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Berkshire weekend: rainy skies, fiery dancing, and Wharton's words

Not even the rain can spoil a weekend in the Berkshires. Especially if you're interested in exploring the area's many artistic treats. We did last weekend, and found the warmth and hospitality of the area undiminished by the flood waters that poured down from the skies.

The rain began while my friend and I were eating at a charming restaurant in Lenox, the Church Street Cafe. The decor is delightful - white with green trim, polished wooden floors, Impressionist prints on the walls, and delicate wildflowers on the tables. The food is even better. We had crunchy pecan-breaded chicken, and chicken marinated in soy and ginger draped with a luscious barbeque sauce. Seated outdoors on a deck, we watched the rain turn from drizzle to downpour. The other deckdwellers amiably compressed themselves to share the protection of the awning.

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Since Shakespeare & Company's ''Romeo and Juliet'' was rained out, we trekked off to Pittsfield to see the Berkshire Ballet. There we found the same friendliness and family-like feeling also pervaded the artistic community of the Berkshires.

When you get to the box office in the Koussevitzky Arts Center Theatre, the president's wife is behind the window. When you get to the door, the ticket taker is the president himself. And when the curtain goes up, the dancers greet you with radiant smiles and some of the best dancing east of the Catskills.

The Berkshire Ballet is New England's oldest (yes, older than the Boston Ballet) company and one of this country's finer regional troupes. What makes this company different - and superior to most others of this size (19 members) - is its tight-knit ensemble work, its harmony on stage.

''Autumn,'' the opening work on the program, is a prime example. Resident choreo-grapher Mary Giannone has given the company another superb work, set to the solos of pianist George Winston. She has taken the lyric beauty of Winston's music and added a jazzy fire and precision; the company has turned it into a thrilling, joyous dance. At times they have you caught up in the mood of the piece, as when the ensemble slowly moves through long leg extensions and broad, reaching arm movements. Suddenly, a couple will come sweeping across stage - like a bracing cold breeze in autumn - a woman spinning gleefully in a man's arms, then dropping to his feet, and finally leaping off into the wings.

The dancers' excellent ensemble work, their lightning speed, and, most of all , their tremendous desire to succeed, make them a delight to watch.

Unfortunately, the supposed highlight of the program - Francis Patrelle's new version of ''Firebird'' - did not have the fire or joy of ''Autumn,'' and it tended to expose the principal weakness of the company: a lack of strong male soloists (excepting the soaring Robert Medina). Nonetheless, this program - which also includes Antony Tudor's ''Little Improvisations'' and ''Caprice,'' by artistic director Madeline Cantarella Culpo - should be seen (through July 22). ''Petrouchka'' and other dances run July 28-Aug. 12.

We returned to Shakespeare & Company the next afternoon to see ''Edith Wharton: Songs from the Heart.'' The company lives and works on the palatial grounds of what was once Mrs. Wharton's estate, and the play is performed in the library of the main house.

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''Songs from the Heart'' is an hour's worth of memorable snippets from Mrs. Wharton's writings, many of which focus around the barrenness of silence and of the yearnings of the heart. While many of the pieces deal with the oppression of women in Victorian society, playwright Mickey Friedman is to be commended for choosing other slices of Wharton that reveal her equally acute perception of men's difficulties in that era as well.

Petite and spunky Noni Pratt sweeps around in an apricot dress as Mrs. Wharton and assorted women characters; Steve Burney plays various male parts (he's wonderfully understated as the gaunt, lonely Ethan Fromme). Both Miss Pratt and Mr. Burney treat the audience as guests in their home, and those uncomfortable with direct eye-contact may squirm a bit. Though Pratt's characterizations sometimes seem forced, and though the script never dwells on any of Wharton's worthy topics long enough to provide depth, the author's precision and elegance with words ultimately sweep all else away.

The show continues, in a sense, in the dining room next door, where carrot cake is served on yellow plates, and a pungent blackcurrant tea from a silver urn. Patrons can wander outside with these goodies and sit down to chat with the actors - not 10 feet away from the balcony Juliet will lean over later that evening.

While strolling around the grounds, we came across a rehearsal in a large meadow of the company's next production, ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' It bodes well for the show that the actors, who were speaking into a high breeze, could be heard with crystal clarity. Another rehearsal was taking place in the stables and artistic director Tina Packer invited us to watch the actors in process of learning how to be obedient fairies.

These are just a sprinkling of Berkshire offerings. Others that the Boston arts column will continue to explore are Williamstown Theatre Festival (reviewed 7/5), Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival (reviewed 6/27), Berkshire Theatre Festival, Music Theatre Group, and of course, Tanglewood.

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