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Wharton and Shakespeare flourish in the Berkshires

Shakespeare & Company is celebrating its 10th season at the Mount, Edith Wharton's former home here in the Berkshires. During its residency, the company has taken advantage of the splendid outdoor setting and the soaring, whitewashed villa. Every summer, artistic director Tina Packer has mounted the company's mainstage Shakespearean production on the lawn, under the hemlocks and white pines. Last year Ms. Packer pulled out all the stops - to mixed effect - with an ambitious production of ``Antony and Cleopatra.'' This season, however, she is devoting most of her year to resolving the company's ongoing financial difficulties. As a result, managing director Dennis Krausnick has taken over immediate artistic responsibilities. Together with Kevin Coleman, Mr. Krausnick has directed this year's mainstage offering, ``A Midsummer Night's Dream.''

Krausnick has also adapted and directed ``Two by Wharton,'' two one-acts, based on Wharton's short stories ``Autres Temps'' and ``The Other Two.'' These are performed on the terrace and in the drawing room of the author's home by members of the company's Summer Training Center. Despite the actors' lack of professional Equity status, it is this latter, albeit uneven, production that is of special interest.

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Krausnick's adaptation proves faithful both to Wharton's talents and the evocative period detail. Born in 1862, Wharton numbered Henry James among her friends, and they shared some traits as writers. ``Autres Temps'' and ``The Other Two'' are highly Jamesian in their ability to pierce the finely wrought surface of upper-middle-class, turn-of-the-century America. The stories capture both the polite clatter of teacups and the mood of consternation often found underneath. This being Wharton, the protagonists are women, and in both productions, actress Shirley Grubb captures the essential Wharton heroine - one whose depth of feeling is not wholly hidden by genteel understatement.

``Autres Temps'' is the darker and weightier of the two tales. In it an expatriate mother returns home to America from Europe to confront her daughter's divorce and remarriage, only to discover that the social approval accorded the daughter in 1909 isn't retroactive to her own divorce several years earlier. ``Traditions that have lost their meaning are the hardest to break,'' she observes.

Although one misses the author's voice, so apparent on the printed page in the mother's introspective musings, Ms. Grubb's nuanced performance goes a long way toward conveying the protagonist's bitter bemusement. And Krausnick's retention of many lines from the story reveals that Wharton's intelligent and perceptive dissection of rigid social convention is as apt today as it was nearly a century ago.

``The Other Two,'' a satiric comedy about a woman's third husband who is forced to befriend her two previous spouses, is the slighter of the two works. Krausnick's adaptation, however, involves a clever reworking of Wharton's original narrative which includes the author as protagonist. It's the exchanges between Wharton (again ably portrayed by Grubb) and Waythorn, the husband (played by newcomer Daniel Banks), that provide the production's dramatic spark.

In both productions, one is reminded of the durability of the author's social criticism. Waythorn's pillorying of his wife's ex-husband's tie, a d'eclass'e elastic number, is as snootily acidic as yuppie-speak. And Wharton's line, ``Changing husbands is like a change in the weather; it reduces it to mediocrity,'' resounds with as much contemporary meaning as a Joan Collins headline.

If the confines of the Mount's salon and terrace are evocative of Wharton's world of social rigidity, then the estate's sprawling lawn is equally apropos for ``A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' This is a sweetheart of a production of Shakespeare's ``sweet comedy,'' with just enough wryness - in the form of some clever anachronisms - to keep it from spilling over into the saccharine.

The production's strength is, of course, its bucolic setting, a fact no audience member can overlook, as there are there are shrieks, whistles, and yells aplenty whenever the word ``woods'' is uttered. Krausnick also emphasizes an appropriate ensemble approach - the herd of fairies races among the trees as if playing a game of kick-the-can - which helps bury some of the lesser performances while spotlighting some of the more adept.

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But it is Dan Moran's performance of Puck that anchors this production. With his beefy, glitter-covered body, and punchy, bossy gestures, Moran's Puck is the real king of the woods. When he fells mere mortals with his magical spells, he can't resist blowing on his forefinger, as if cooling off a just-fired gun. It's a cocky gesture that knocks the audience dead as well.

Both productions continue through Sept. 5.

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