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Elder cares: (l-r) Seal and Vaughn in BTF’s Quartet.

An Aria of Aging
By Ralph Hamman

Quartet
By Ronald Harwood, directed by Vivian Matalon

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 27

Although he never appears on stage, there is a fifth character whose presence looms large in the American premiere of Ronald Harwood’s lovely and loving tribute to art and those who are its conduit to an audience. He is Giuseppe Verdi, the genius of Italian opera whose quartet from Act III of Rigoletto is the catalyst to this play’s action, an attempt by four long-retired opera stars to relive the glory of their past. Two factors make Verdi an apt choice for Harwood. First, Verdi valued the heart before the intellect in his composing. Second, he lived to the age of 88, and it was in his advanced years that he composed two of his masterpieces: Otello (at age 74) and Falstaff (at age 80).

Accordingly, the memory of the ageless master has a powerful hold over Harwood’s four septuagenarians (or near-septuagenarians) who want not so much to regain the glory of their best years as much as reexperience or vividly remember it. The catalyst is a rerelease on CD of their famous recording of Rigoletto, which prompts Reginald “Reggie” Paget (Robert Vaughan) to propose a new performance, however diminished, of the quartet from Rigoletto in celebration of Verdi’s upcoming birthday. Wilfrid Bond (Paul Hecht) and Cecily “Cissie” Robson (Kaye Ballard) are game, but Jean Horton (Elizabeth Seal) is not. The conflict, serious and humorous, is provocative in its examination of a life in art, the obligation of the artist, the loss or compromise of a cherished ability, the responsibility to community and, especially, the courage necessary to create.

There is something profoundly touching and tragically heroic in the image of the four, who still feel the music passionately but cannot, unlike Verdi, emerge triumphantly from retirement. Harwood’s quartet must struggle with the indignities of aging that rob each of his or her stamina, flexibility, memory and voice. Fortunately, they are played by a seasoned cast who, poignantly, are playing characters not far removed from their own ages. Each is as distinctly realized as the part she or he played in Rigoletto, and while their lives may no longer be operatic in scale, their emotions are grand.

All give evidence of their former statures even while they are suffering the indignities of their present, lowered status. Part of the play’s delight lies in watching them cope with a life that strips them of control as it puts them under the care of unseen nurses, cooks and servers like the devilish Angelique, who continually cheats Reggie of his preferred jelly at breakfast. Each performance is marked with a degree of warmth that makes the character’s accommodations to life in the retirement community a measure of their resilient dignity.

For Wilfred, the chance to perform again offers a distraction from his constant preoccupation with sex and missed libidinous opportunities. Part of Hecht’s success lies in his ability to make “Wilf” more than a lecherous old man, but rather, one who is winking at his own compulsion to let no sexual innuendo go unturned in his mind. Beautifully complementing him, as well as serving as the object of his secretly muttered (when she can’t hear him) lustings, is Ballard, one of our most dear comediennes. Sitting like a complacent Buddha lost in the reverie of music, Ballard radiates contentment and gracefully endears Cissie to us.

As the newest arrival, Seal balances vulnerability with an off-putting enmity that is part of the character, but which does not fit comfortably with the overall tone of the play. Certainly the contrast between Jean and the other characters is necessary, but fewer sharps would instill a bit more harmony in the play’s final music.

In Reggie, the play’s soul, Harwood has written a rich part like those complex, momentous ones he used to write for Albert Finney, and in which Finney triumphed in The Dresser. Irascible, intelligent, visionary, lofty, undaunted, and unexpectedly warm, Reggie requires an actor of the magnitude and range of a Finney. Robert Vaughn is that rare talent who transcends previous work and compels our attention with a fusion of pure charisma and assiduous, consummate craft.

Vaughn combines a mature sense of danger and intrigue with childlike defiance, trust and twinkling optimism. Working with every fiber of his body, he is a master of concealed hurt, prickling anger and magnanimity. Harwood has written Reggie one of the most inspiring speeches about what it means to be an artist, and with his irrepressible dignity, Vaughn is an eloquent spokesman for the timeless quest and tenacious spirit of the artist.

Vivian Matalon has ably guided the production and perfectly counterbalanced humor and seriousness. The play grows richer and, odd for a drama of this sort, funnier as it progresses into its stronger, second act. The final moments are inspired—at once touching and hysterical.

Screwed

Miss Julie
By August Strindberg, adapted by Craig Lucas, based on a translation by Anders Cato, directed by Anders Cato

Unicorn Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Festival, through July 20

The set is an upper-class Swedish kitchen on Midsummer’s Eve, circa 1890. Into the kitchen come and go and come the cook, Kristine (Rebecca Creskoff), the valet, Jean (Mark Feuerstein), and the count’s daughter, Miss Julie (Marin Hinkle). The kitchen is distressed white wood; at center is a wooden table with a huge faded gold pole—on which the table revolves—improbably thrust through its middle. Lilacs bloom outside the door, and the sun creates shadows that lengthen during this intermissionless, 90-minute play on the tug of war between the sexes and the classes. Fauna and ferns, light and shadow, flesh and chemises wage war, too.

Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Miss Julie is a handsome production that looks like a cross between the Pottery Barn and Victoria’s Secret. That handsome couples couple when stripped to the waist or flashing cleavage and/or white thongs makes perfect aesthetic sense here. The world premiere adaptation of Strindberg’s 19th-century treatise on naturalism and misogyny engrosses, especially as the title character engorges Jean and the stylized copulations begin. This is the sexiest, most virile—and most vile—production of the summer.

Adaptor and director Craig Lucas asks in his production notes, “How do you make Miss Julie speak to a contemporary, American audience?” And the answer is: You cast three very attractive performers with substantial film credits (each thanking Allison Levy, their agent, in their bios) in the roles of the three lovers, costume them so that they each display substantial flesh, give them an attractive set and let them copulate, howl, growl, wheedle, whine, plead, beg, slurp, and slap with an aesthetic that is one part naturalism, one part expressionism, and one part sex appeal. Strindberg’s poetry and insights into the psyche of man- and woman-in-heat (and in loathing) thus get played out against a backdrop that keeps the eyes open, even as the ears soak in what is, in essence, a diatribe against class division and the possibility of romance. Jean and Miss Julie, and Jean and Kristine, don’t make love—they screw. Then they screw with each other’s heads.

BTF’s Miss Julie quickens the pulse as it quickens its pace, the three characters moving in Copernican orbits around their objects of desire. Director Cato has the three move in a stylized frenzy that keeps the kitchen clean even as it is soaked with fluids. The pheromones fly in Miss Julie.

—James Yeara


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