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W-I-N-N-E-R

By Kathryn Lange

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Rachel Sheinkin, concept by Rebecca Feldman

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Mass., through July 12

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has spelled success for Barrington Stage Company since it premiered there in 2004. Now, after a lauded spin on Broadway that garnered the locally grown play two Tony awards, the Bee has returned home to the Berkshires. And the folks at Barrington Stage have given their baby the welcome home it deserves.

Beowulf Boritt’s dynamic set establishes the animated energy of the production before a single speller steps on stage. The skewed school-gymnasium stage is flanked by banks of angled lockers and banners announcing Putnam Middle School’s athletic successes in everything from field hockey to jai alai. Massive cartoon piranhas—the Putnam school mascot—loom over the 10 wooden school chairs at center.

The set conveys the thrust of the show with a visual bang. It’s bold, colorful and funny; it’s intimidating and familiar. Teamed with Jeff Davis’s sometimes subtle, sometimes extreme lighting, the set transforms from auditorium to intimate dreamland to total “pandemonium.” And when the bevy of spelling-bee hopefuls bursts on stage for the first big number, the forced perspective makes the grown-up cast seem like a bunch of oversized kids.

The kids are, very intentionally, not so much characters as caricatures. They each have their ticks and neuroses—chewing pigtails, blowing noses, deep breathing, salutes—and they never falter. These six are outcasts from the delicate world of children and, finally part of something, they vie to connect and compete with equal fervor.

Jennifer Caprio’s vivid costuming leaves no defining detail unexplored, and careful layering of costume elements allows for quick, mostly onstage transformations in the few instances of doubling. Leaf Coneybear (Clifton Guterman), the Great Barrington homeschooler, rides on stage in quilted corduroys, stickers smacked on his bike helmet, hippied-out down to his Birkenstocks and rainbow toe socks. Logainne Swartzandgrubenierre (her two dads opted out of the hyphen), the lisping 8-year-old straight-laced liberal played with delightful and heart-wrenching intensity by Hannah DelMonte, spends much of the bee straightening her tie and political buttons, and smoothing her carefully coordinated argyle sweater and pants. Only the wild red pigtails betray her tiny chaos.

Each character is visually defined to minutiae—Chip Tolentino’s (Miquel Cervantes) Boy Scout uniform, Marcy Park’s (Emy Baysic) Catholic schoolgirl, Olive Ostrovsky’s (Molly Ephraim) painfully shy but equally sweet everygirl, and William Barfee’s (Eric Petersen) slouching, disheveled, mucousy prep-school boy—and the actors run, unabashed, with their stereotypes. The three adult characters—spelling-bee host Rona Lisa Peretti (Sally Wilfert), vice principal Douglas Panch (Michael Mastro) and parolee comfort counselor Mitch (Demond Green)—are equally caricatured. Wilfert and Mastro create a dry comic team, conducting the bee with hilarious exasperation and matter-of-fact absurdity. As Mitch, decked out in dreadlocks, denim, and purple satin, Green offers eliminated spellers a hug and a juice box, and the occasional song. But, as broad as these caricatures are, storming their way through this competitive musical comedy, the details imbue them with familiar reality, and in the end, with sometimes-painful honesty.

Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning book steadily delivers hearty laughs, unexpected turns (even a smart device of audience participation), and innocent insight into the hearts of children. The music (and lyrics by Barrington Stage’s own William Finn) is consistently delightful, a true ensemble score. “Pandemonium,” performed by the entire ensemble, is fun, frantic, and high-pressure. But “The I Love You Song,” sung by Olive and her parents, is the showstopper: exquisite, agonizing, honest and lonely. Ephraim, joined by Wilfert and Green, who step out of their central roles for the number, tackled the chilling harmonies with power and tenderness. It is the single tear-jerking moment in a usually light show, and it packs enough dramatic punch for a big pack of Kleenex.

The cast is exceptional, perceptively selected by Pat McCorkle. Petersen is hilarious and curiously endearing as William Barfee (“pronounced Barfé,” he is forced to insist repeatedly). Though wildly different in detail, Logainne and Marcy are both intense overachievers whose high expectations of themselves prove to be their most poignant weaknesses, and DelMonte and Baysic portray their respective roles with a both ferocity and vulnerability. Wilfert’s clear, controlled soprano and Broadway polish are well-suited to Rona Lisa Peretti’s own careful affectations. Ephraim was somewhat inconsistent early in the performance, but more than made up for it by the end; her Olive was a delicate, honest touchstone throughout. And Green truly shone in his triple roles as Mitch, Dad, and Dan (one half of the Swartzandbrubenierres), infusing all three with carefully balanced comedy and substance, and some of the show’s best vocals.

