Backstage2020-11-25T19:04:01-05:00

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Review-Nina Simone:Four Women

Nina Simone:Four Women

Berkshire Theatre Group

The Unicorn Theatre, Stockbridge, MA

BRILLIANT

It’s not often that one word can capture the essence of a theatrical evening. The word most often overheard as the audience left Berkshire Theatre Company’s production of Nina Simone: Four Women, on stage at the Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge, MA until Sunday, September 5 … was “brilliant.”

Like any well-cut diamond, the word “brilliant” has many facets and many edges. The cast that director/choreographer Gerry McIntyre has selected and nurtured through rehearsals and onto the performance stage is breathtakingly talented with energy so focused that the prospect of the regimen of regular performances is daunting. McIntyre was the choreographer that brought his talent to last season’s breakthrough performance of Godspell and in Nina Simone: Four Women, the brilliance continues.

Photo by Jacey Rae Russell

The setting for the musical is the scarred interior of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL shortly after the explosion that killed four young girls. The conversations, the outbursts, the searing revelations and the eventual efforts at unified sisterhood are imagined, based on the songs of Nina Simone … herself a supremely talented, if troubled singer/composer whose career earned her the unofficial title “the High Priestess of Soul.”

In the title role, Felicia Curry is explosive. A major force in the Washington, DC theater world, she brings an intensity to the role of a performer emerging as a civil rights advocate that commands the stage with every word, every movement, every song. She is … not to overuse the term …”brilliant.”

And, that designation is echoed by the three women who join her on stage and bring their estimable talents to the roles of three very different women … women of widely divergent backgrounds who are suddenly thrown together in the aftermath of the Birmingham tragedy.

Darlesia Cearcy (Aunt Sarah) has appeared in several Broadway productions, toured internationally, appeared in an impressive list of network television programs and so captures the strength of her character that her interaction with Felicia Curry’s Simone is the backbone of the play. She has an extraordinary voice and uses it to reinforce her foundational role as a woman who has learned to deal with what life has given her.

Sasha Hutchings (Sephronia) is one of those elite performers who seems to move effortlessly from Broadway (original cast of Hamilton) and television (Blue Bloods) to teaching (Arthur Miller Foundation) to regional theater without missing a step. One of the many themes running through Nina Simone : Four Women is the prickly relationships of the implied social classes of the characters. Hutchings Is disarming in the way she destroys the social divides by relating the tragedy of her character’s own struggle.

Finally, there is “Sweet Thing” portrayed with elegant brashness by Najah Hetsberger who appeared in last season’s Godspell with her show stopping rendition of All Good Gifts. Her talent has not gone unnoticed as she will begin a Broadway National Tour this fall and take her estimable talent “on the road.”

Nina Simone: Four Women is anything but yawn-worthy “straw hat theater” fare. It is gritty, challenging, revealing, electric, elegant, painfully relevant, layered with topics that demand our attention … and an evening worthy of the attention of anyone who agrees with director/choreographer McIntyre that in a world reeling with chaos, “you just need to take the first step. Or write the first note.”

The production is, in a word, “Brilliant.”

Tickets of Nina Simone: Four Women may be purchase online at BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or by calling the box office at (413) 997-4444.

From Left: Diego Mongue (Percussionist), Sasha Hutchings, Najah Hetsberger, Gerry McIntyre (Director), Felicia Curry, Darlesia Cearcy, Danté Harrell (Musical Director)

By |Backstage, Main Street|

Elegant ART

The Roman Garden Theatre

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA

In a summer of hesitancy and uncertainty, of recrimination and instability, Shakespeare & Company has deftly placed a brilliant production of Yasmina Reza’s ART in the Roman Garden Theatre and invited us all to contemplate its beauty.

Whether it was serendipity or simply the expected genius of Allyn Burrows, Shakespeare & Company’s artistic director, handing the reins to director Christopher V. Edwards created the chemistry when combined with three finely balanced actors that has produced an amazing 90 minutes of theater. This may be a play that’s been around for a few decades, but the comedy is as fresh today as its ever been.

Lawrence L. James, “ranney” and Michael F. Toomey move through this production of ART as if they were born to the parts. Every hand gesture, every pause, every look, every cadence has been so well shaped by director Edwards that the audience gives up the notion of “the fourth wall” and becomes part of this paean to friendship and the bonds of caring. When James delivers a wildly comedic monologue complete with shifting accents, whipsawing characters and the underlying excuse for being late to a dinner appointment, the audience can’t hold back and interrupt the flow of the play with a spontaneous outburst of applause. It is well deserved. These are brilliant actors at the height of their performance skills.

