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Historical hilarity: (l-r) Garrison and Stuhlbarg in WTF’s Travesties.

Tales of Great Ulysses
By Ralph Hammann

By Tom Stoppard, directed by Gregory Boyd

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 17

Trying to get one’s mind around this play is rather like trying to shake hands with a hyperactive, attention-starved octopus. I should think that directing it would be akin to establishing order in a roomful of Marx Brothers or, given some of the play’s wandering willow roots, a roomful of bothersome Marxists. Audacious, playful, anarchic, overwhelming, stimulating, overstimulating, hilarious—this is as good as theater gets.

Those parodied include: Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Henry Carr, a functionary in the British consulate in Zurich. All happened to be in Switzerland during World War I, the war that supposedly would end all wars. While Carr met Joyce when the former appeared in the latter’s production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (also parodied), Stoppard has conflated the four lives and their particular politics into a series of imagined encounters that take on the structure of Wilde’s play about the vanities that dangerously underlie all of society. To make matters crazier, it is all filtered through the erratic memory of Carr as an old man.

It is a linguistic feast, word salad and vegetal verbiage spun through Stoppard’s food-for-thought processor, and it is admirable that a director and company could digest it and memorize the play, let alone get it staged with the limited rehearsal time afforded summer festival productions. That they could create such a finely delineated, imaginatively attacked and painstakingly mounted a production is heroic.

Making a Chaplinesque entrance as Tzara, Michael Stuhlbarg proves a delightfully defiant Dadaist as he dexterously snips Shakespearean sonnets into new shapes. While we laugh at Tzara’s single-mindedness and stupidity in rejecting all traditional artistic and cultural values, Stuhlbarg rises to Tzara’s unexpected and necessary intrepidness when attacking the self-serving language of politicians, language that corrupts words like patriotism, duty, love, freedom and honor. “Wars are fought for oil wells,” he argues with stunning currency. “War is capitalism with the gloves off.”

Similarly are our feelings for Lenin subverted. Seemingly valorous in one moment, he becomes a subject for ridicule in the next, and Gregor Paslawsky authoritatively plays his contradictions with appropriate high-mindedness. Words taken verbatim from Lenin’s actual speeches before and during the Russian Revolution become risible, as when he argues for a free press under party control. George Orwell would have loved this play.

Stephen Spinella liltingly lights into Joyce, who is arguably given the most amusing and affectionate treatment by Stoppard. Whether deftly dancing through music-hall numbers or tripping through limericks, Spinella proves a consummate showman, and when the time comes for the travesty to temporarily subside, he is elegantly assertive. When asked, “And what did you do in the Great War?” he replies, “I wrote Ulysses. What did you do?”

The play’s most difficult role is Carr, the narrator, who must ramble as an old man through Beckettian memory monologues that exceed even Joyce’s stream of consciousness in their complexity. Having completed these navigations, which call into question the reliability of all the information we are presented, Carr must then transform into his younger self as he wanders back in time to 1917. He becomes increasingly dandified to the degree that he comes to resemble Algernon Moncrieff, the role he was enlisted to play in The Importance of Being Earnest. Required is an actor who can cross eras, genres, and styles with considerable energy and panache. In the role and all of its facets, David Garrison is brilliant.

Such delights do not cease with the major players. Lynn Collins and Kali Rocha are gracefully and libidinously hilarious as Gwendolyn and Cecily, respectively. Their custard-pie fight, superbly choreographed, removes the mannered subtext from Wilde and charges it with civilized violence, humiliation and sexuality.

Gregory Boyd has done a great service in giving form and focus to this work of genius that is, understandably, rarely performed. That his exhaustive work glides by with such seeming lack of effort is a tribute to his own genius and the talents of his flawless cast.

Fighting Words

King Lear

By William Shakespeare, directed by Tina Packer

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox., Mass., through Aug. 30

The startling costume design by Arthur Oliver serves as well as Edgar’s concluding epigram—“Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”—as a symbolic through line for Shakespeare & Company’s first full production of King Lear: The opening scene’s white-on-brilliant-white doublets, bodices, robes, and whirling-dervish skirts for the men slowly soil to shades of gray and beige by the dirty, bloody end. Kris Stone’s set design features a stage floor like a basketball court, framed by two sets of bamboo curtains upstage, and eight white, warped “windows to the soul, stretching to infinity” above the stage. Coupled with the flashes of lightning, blue shadows, circles of top spotlights, and sidelight angles of Matthew E. Adelson’s lighting design and the original soundtrack mélange of melodies from the Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, the stagecraft creates a world for King Lear as near as a dream, as intimate as a fairy tale, and as jarring as a nightmare. Tina Packer and company create a King Lear that combines the modern with the mythic in this play, which is at heart about families.

