cares: (l-r) Seal and Vaughn in BTFs Quartet.
Aria of Aging
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.
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