They argue, they laugh, they posture, they accuse, they take emotional pot shots at each other … and the audience responds with hearty laughter and a compelling sense of having witnessed something very special.

To affirm that the three actors are beautifully balanced in their estimable skills does not seem to do them justice. When they speak to the audience (the disappearance of the fourth wall of the theater) it’s as if we’ve known them for years. Their disputes over the relative value (or lack of same) for a very expensive painting acquired by Serge (Toomey) become resolved in classical physical comedy, and the audience rises to its feet in appreciation when the three take their turns in accepting that adulation.

The translation of Reza’s script, written in French, was accomplished years ago by Christopher Hampton. That translation was used when the play moved from Paris to London’s West End, then on to Broadway. The dialog is crisp, pointed and with a few local references inserted for its Lenox, MA run, as accessible today as it was when first presented in the late 1990’s.

ART runs through August 22nd at Shakespeare & Company with tickets available for the afternoon performances on line at Shakespeare.org or by calling the box office at 413-637-3353. The production has been created to be performed outdoors. Should the weather become inclement, arrangements have been made to move the individual production into the nearby Tina Packer Playhouse.

This is a play not to be missed. It captures the true elegance of live theater and envelopes the audience in an experience that is, in its purest form … art.

 

By |Backstage, Main Street|

King Lear; Shakespeare & Company

The Season Begins … At Long Last

There is something momentous about the production of Shakespeare’s King Lear currently in The New Spruce Theatre at Shakespeare & Company. Beyond the heroic efforts of the acting company, headed by international superstar Christopher Lloyd in the title role … beyond the introduction of a new, stunning amphitheater on the company’s Lenox, MA campus … beyond the triumphant return of live theater after a full season of wrestling with the darkness and silence of a pandemic, there is the emergence of hope.

Christopher Lloyd as the titular King Lear

King Lear is not an easy play under any circumstances. The plot twists, the painful deceits, the avalanche-like decline of Lear as he loses control of his kingdom, his family and, eventually, his life are set starkly against the scheming and savagery of the complex characters around him. Written by Shakespeare during the years of the recurring plague in England, there is a starkness that is chilling as 2021 audiences are drawn into the cyclone Lear encounters when, in despair, he wanders and rages about his crumbling life.

Clearly, this is not a production for those seeking a sprightly, sugar-coated “straw hat” performance to punctuate their summer. Carrying over an event that had been scheduled for the postponed 2020 season, King Lear may seem like an odd choice to begin a summer season that runs all the way into October at Shakespeare & Company. It is, however, an overwhelming dose of reality with which to begin the ascent back into what we’ll need to cope with as the “new normal.”

The cast assembled by director Nicole Ricciardi is peppered with some of the brilliant regulars who have made Shakespeare & Company such a bastion of superb theater. Those who attend one of the outdoor performances scheduled to run through August 28th will marvel at witnessing Christopher Lloyd not as the delightfully off-base characters of “Rev.” Jim from the television series “Taxi” or as “Doc” Brown from the “Back to the Future” film franchise, but as the tormented king who struggles against mortality, deception and abandonment.

There to support him in his precipitous decline are seasoned veterans Nigel Gore as the tragic Earl of Gloucester, Jonathan Epstein as the tormented Earl of Kent and the brilliant comic relief of the play, The Fool played with balletic elegance and much needed comedic timing by the company’s Artistic Director, Allyn Burrows. Company stalwart MaConnia Chesser and Jennie Jadow offer the toxic mix of hollow flattery and deep, destructive evil as Lear’s elder daughters. It is left to Jasmine Cheri Rush to add the depth of compassion as Lear’s youngest … and favorite … daughter, Cordelia.

Several lines from King Lear have endured over the centuries as both wisdom and caution. One of the most prophetic, especially as audiences join Lear to contemplate their own mortality comes from the brilliant insight of The Fool. “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

A bit of wise insight for us all.

King Lear runs through July and August at Shakespeare & Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA. Tickets are available on-line or by calling the box office at 413-637-3353.

MaConnia Chesser and Jasmine Cheri Rush

By |Backstage, Main Street|
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