The fact that scholars believe that there are two distinct texts of Shakespeare’s King Lear gives the play a literary context: It is literature to be studied, not a play to be performed. And at three and a half hours, Packer and company’s melding of the two versions taxes both audience and cast.

Yet the battle in tone and dialogue between the two versions of Lear is quieted by the company’s aesthetic: You can hear the words, feel the words, see the words. The strong physicality of the troupe (what other troupe would dare to stage Gloucester’s blinding not by the typical thumb gouging but by having Regan’s husband suck the eye out and spit its red, pulpy mass onto the stage floor?), their ease with physical comedy and their daring with the spoken words makes this the most accessible King Lear I’ve seen. With this King Lear, you leave the theater stirred and full of questions.

This version centers on fathers and legacies: the ancient king’s (Jonathan Epstein) dealings with his three daughters, Goneril (Ariel Bock), Regan (Elizabeth Aspenlieder), and Cordelia (Kristin Wold); and the parallel plot with the king’s trusted advisor, the Earl of Gloucester (Johnny Lee Davenport), and his dealings with his sons Edgar (Jason Asprey) and Edmund (John Douglas Thompson). By Act IV, when Edgar tells his blinded, suicidal father, “Ripeness is all,” that mantra seems the only lifeline to hold in a play full of death, killing, suicide, madness, betrayal, and more lies, half-truths, and rank bullying than you see on an hour of Fox News.

While Epstein can rage as well as any Lear, it is in the surrounding cast that the heart of the play beats. If Lear, as he says in madness on the heath, is a man “more sinned against than sinning,” it is in Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Gloucester, Edmund, and, especially, the loyal servants Kent (Malcolm Ingram) and Lear’s Fool (Kevin G. Coleman) that sin lives and is punished.

Coleman’s Fool is a particular delight, a loose-limbed collection of humor who bites and pleases, who causes laughter and tears. Dressed in rustic motley, wearing white paint on half his face and a coxcomb headpiece like some Lakota shaman, Coleman’s Fool is Lear’s soul, watching from above in silent horror as Lear banishes Cordelia in the first scene, later mocking Goneril’s duplicity, then creating Christ images at the stock as Lear begins losing his sanity at Regan’s rejection, and finally, silently, leaving the stage after Lear wipes the Fool’s face of folly and removes his coxcomb. Such archetypal moments of loss of self are reflected throughout this cast in a production that ultimately fulfills Edgar’s “speak what we feel.”

—James Yeara

Mass. Transport

Berkshire Village Idiot

By Michael Isaac Connor, directed by Barry Edelstein

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, Aug. 10

Berkshire Village—an unpre- possessing section of Lanesboro, Mass., that fronts Route 8—is the inauspicious setting of Michael Isaac Connor’s mostly autobiographical one-man show in which he plays various denizens of that tiny, rustic neighborhood. Berkshire Village Idiot interestingly follows on the heels of the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s main stage production of Dylan Thomas’ portrait of small-town life in Wales, Under Milk Wood, but Connor’s poetic voice rings with far more clarity. Credit that to Connor’s gifts for language and impersonation and Barry Edelstein’s imaginative direction, which beautifully exploits every square foot of Derek McLane’s authentic auto-repair-shop setting. Aided enormously by Russell H. Champa’s clever lighting design, the garage is effortlessly transformed into various locales in the village and in Connor’s rapid-fire mind. With but a few well- utilized props, Connor spins his escalating tale, and by the climax we are more moved by his rough-hewn prose poetry than we were by Thomas’ far more lyrical verse.

While he inhabits more than a dozen characters, including the family dog, Connor’s main subjects are Mikey, himself at age 15, and his father, an ex-pugilist known as the Berkshire Bomber who temporarily forsook his family for military service in Thailand. Mikey never forgave his father for abandoning him in a place where he never felt he fit in with the locals, whose chief occupations included guzzling beer and shooting beavers in the local pond. Feeling like the village idiot, Mikey flew into adolescence with a chip on his shoulder the size of an Irish potato and a restless drive that could supply power for the town’s energy grid. The return of his father, and their subsequent fractious interactions—which culminate in a beaver-pond dispute—is the spine of this hot-wired story.

