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Mounful music: McCarthy in The Elliott Smith Project.

PHOTO: Joanne Savio

It’s All Too Much

By John Brodeur

The Elliott Smith Project


Spiegeltent, Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, Aug. 3

U ntil his death in October 2003, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith was one of the indie-music scene’s brightest lights, having crafted several fine albums of Beatlesque folk-pop, and earning one Oscar nomination, during his all-too-short career. Smith’s songs were methodically dichotomous, matching bright melodies with melancholy turns of phrase that chronicled his long-fought battles with addiction and depression, his brittle tenor voice at once childlike and world-weary, hopeful and helpless. Even in death this dichotomy was apparent—reportedly sober and in good spirits for his last several months, Smith took his own life, also reportedly, by stabbing himself in the heart.

Fittingly, on the eve of what would have been Smith’s 38th birthday, Bard College’s Summerscape program staged The Elliott Smith Project, a performance based on Smith’s posthumously released From a Basement on the Hill album. Conceived and directed by Daniel Fish specifically for the Spiegeltent, a covered outdoor venue that, inside, resembles a gigantic carnival carousel, Basement seemed a difficult subject for a full-length music-theater piece: The album, despite the obvious best intentions of its handlers, is an uneven, meandering mess (Smith never fully completed its recording; the project was corralled down by colleagues from its intended double-album length to a single disc), and the record’s topics, as catalogued above, aren’t exactly ripe for translation—who would really want to see the interpretive-dance component to “I know my place/I hate my face/I know how I begin and how I’ll end/Strung out again”?

So here’s a big sigh of relief for what The Elliott Smith Project actually turned out to be: elegant and graceful at its shoe-gazing best, and only fleetingly wonky. Three musicians (George Gilmore, Ben Lively and C.P. Roth, handling bass, violin, guitar, ukulele and piano between them) were placed at booths on the perimeter of the round room; a stage at one end held a baby grand piano (used only once) with a desk lamp, plus a monitor displaying a feed from a handheld camera operated by video designer Alex Eaton.

Small goldfish bowls adorned each of the small cabaret tables in the room’s center circle, likely Fish’s bit of self-tribute but also perhaps an allegory for Smith’s despondent psyche, if not for this performance as a whole. Two vocalists, Henry Stram and Theresa McCarthy, traded lines, and, on “Little One,” single words, giving Smith’s words a pronounced and heartbreaking clarity. The staging had Stram moping, mostly, while McCarthy sat still at a small table on the opposite side of the room. Again with the dichotomy: Stram’s pacing and acting-out represented Smith’s threadbare emotional core, while the more composed McCarthy played the (relatively) brighter side. (Sometimes too bright: Her upper-register vocals sometimes came off as twee and cloying, two things that simply do not complement lines like “I can’t prepare for death any more than I already have.”)

As much as this may have been “music theater,” it served more succinctly as a showcase for what is actually Smith’s best overall collection of songs. Reworked for this small ensemble, the layers of studio noise stripped away, the songs revealed their innate, intimate beauty. Fish’s production ran Basement’s sequence in reverse, beginning with “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to Be Free,” whose refrain of “Shine on me, baby/’cause it’s raining in my heart” was a theme of sorts for this hour of distorted reality. With so much going on around the theater, never one clear focal point, it was the audience’s best bet to be the goldfish, to simply close their eyes and float in the surroundings.

Lovely Senior Moments

Morning’s at Seven

By Paul Osborn, directed by Vivian Matalon

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 11

The screen door slams. The white Victorian homes are mirror images, their backyards exact reflections of their owners, right down to the matching stumps exactly in the middle of their backyards. White picket fences on both the outer boundaries keep outsiders out and insiders in. Both houses have three people leaving them, both have a husband and wife, both have Gibb sisters in them, and into the houses the sisters come and go, speaking of their mingled woes, as the screen door slams behind them.

Paul Osborn’s 1939 play about the intertwined lives of the four elderly Gibbs sisters in 1922 “in an American town” would at first blush seem to be as sentimental and saccharine as any painting you’d find in the nearby Norman Rockwell Museum. In its 79th season, Berkshire Theatre Festival at first blush would seem to be indulging its old age, mirroring its audience with the sort of dinner theater nostalgia by dipping 27 years into director Vivian Matalon’s past by producing the same play he had such success with in 1980. And at first blush, learning that the play’s title isn’t a grammatical error but taken from the Robert Browning poem that ends with “God’s in His heaven /All’s right with the world,” Morning’s at Seven seems to promise a delusional disdain for reality, a right-wing glorification of the idylls of the past recollected in the hatred for the present. But it’s not.

