Our American Cousin, an Opera in Three Acts by Eric Sawyer, Librettist: John Shoptaw

A young man, having outsmarted a haughty woman seeking a wealthy husband for her daughter, crows in triumph: “I guess you found your hymnal page, you sock-dologizing ole man-trap!”Hard as it may be for us to imagine, this line brought the house down every time in Tom Taylor’s 1858 hit play Our American Cousin. And appropriately so: a “sockdologer” (a corruption of “doxology”), was in American slang a decisive or knockout blow. The line might be lost to all but theater historians were it not for the fact that Taylor’s play was performed at Ford’s Theatre the night of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and that John Wilkes Booth used the famous line as a cue for his own decisive blow.Eric Sawyer and John Shoptaw’s new opera, Our American Cousin, revisits that night and charts the intersection of real life and that of the theater.The opera offers us a play within an opera: a recreation of the performance Lincoln was attending at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.Taylor’s play was a popular and cleverly-made comedy/melodrama about a distant–and rich–relative from America who appears suddenly at the estate of his titled but financially troubled English relations.The plot and characters of this largely forgotten play turn out to matter in unexpected ways, and point towards the thematic heart of the work.

St. Petersburg String Quartet and Daniel Epstein at Music Mountain

Music Mountain has offered extraordinary chamber music since 1930, when it was founded as a summer home for the Gordon String Quartet. Audiences loyally drive up the winding country road to enjoy the beauty of the grounds and its surroundings, its long, narrow hall with its superb acoustics, and the major chamber groups who play there. Jazz is also a major component of the season, and there is also choral music. On the lawn which spreads out down the hillside from Gordon Hall, you will also find a tent with books for sale, a snack bar, wooden benches under the trees, as well as some rather funky abstract sculptures. There had been a violent storm the week before, which snapped the trunks of several large trees surrounding the lawn. The season, called “Borrowed Melody” this year, because works with themes borrowed from outside sources or the composer’s own works will be worked into most of the programs, got off to a strong start with a special benefit concert featuring the great St. Petersburg String Quartet. Charles Rosen was to have joined them for the Schumann Piano Quintet. He was unfortunately unable to play, but Daniel Epstein filled the gap with intelligence and sensitivity.

Beyond Therapy by Christopher Durang

The Williamstown Theatre Festival got off to a comfortable start with quite an entertaining offering by WTF familiars. Playwright-Actor Christopher Durang has appeared in Williamstown in both capacities. Katie Finneran is beginning her second WTF season as Prudence. Director Alex Timbers and Matt McGrath are both in their fourth season, and Kate Burton, of course, is a fixture, now in her 18th season. Beyond that, there is also an element of nostalgia in Beyond Therapy, which was first produced off Broadway in 1981 and on Broadway in a revised version in 1982. Not everybody will realize what a different place the world was back then. Hence the program notes attempt to explain this through a comparison with Sex and the City, which is steeped in the values of the turn of the century, when it started. Even that is beginning to recede into the past. While the waywardness of psychological professionals is as fresh a topic as any (The Guardian reported just today that Britain’s most famous psychiatrist has been convicted of plagiarism and may lose his license.), Durang’s not-so-young man and woman, Bruce and Prudence, would be facing quite different problems today. They’d more likely be complaining about the latest switch in their medication and talking to their therapists and each other about their relationships with their animals, whether dog, cat, bird, or reptile. Beyond Therapytakes us back to the distant days before cell phones, personal computers, e-mail, and Facebook. This was the tail-end of the sexual revolution, just before people began to notice AIDS; the sixties were still in people’s memory, and the seventies weren’t quite over yet; Reagan’s transformation of American society, whatever that was, had not quite made itself felt yet. As for myself, I lived abroad between 1983 and 1985, and on a visit to New York sometime late in the fateful year 1984, I noticed that people were different. Clothes, assumptions, the way people walked on the street—that is, now looking down fixedly onto the pavement—had all changed.

James Barry and Jonathan Epstein in Berkshire Theatre Festival's Unicorn Theatre production of The Caretaker. Photo Kevin Sprague.

Harold Pinter, The Caretaker, Berkshire Theater Company, Stockbridge

Harold Pinter is still very much alive, a potent and welcome presence in the world because of his political work, but when The Caretaker, or any other of the plays from the height of his fame in the theater, is produced, most of us take it as a classic from the past. After all Pinter’s announcement in 2005 of his retirement from the stage marked a significant break, and the world has changed significantly since the sixties. His powerful Nobel Prize lecture, Art, Truth, and Politics, meticulously prepared and taped by BBC 4, shows his current way of reaching his audience in a time when indifference, commercialism in the media, and unofficial censorship make it virtually impossible to get salutary and unpleasant messages across to anyone who is not already convinced. We deal with people who disagree with us by marginalizing them. When he wrote The Caretaker in 1959, his first commercial success, he established himself as the quintessential all-round man of the theater. He already had considerable experience as an actor and director, in addition to the plays he had already written, of which The Birthday Party and The Dumbwaiter are still performed often. From there he continued his threefold theatrical activity on mainstream stages and on the screen. His collaboration with the brilliant director Joseph Losey was perhaps the peak of his film work, as it was for Losey, but it was also characteristic of Pinter’s own theatrical style, which is also well documented in films of his plays, beginning with Clive Donner’s 1963 film of The Caretaker with two members of its original cast, Alan Bates and Donald Pleasance.

Don’t Smile for the Camera, at the Memorial Hall Museum, Deerfield

The exhibition will be on view daily from 11 am to 5 pm through November 2, 2008. At the Old Deerfield Summer Craft Fair on June 21 and 22, tintype photographer John Bernaski will demonstrate his craft for the public. Admission to the nineteen exhibition rooms on art, history, and culture in Memorial Hall Museum, 8 Memorial Street, Deerfield, MA, is $6 for adults, and $3 for youth and students 6-21. For more information call 413-774-3768 x 10 or visit the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association’s website. Click here for a gallery of highlights from the exhibition.

I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright

As a teenager under the Third Reich and son of an enthusiastic and rising party member of brutal ways, Lothar Berfelde found himself maturing into an especially difficult situation. From a very early age, he had felt himself to be a girl in a boy’s body. Disgusted by Lothar’s precocious effeminacy, his father had forced him to join the Hitler Youth, but eventually a Lesbian aunt enlightened him about cross-dressing and gave him an authoritative book on the subject, Magnus Hirschfeld’s book, Die Transvestiten (1910), which became his Bible, as it reminded him that he was not alone in the world. He killed his father with a rolling pin, as Väterchenthreatened to kill his mother and the entire family. After psychiatric examination he was judged sane and sentenced to four years in juvenile prison. East German society was no more tolerant of homosexuals, but Lothar was able to pursue his inclinations, changing his name to “Lottchen,” formally Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the Berlin suburb in which he had grown up, and where he continued to live, obsessively collecting furniture and other objects from the Gründerzeit, that is, the age of Bismarck, a period of growing national wealth and security, the “world of assurance” (viz. Am. “insurance”), as Stefan Zweig called it, which was to collapse with the First World War. Charlotte made a name for herself as a preservationist, rescuing old buildings from destruction. She was eventually granted one of them as a home and a site for her private Gründerzeitmuseum, which opened in 1960 and became as much a center of homosexual life as it was a place to enjoy the decorative art of a bygone age. In the basement she preserved the interior of theMulackritze, a notorious gay dive, which was closed by the authorities in 1963. Her way of life, which was far from inconspicuous, and the double-edged function of the museum made it necessary for her to tread a fine line with the powers that be, but she survived and enjoyed major public honors after the reunification of Germany.

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