The Bard and carpentry make a well-rounded company
One would hardly think Edith Wharton's old summer home, The Mount, could make a home for a resident Shakespearian company. But not only has one settled in to the entire estate, it has been producing Shakespeare out of doors on the property for three seasons now.
It is hard to decide what is most interesting about the project -- the imaginative productions, the scope of the company's activities, or the restoration of the house itself.
The three are intertwined. When the house, until recently the Foxhollow Girls School, became available, Tina Packer organized and moved in a new troupe -- Shakespeare & Co. It was devoted to the Bard and trained people in the entire gamut of skills needed to bring the Bard to life.
Since those fledgling days in 1978, Shakespeare & Co. has been the primary resident. There's an now understanding with the present mortgage-holders, the National Historic Perservation Trust, that the company undertake the slow, laborious process of restoration while living on the estate.
The ongoing work is visible in little details, such as one of the two rose gardens and fountains dug out from under years of utter neglect, or the obvious fact that rooms are beginning to look elegant again.
But the magic really begins at 8 p.m., when the imposing area is turned into a mythical world of spirits, wizards, fugitives, villains, and clowns.
Certain of Shakespeare's plays are naturals for outdoor performances, and "The Tempest" is one of them. But it is easy to see even something as formal as "Julius Caesar" or primitive as "Titus Andronicus" (performing all the violence behind trees?) being compellingly staged in this area.
A good "Tempest" must convince an audience that magic is a foot. And this Tina Packer accomplished brilliantly. From the opening glimpse of Ariel on the root of The Mount, conjuring and creating the storm that brings the King of Naple's ship to the rocky shores of Prospero's island, one could sense that magic. The balcony suddenly became the storm-tossed ship. Ariel blew flames from his mouth. The sound of a ship breaking up on the rocks was thundered though the mightily impressive sound system, and suddenly, one was utterly caught up in the spell of the play.
Miss Packer is not a gimmicky director. She has clearly pondered and absorbed this play, in overall theme as well as in specific detail. The wit and sparkle of the Caliban, Trinculo, Stephano scenes have rarely seemed more acute and accurate.
The magic Prospero conjures is more subconsicous than actual, though always altogether convincing. And, more to the point, Miss Packer has really captured the foreboding of an ending (be it death or the revocation of creativity) in the role that is Shakespeare's farewell to the theater as an active playwright.
The sound system spreads in almost a complete circle around the audience. The lights are hidden in trees as well as hung on huge poles. The infinite variety of moods captured among the trees and on that versatile stage all work together to let an audience fill in with its own imaginings, the specifics of locale and setting.
The cast had its share of strengths and weaknesses. Most impressive were Joe Morton as Caliban and Rocco Sisto as Trinculo. The former character was monstrous yet touching, supremely petty yet with flashes of true dignity. The latter gave us a masterful interpretation of a Shakespearian clown -- all surface mirth with flashes of disturbing poignancy throughout.
As Prospero, Harris Yulin had his flatfooted moments verbally, but the aching farewell to life and art was quite successfully communicated.
As for the restoration of the house -- it's scope is tremendous. There are fire escapes that need removing (installed for safety regulations when used as a girls school), trim that needs refurbishing and even rebuilding, walls that need replastering, and the main living room ceiling that needs to be brought up from downstairs and put back into place. (That task is made easier because some farsighted individual actually photographed it, then dismantled it in orderly sections.)
The formal gardens used to be composed of tiny shrubs and bushes. Now it is a mass of 20-and 30-foot trees. Statuary that was once on balustrades on the back porch (or front porch, depending on your particular orientation to the house -- main entrance vs. spectacular view) is missing -- rumored to be in the bottom of Laurel Lake, victim of a zealous schoolmistress's plot to rid the school of all indecorous artwork.
The company lives in the house, and in the gatehouse. Of the actual 50 acres composing the estate, not much is visible to the visitor, even when driving up the considerable lane to The Mount itself.
Once at the main house, standing on the balcony (which once had a view right to the lake), one notes ship rigging and much lighting equipment to the right, and down at the bottom of the hill (under that corner of the balcony) a handsome , but simple series of steps, platforms, and brick retaining wall which compose the permanent playing area.
Eventually Miss Packer hopes to be able to adapt her productions for touring across the country. Already members go out to near and distant theaters to give all- encompassing workshops in the nitty- gritty of Shakespearian production -- voice projection, body movement, sword fighting, etc. The quality that underlies every visible effort of Shakespeare & Co. bodes well for the future of the company, one which should establish it as a very important force in New England theater and probably in Shakespearean production as well. 'Anyone Can Whistle'
The Berkshire Theater Festival, which Josephine R. Abady took over just one season ago and turned around phoenixlike from languishing monster to the real theatrical thing -- has a production of "Anyone Can Whistle," by Arthur Laurents with lyrics and score by Stephen Sondheim.
This show was a spectacular flop on Broadway. Ever since, with the help of an excellent cast album, cultists have declared it a show before its time.
This Stockbridge-based theater company proved that emphatically not to be the case. The book is silly, trivial, and too often trite rather than engrossing. Characters in this satire are too cartoonlike and flimsy. The score has flashes of memorability, the lyrics are often very clever, but Sondheim and Laurents have done far better (and others have done far worse).
Nonetheless, the show has its moments when the cast is gifted, and with Mary Louise Wilson and George Hearn leading the troupe, it moved merrily if thinly along under the sure hand of choreographer/director Robert Tucker, in a production of the high sort of standards we are now coming to expect from the festival.