The frequently slamming screen doors on the back porches punctuate how wrong at first blush responses are. Morning’s at Seven is a surprisingly funny, witty, honest, sweet. This is the sort of play that in lesser hands that would be a mess of silly muggings and cloying posing. In the hands of Berkshire Theatre Festival, Morning’s at Seven is a jewel, and all is indeed right with this world.

Thor Swanson has been married for more than 50 years to Cora (Lucy Martin), whose sister Aaronetta Gibbs (Joyce Van Patten) has lived with them for decades, right next-door to their sister Ida (Debra Jo Rupp), her husband of 50 years Carl (Jonathan Hogan), and their 40-year-old, appropriately named son Homer (Kevin Carolan), who upsets the calm of their lives by bringing home his girlfriend of 12 years, the 39-year-old Myrtle (Chistianne Tisdale), to finally meet his family. When Cora’s, Aaronetta’s, and Ida’s sister Esther (Anita Gillette) turns up, defying her husband’s edict to have nothing to do with her sisters, only to be turned out of her house blocks away by her fastidious, Gibb-disdaining husband David (David Green), crises occur, mostly of identity: Who am I, where am I in life, why am I here, and how did Homer ever get Myrtle pregnant?

That act three works all this out doesn’t diminish the means or the ends. Matalon has his cast toned and fine-tuned, and it is a mark that all is right with the play that the acting is uniformly excellent: recognizably human in all our failings, eccentricities, and possibilities. Each actor has created a specific character, whose physicality creates laughter even in stillness; it’s a wise cast that trusts silence and stillness, and a smarter director who teaches such trust. Each actor has his or her moments, and it’s a pleasure to laugh and listen to the laughter created in others, as well as the deeper “ohs” that accompany the epiphanies that come out almost as epigrams: “you can be alone in a lot of different ways,” “I get awful sick of being still all the time,” “when you come right down to it, it’s the woman who should be the happiest,” “did you ever hear of a grown male dog who would leave his mother?”

At first blush that last question may not seem so profound, but BTF’s Morning’s at Seven will surprise you.

—James Yeara

Dreadfully Miscast

Antony and Cleopatra

By William Shakespeare, directed by Michael Hammond

Shakespeare and Company, Lenox, Mass., through Sept. 2

She’s an icon whose name conjures thoughts of seductiveness, exotic beauty, glamour, sensuality and ambition. Shakespeare describes her as “a lass unparallel’d” and says, “Age cannot wither her.” Numerous luminaries have portrayed her on screen and stage.

Now there is Tina Packer’s Cleopatra. Packer has claimed that Shakespeare wrote this play about middle-aged lovers, a claim that doesn’t gibe with the term “lass” and which would seem to deny that certain lifestyles and events (like becoming Queen of Egypt at age 17 or 18) can mature a person beyond her numerical years. At any rate, it will be a personal call whether one accepts Packer’s Queen of the Nile as a passable Cleopatra. Like that pesky and unimaginative kid in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” I can’t.

Nor do I think would Shakespeare, who employed young boys made up to play such lasses. In her 60s and full-figured, Packer neither seduces nor suggests the sensual or exotic. The first and lasting impression of her flirting in a décolleté garment is not of Cleopatra, but Doll Tearsheet, Juliet’s nurse, Mistress Quickly or some strumpet better suited to the bar or barn than the barge. It doesn’t help to have her constantly attended by such slim (and Nordic-looking) beauties as Christianna Nelson and Molly Wright Stuart, both of whom give committed performances, but suggest nothing of Egypt.

Packer’s delivery is nearly flawless. She practically suckles the verse and uses it to manipulate all those around her. One can understand why an actress of her experience and emotional range would want to play Cleopatra, and indeed she does very well at using the words for their seductive power. So too does her eulogy to Antony achieve a lovely power. But this is not an audio version or a radio play, and although it may seem harsh to say so, the image of her puckish trollop destroys the illusion of her words. Nonetheless, that she pulled it off without inviting derision is a tribute to her skills, and perhaps I am at fault for not being able to see her Cleopatra. Certainly, she does make one take stock of one’s preconceptions as to who and what this icon actually was, and that is no small accomplishment.

As Marc Antony, her ill-fated lover, Nigel Gore is the very wreck of a warrior that Cleopatra has made of him, or as Shakespeare puts it, “the noble ruin of her magic.” He handles Antony’s bi-polar flights of anger and extended monologues with conviction and forcefulness. Vocally, he is almost a match for Packer, a trait that helps in a production where one can’t understand the attraction, particularly when he has a wife so comely as the devoted Octavia of the double-cast Molly Wright Stuart.

