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Arms are for hugging: David Schramm in BTF’s Heartbreak House.

What a Lovely War Play
By Ralph Hammann

Heartbreak House
By George Bernard Shaw, directed by Anders Cato
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through July 24

The Berkshire Theatre Festival is the place to be this summer for anyone seeking works that address our social concerns and, in the case of the current production, national and international concerns about war. As the major theaters have thus far offered only piffle done with varying degrees of success, the BTF has steadfastly presented theater that matters and resounds beyond the performance night, relevant theater that speaks to our needs and engages our minds.

Of the BTF’s productions, none is so important as Shaw’s magnificent and frequently hilarious antiwar play, Heartbreak House.

From the outset, it is clear that director Anders Cato respects Shaw’s vision. We first see the production’s integrity in the grand set that faithfully realizes Shaw’s description of the eccentric Captain Shotover’s home, which has been designed to resemble a ship, replete with bridge and wheel.

Jeff Cowie’s design, fabulous and fanciful, captures Shaw’s wayward wit, and technical director Victor G. McQuiston and his team have rendered it with consummate craft. Molding refuses to follow a straight line and, instead, mimics the ocean’s erratic waves. The walls are a night sky of constellations, lovingly painted with mythical figures. Columns with elegantly arching supports exalt the arch humor and sweep us into Shotover’s imagination, which is, essentially, Shaw’s.

Shotover’s “ship” is, of course, the ship of state. Metaphorically, it is England and Europe before World War I. As Shaw wrote in his extensive preface, Heartbreak House “is cultured, leisured Europe before the war”—and blissfully, blithely ignorant of its coming or its consequences, the ardent pacifist might have added.

Besides Shotover (now an inventor whose only salable inventions are those of mass destruction), the household includes his two daughters, glamorous and smart Hesione and sharp-tongued Ariadne. There are also Hesione’s flirtatious, svelte husband, Hector Hushaby, and her young friend, Ellie Dunn, who is in love with Hector but willing to marry a fat businessman named Boss Mangan. Additionally, there are Ariadne’s adoring, ineffectual brother-in-law, Randall; Ellie’s idealistic father, Mazinni Dunn; and an old retainer, Nurse Guinness. A 10th little Englishman, a burglar with odd ethics, has been cut by Cato, and while the excision doesn’t bleed, it does deprive the play of some humor and meaning.

Presiding, but just barely, over the ship of fools, John Horton is an authoritatively Shavian Shotover whose gruff admonitions puncture pretense with reliable riposte. He meets his match in Sara Drew’s lovely, matter-of-fact Ellie, who, catapulted into the madness, moves believably from mouse hole into catbird seat. In one of the play’s most demanding roles, Drew draws us in with great skill that belies her relative youth. It is a remarkable performance, one that perfectly charts the changes in Shaw’s unpredictable waters.

As her intended, Boss Mangan, David Schramm wriggles and cannonballs through the twists of his role with surprising agility and force. Despite one ill-advised moment where he goes over the top, Schramm beautifully juggles comedy with pathos. Similarly graceful is Garret Dillahunt’s Hector, part poseur, part inaction hero.

Following an uneven start, Sarah Knowlton makes Ariadne an increasingly funny consort battleship with sharp putdowns for munitions. Allyn Burrows, in the best performance I’ve seen him give in the Berkshires, plays the recipient of her attacks with aplomb that rises even as his character’s dignity is dashed. Particularly effective in the department of diminished decorum is Patrick Husted’s feckless idealist. Elizabeth Ingram is an appropriately stout Guinness.

And then there is the sublime Marin Hinkle. As Hesione, she is the most seductively complacent resident of Heartbreak House, and from her first moments Hinkle controls the stage and the hearts of all but the most resolutely hardened. Lavishly gowned, Hinkle drapes herself about the set like a flourish of the architecture; in the final scene (superbly set in the romantic garden), her natural entwining is complemented by the ancient vines wending through the architecture. It is a brilliant touch. She is a product of years of upbringing in the leisured class, and her affectation has become natural—or a perversion of nature.

