, Memory

Follies

Lyrics and music by Stephen Sondheim, book by James Goldman, directed by Julianne Boyd, choreographed by Lara Teeter, musical direction by Darren Cohen

Barrington Stage Company, Sheffield, Mass., through July 16

Barrington Stage Company’s current staging of the 1971 hit Follies, a musical about the imminent destruction of an old-time musical theater, pulls out all the stops. Displaying a wealth of talent in an expensive array of gorgeous costumes (designed by Alejo Vietti) before a richly detailed set (by Michael Anania), Follies is a musical for those who like their theater exclusive, extravagant and full of stars. Barrington’s Follies is Williamstown South, cashing in on the cachet of coproducing this year’s Tony Award-winning The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to entice the likes of Broadway legends Donna McKechnie (original Cassie in A Chorus Line), Marni Nixon (singing star behind the lead ingenue screen performances in West Side Story, The King and I, My Fair Lady), and Kim Crosby (original Cinderella in Into the Woods), along with a stellar cast to create director Julie Boyd’s opulent, sterling version of Follies.

The play centers on a group of aging “Weismann (the name is changed to protect Ziegfeld) Follies” girls returning to celebrate the scene of their glory just before the theater is to be demolished. It seemingly eschews the sentimental yet celebrates it with songs. Follies’ elastic time—with scenes of the girls’ past occurring often simultaneously with the scenes in the present—makes for a complicated through line, but director Boyd keeps the focus sharp and the stage pictures clear. Boyd is a master of clarity, and even when the stage is full of performers (especially during the tap-dance number with present ladies dancing beside their former selves), each is distinct and well spaced. This skill is most evident in the medley that closes Act II, which rolls out different settings and costumes and performers like memories tumbling out with stream-of-consciousness rapidity: Think talk therapy set to Sondheim’s score. Boyd keeps the action not only moving but clear and concise.

Follies is one set-piece showstopper after another, as if the disjointed memories, desires, regrets, hopes, fears and compromises of a dozen characters, past and present, spilled out and competed for the stage. Follies is a show of highlights. It’s a show of soliloquies. No sooner has some former chorus girl longed for the ghosts of her past (“One More Kiss,” with the stellar Marni Nixon as Heidi and Michelle Dyer as Younger Heidi) than some former stage-door Johnny laments his choices (“The Road You Didn’t Take”).

The hit of any production of Follies—and a song no Sondheim revue or cabaret should be without—is the aging movie-star Carlotta Campion’s (Donna McKechnie) “I’m Still Here.” McKechnie captures life’s aches and triumphs and generates some genuine emotion. The talented Leslie Denniston (star of StageWorks/Hudson’s Wit) is mesmerizing as Phyllis, the former Follies Girl, capturing the nastiness in “Could I Leave You?” and the naughtiness of “Ah, But Underneath,” done as a classic striptease during the finale. Such star turns are worth their weight in gold.

—James Yeara


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