Double-casting 12 roles in the epic play doesn’t help the viewer keep track of who’s who or with whom one’s alliances lie. That this seldom-seen play achieves sufficient clarity as to draw us into its political intrigues and difficult love affair is a tribute to Michael Hammond’s clean direction. Indeed, I think it may be among the most soberly considered yet continuously involving instances of direction that I have seen in the company’s 30 years.

Partly because they aren’t double cast, Craig Baldwin and Walton Wilson are better able to focus on making, respectively, Octavius Caesar and Enobarbus more dimensional than other characters. Baldwin, who always appears to be in spontaneous thought, almost emerges as the hero of the play, a rational man who contrasts to the headstrong Antony. And if one doesn’t especially warm to Antony or Cleopatra, characters who are selfish and destructive not only to themselves but to legions of others, then one will likely admire the Enobarbus of Walton Wilson. For me, his suffering and self-loathing at having abandoned Antony is the most moving moment in the play, and Wilson plays all with authority and dignity.

In the end, I am glad to have heard this rarely performed play; next time I’d like to see it with a Cleopatra who commands with physical grace as well as vocal. Maybe even an actress of color for a change.

—Ralph Hammann

Just Plain Corny

The Corn is Green

By Emlyn Williams, directed by Nicholas Martin

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 12

The Williamstown Theatre Festival has a fine tradition for dusting off forgotten classics and infusing them with new life. Peter Hunt did so memorably with Counselor-at-Law (a success for Kate Burton, too) and stunningly with Death Takes a Holiday. Nicholas Martin tried it with The Royal Family but achieved it royally with Dead End, another potential liability that lived anew with Martin’s great cast and James Noone’s no-limits set.

Martin, Noone and Burton are back. And the prospect of producing Corn with this trio and the additional presence of Burton’s son Morgan Ritchie, must have sealed the deal. But this Corn isn’t exactly green. Nor is it butter yellow or sugar-white. Past its season, it’s just corn.

Williams wrote this semi autobiographical play as a sort of tribute to the teacher who made a difference in his life by giving him the tools to rise above social status and achieve his potential. Indeed, there is writing to sporadically savor, and the first act is a model of fine exposition, but eventually it turns to melodrama, in the unflattering sense of the word, and becomes dated in matters of plotting, dialogue and character development.

Burton plays Miss Moffat, a spinster whose mission it is to create a school in a rough Welsh mining town where the fates of the boys are consigned to darkness of mine and mind. The wealthy squire, who owns the mine, blanches at the notion that education may hurt his business, and it is Moffat’s manipulation of him that actually constitutes, for me, the play’s major interest. But it is the dynamic between her and Morgan Evans, a rough mining lad in whom she senses genius that is at the play’s rather too-obvious heart.

It’s a good part for Burton who sinks her teeth into all of the dramatic moments and, unfortunately, a few of the melodramatic ones. It’s all very well until one realizes that some finer shadings are missing. We don’t sense enough of the change, the new life or inspiration that Morgan’s growth breathes into Moffat. Part of the problem is that Burton is too much of an unstoppable force when she first embarks on the idea of a school. Matters aren’t helped when Burton plays out downstage in almost melodramatic nature to the audience.

As Morgan Evans, Morgan Ritchie is very good, and quickly comes into his own with a performance that sometimes feels more natural than that of his seasoned mother. Deft facial expressions subtly reveal the battles being fought in his mind between traditional obligations and a newly forming sense of duty to his talent.

Ginnifer Goodwin, so good at playing the purity and innocence of her character on HBO’s Big Love, proves equally adept at playing the scheming cockney beauty, Bessie Watty, whose plight engenders our anger and compassion.

Wonderfully at home as Mrs. Watty, Bessie’s mother, Becky Ann Baker creates a ruddy Cockney housekeeper who frequently provokes unexpected laughter in her direct disclosures of feelings that stray humorously far from the maternal image she projects.

The biggest delight in this production is Dylan Baker in his continuously hilarious performance of the squire. Here is a portrait of stupidity that is so funny as to make a virtue of stupidity. Fine-tuning his every utterance and perfecting his every perplexed look so as to make us laugh involuntarily at this bluff duffer, Baker is a blessing to the show. Even when he goes silent he induces smiles in the audience.

For all of the earnest performances and comic surprises, Williams’ play remains a melodrama that hasn’t dated well, but more than that: It doesn’t move me.

—Ralph Hammann


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