And this is one of Shaw’s points. It is also the reason he can’t completely condemn the carefree class who remain eternally innocent of the outer world’s economic and social woes—innocent to the degree that the ultimate arrival of German bombs is regarded as a bit of lovely excitement. Seldom has the ambivalent embrace of self-extinction been portrayed on stage so complexly, with such humor and humanity.

Perchance to Gaze in the Mirror

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare, directed by Nicholas Martin
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through July 25

A Midsummer Night’s Dream may be the most perfect play ever written. Dream pleases, no matter when and where it is set, no matter who performs it, no matter what the concept imposed by a director or interpretation of character set out by an actor. The clash of different worlds—the Nobles (Duke Theseus and his warrior would-be wife, Hippolyta) versus the four mismatched Lovers (Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius and Helena); the earnestly theatrical Rude Mechanicals (Bottom, Quince, Snout, Starveling, Flute and Snug) versus the vengeful Fairies (Oberon, Titania, and Puck)—creates sufficient variety of conflict, theme and character to interest and amuse even the most diverse audience. Dream is a dream, a crowd-pleaser, full of magic and mirth—more often than not.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also becoming a Berkshire mainstage swan song. Shakespeare & Company appropriately said farewell to its sylvan mainstage in 2001 with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the Tony Award-winning Williamstown Theatre Festival says farewell to its outdated Adams Memorial Theatre (to be replaced by an in-the-works, up-to-the-nanosecond, cutting-edge theater located right next door) by setting its Dream in . . . Williamstown, at the Adams Memorial Theatre. While Shakespeare & Company used the deep shadows of the Mount’s woods as a memorable three-dimensional forest of Athens full of three-dimensional characters, WTF performs a very reverential self-referential version; this is a Dream for those most smitten with WTF’s heady mix of celebrity and flash.

From the trompe l’oeil backdrop of the exterior of the theater that dominates the first act to the official WTF food cart that the Rude Mechanicals wheel in for their first rehearsal, to the fairies’ forest scenes set on a replica of the construction site next door, to the huge Dunkin’ Donuts sign the Rude Mechanicals roll on for the post-Bottom’s Dream scene, this is a dream kiss goodbye to WTF’s home for 50 years. It’s a celebration of what makes WTF WTF.

With a wonderful costume design by Michael Krass that has the Lovers and Nobles in Edwardian or Jazz-era clothes the color of champagne, the fairies in white-on-white glamour lingerie and wings and sparkles and glow lights, WTF’s Dream is executed with the precision of an entourage eviscerating the buffet during a long cocktail hour. While David Lansbury as Duke Theseus and Jennifer Van Dyck as Hippolyta manage some sparks as would-be monarch and wife, and the four mix-and-match Lovers (Jessica Stone, Dashiell Eaves, Jon Patrick Walker, Kathryn Hahn) mix it up and match up well on the slides and steps of the construction site “forest,” the fairies are more sound than fury. Puck (Christopher Fitzgerald) flying in very, very carefully on a wrecking ball sounds a lot more daring than it actually looked; his repeated shtick of exiting right and then having an exact replica running across stage was funny the first three times it was done, but by the 10th time the joke had gone flat. Not even John Bedford Lloyd’s tall, bald, and barrell-vowelled King Oberon or Kate Burton’s lovely, lingeried Queen Titania nudged this Dream beyond the confines of self-regard.

Even the Rude Mechanicals had a perfunctory, by-the-numbers staging, as if the cast party couldn’t start soon enough. Only when Andrea Martin’s (doing the elderly male version of her character from My Big Fat Greek Wedding) moustache came loose did the playfulness, the joy, the theatricality, the intimacy, the fun of A Midsummer Night’s Dream bubble out of this carefully contorted concept.

—James Yeara

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