Director Jeremy Dobrish keeps the whole shebang—which, just like an attempt to organize actual kids, has the potential to shoot in a thousand uncontrolled directions—tight, cohesive, funny as hell, and always driving home. It reminds us about the petty pressures we put on our children, and, perhaps more important, the petty pressures we continue to put on ourselves. Lighten up! This is grade school as you remember it. Life as you remember it—just a little more colorful, a little more crazy, and with a little more singing.

Sweet Reprise

Candida

By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Anders Cato

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 5

“ ‘Ah, James!’ sighs Candida to Reverend Morell [They embrace. But they do not know the secret in the poet’s heart.]”—so read the last line and stage directions of Candida by George Bernard Shaw.

In 1928, Berkshire Playhouse (renamed the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1967) had its inaugural season, and among such (then) popular fare as the two A.A. Milne plays made into movies, The Romantic Age, a whimsical adult fantasy, and the madcap drama-mystery-comedy Mr. Pim Passes By, the troupe presented George Bernard Shaw’s Candida, first published in 1898 in a collection called Plays Pleasant.

Eight decades later, Berkshire Theatre Festival celebrates its 80th anniversary with a production of Candida that captures Shaw’s wit and humor and weathers the years in ways Winnie the Pooh’s creator’s plays did not. From the cramped study of St. Dominic’s Vicarage overlooking Victoria Park to the perfectly timed reactions of the six-actor cast, BTF’s Candida is the perfect tribute to the troupe’s illustrious past and a benchmark of its excellence today.

Candida focuses on the relationship of the aptly named Reverend James Morell (Michel Gill), like Shaw, a much-in-demand and acclaimed Socialist orator; his reclamation project Eugene Marchbanks (Finn Wittrock), an awkward teenage poet but the estranged nephew of an earl; and Morell’s wife, Candida (Jayne Atkinson), a woman so sublime she needs only one name. The perfect set by scenic designer Hugh Landwehr is cramped with the accumulation of Victorian middle-class status ware: figurines, clock, green flocked wallpaper, wooden tables piled with books and a typewriter, and, presiding over all, a copy of Titian’s Virgin of the Assumption, which Shaw stated was placed there by Marchbanks “because he fancied some spiritual resemblance between” Candida and the Virgin Mary. In such small touches are great themes enunciated.

Aided by his secretary, Miss Proserpine Garnett (Samantha Soule), and his curate, Reverend Alexander Mill (Jeremiah Wiggins), Reverend Morell is a do-gooder who actually fits the action to the words, the words to the action—even if he is overly fond of the words. His sparing with Candida’s pompous, conservative businessman father, Mr. Burgess (David Schramm), finds him in fine form: “We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.” Shaw’s century-old words still ring true today. In addition to his speaking engagements on behalf of Socialist causes, his Sunday sermons and his sparing with Burgess, Morell shares the household duties with his family and guests, and takes in the wayward Eugene—not casting a moment’s regret on the deed until Eugene declares his love for Candida.

Therein, as Hamlet says, lies the rub.

Candida is a woman worth fighting for, as the Reverend Morell makes very clear to the lapels of Marchbanks’ coat after Eugene declares, “I imagine King David, in his fits of enthusiasm, was very like you. But his wife despised him in her heart.” The blow to Morell’s ego is too quick—Marchbanks skewers not only Morell’s marriage but his occupation—and the battle for Candida is on. Morell leaves Marchbanks alone with his wife for the evening as a test of her faithfulness. Though Candida is no cougar, it’s never good to give anyone a surprise pop quiz.

The cast is uniformly excellent, finding exact physical movements that convey the characters perfectly, and timing their responses so that believability and meaning coexist equally with the audience’s laughter. These are performances that do BTF’s 80-year history proud.

At the play’s core are Reverend Morell and Candida. Atkinson has the power and beauty of Angelica Huston in her prime, and I understood the inspiration Marchbanks felt. But Gill’s Morell is too much the do-gooder, too pleasant to believe the physical threats and the craven conservatism, which he hides at his core until threatened. I’ve seen actual couples perform onstage equally comfortably, but not all plays call for such marital comfort.

Director Anders Cato has created a wonderful evening’s entertainment in celebration of BTF’s anniversary. But, as with Dante (who loved Beatrice all his life, but never consummated the relationship, using her as the inspiration for his poetry) and Cyrano (ditto, only Roxane), Shaw’s 50-year love relationship with Mrs. Campbell, as evidenced by their letters, is another example of the “secret of the poet’s heart” displayed through Shaw’s last stage direction in Candida. The secret in the poet’s heart remains unilluminated here.

—James Yeara

 


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