Moving about the stage as if engaged in some extreme sport, Connor doesn’t immediately engage our empathy. In the early stages it is difficult to sense the sensitivity, and arrogant Mikey is about as inviting as a well-used grease gun. The humor feels obvious and pushy, as in that of a smart-ass standup comic. Subject and oily setting homogenize, and one feels the intermissionless play may be interminable. Then something happens.

The characters become real, and Connor’s broad sketches resolve themselves into bold oil portraits: Intoxicated Uncle Jumbo and cathoholic Grandmother Lewis, along with the Kawasaki-driven Donny Saldo, ex-marine Jackie Tate, Irish Father Finley and others whose names I’ve forgotten, fill the stage—and we develop relationships with them just as Mikey does. Most important, Mikey/Connor becomes more poetic than glib, and the hurt that lies beneath his swaggering becomes real. And this is how it should be: Initially being put off by Mikey is part of the design that forces us to acknowledge our own tendencies for biased first impressions.

The character that impresses most is Bob Connor, the father who wanted to play a meaningful, if belated, role in his son’s adolescence. Bob is a gentle and misunderstood man of principles with a profound respect and love for nature, even in its seeming lowliest of forms. If Connor’s goal was to honor his father, he has succeeded in a clean, unsentimental manner shot through with honesty and bittersweetness.

—Ralph Hammann

Wide of the Mark


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, directed by Timothy Douglas, based on an idea by Charles Gilbert Jr.

Berkshire Theatre Festival, the Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 29

Assassins is a musical (a play with music would be a more accurate description) about seven men and two women who wanted to assassinate eight presidents of the United States. I thought that there was something daringly subversive about a mounting of Assassins given our current administration, which has left so many intelligent people feeling more alienated than ever. But then I read Timothy Douglas’ director’s note with its timorous disclaimer, “So please allow me to state for the record that I am completely against violence of any kind as a way of resolving conflicts.”

It is a statement that follows two earlier ones. In the first, Douglas says his frustration with the current administration has given him a visceral understanding of an assassin’s motivation. The second is a lulu: “My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the ‘invisible line’ that separates me from a similar or identical response.” Hmmmmm. It seems Douglas, who showed no such equivocation last year in his Insurrection: Holding History (with its disturbingly quasi-heroic treatment of Nat Turner), is trying to have and eat his proverbial cake.

I quote the above only because it may explain the failure of this show, which suffers from a lack of focus and tone. Advertised as a black comedy, instead it comes across too clinically contrived—as if the director were afraid of offending anyone. Douglas also claims that the play “was originally conceived to lend insight into individuals who’d felt sufficiently marginalized by this country’s practices and politics.” This may explain the oddly detached, sober and semirealistic tone of too many of the scenes.

But I’m not buying it—there is too much black wit in Sondheim’s lyrics. One may as well say that his Sweeney Todd was written to give insight into the marginalized lives of frustrated barbers and cannibals.

And Assassins is no Sweeney Todd: Apart from some of the lyrics, it is very disappointing Sondheim. But even at his worst, Assassins with its modest 10 songs attains cult status as a curiosity from the master. The dull book by John Weidman doesn’t give much to the actors; the characters are rarely more than ciphers offering little insight, which is why a serious take doesn’t work. There is simply no one who invites us fully enough into his or her obsession.

Still, credit must be given to Andrew Michael Neiman’s earnest work as Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley), Aric Martin’s well-voiced Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), and Eric Loscheider, who seems a dead-ringer for John Hinckley.

Joe Jung makes a sympathetic Lee Harvey Oswald, but the climatic scene at the Texas Book Depository lacks impact and credibility.

Jill Michael and Megan Ofsowitz come closest to finding the right humor in their loopy portrayals of Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, who both bungled their separate attempts to shoot Gerald Ford, one of our funniest presidents.

Michael Baker lacks the panache we’d expect from John Wilkes Booth, while Meg Wieder lacks presence as Emma Goldman (who was not an assassin but is credited with inspiring Czolgosz). Ah, what would dear Emma say today?

—Ralph Hamman

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