The Williamstown Theatre Festival 2011 – a Success Story, a Disaster, and an Appeal

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Williamstown Theatre Festival's Prop Storage Area following Tropical Storm Irene, August 2011
Williamstown Theatre Festival's Prop Storage Area following Tropical Storm Irene, August 2011

Disagreement is a healthy sign in theater, I’ve always thought—the livelier the better—and for that reason I’m inclined to think that Jenny Gersten has had a big success in her first season as Artistic Director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival. I don’t believe that critics have agreed about a single one of this summer’s productions. I haven’t done a systematic survey of the reviews, but I have the impression that out-of-town critics, especially the New Yorkers, have leaned towards the positive—often enthusiastically so—while the local reviewers have been less content—in some cases attacking certain productions with anger and derision.

Perhaps there are more expectations among the members of a community to which a long-established institution belongs, and it is only natural that local tastes incline towards what is most readily available in the area—which, curiously, I’ve noted, some regard as quite remote, while others easily shuttle back and forth between their New York apartments and the college town that was once a fort in the wilderness—and that tends to be rather conservative. While you will see a generally mature, but more mixed audience at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, others of the summer companies tend to cater to older audiences, even to the point of over-amplifying the actors for benefit of the hard of hearing, and I’ve yet to see a summer production in the Berkshires that I’d consider experimental.

At the Berkshire Review, our impression of the 2011 has been largely favorable—more consistently so than any previous year in our memory. Nancy Salz and I saw most of the productions, missing only One Slight Hitch and You Better Sit Down—Tales from my Parents’ Divorce, and this resulted in only one negative review—of an early work by a now highly respected playwright, and another mixed one. In the past WTF has offered some truly mediocre new plays along with some admirable ones. Bess Wohl’s Touch(ed), in my opinion, was one of the best, and it was splendidly directed, decorated, and acted.

Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels just did not ring true to me—primarily, I believe, because he wrote it early in his career, when he was still close to the issues dealt with in the play: Baitz’s father was an executive with an American corporation that conducted a ruthless global operation. It is not uncommon for a young author to seem unconvincing when he is sincerely contending with problems that have affected him or her personally in childhood. Only later, when their craft is stronger, do they have the distance to create a convincing illusion of verity. Also, the Three Hotels was first produced in 1990, and the passage of over twenty years has changed our perception of corporate corruption, although it still persists even more virulently than before, as it has since the emergence of corporations themselves. (Read Richard White’s vastly entertaining Railroaded – The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.) I invite anyone who read my somewhat vitriolic review in its original form to return to it, now that I have made a few revisions. A weak performance by one of the actors, and expert direction that failed to hit the right tone for the play were also to blame.

The one large-scale classic production, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, was a revival of Nicholas Martin’s Princeton production of 2009. This was largely traditional, and graced with a handsome set, but it was marred by an inexcusably tasteless portrayal of Mrs. Hardcastle as a flamboyantly overdressed caricature of a hopelessly deluded, superannuated provincial lady. In She Stoops, Goldsmith created the archetype of British middle-class domestic comedy, a genre that has enjoyed a long life everywhere English is spoken, because the characters are multi-faceted, never all good or all bad, or entirely enlightened or entirely stupid, if even simplistically so. Things turn out well in the end, or at least decently enough, because of common sense and the better side of human nature.

To my mind it was a brilliant idea to offer two classics in intimate productions in the smaller Nikos Stage, and I hope that WTF will continue it for a long time in the future. Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire gained energy and directness from its claustrophobic, double-sided set, which was not enough to convince me that it was a drastically innovative production. Neither did Sam Rockwell’s colorful portrayal of Stanley Kowalski as an unredeemable lout, although it added a certain feminist perspective that wouldn’t have occurred to Williams back in the 1940s, but which is de rigueur today. Perhaps I have Omar Sangare’s brilliant, much more radical Williams student production of Streetcar to thank for my open mind.

Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was enlivened by a temporally ambiguous treatment and a brilliant, original interpretation of Nora by Lily Rabe, who seems to have a great future ahead of her, above all if she concentrates on the stage. The primary setting of the production was late 1950s or early 1960s America, with hints of nineteenth century Norway and the present day wafting over the stage at times. Lily Rabe’s Nora was a kind of middle-class American woman we’ve all met at one time or another, a brash, loud, materialistic housewife, who nonetheless comes from a good family and probably went to good schools. This was an imaginative and real character who, though repellent in many ways, brought one into the core of the play.

Nancy Salz, our specialist in musicals, gave John Doyle’s Ten Cents a Dance a mixed, but generally positive review.

Jenny Gersten has every reason to be proud of her first season, and I hope she’ll have many more to develop her strengths. On the other hand, I miss the eccentric British plays of the 1960s and 1970s like David Storey’s Home and Simon Gray’s Quartemaine’s Terms, which were presumably Roger Rees’ idea, carried on by Nicholas Martin, and I hope there will be a place for this sort of whigmaleery in the future.

Unfortunately, behind this gratifying achievement there has been a dark, even grim background. During the winter the roof collapsed in the workshop/storage area WTF maintained in the Delftree Building in North Adams, a decaying mill that should have been condemned years ago. Because the building finally was condemned, it was impossible to retrieve the sets and tools until May. Fortunately almost everything was intact. Ms. Gersten worked fast to reestablish the facility in the Blackinton Mill, and the 2011 season was able to proceed with sets which have been consistently outstanding throughout. Tragically, WTF’s space in Blackinton was one of the serious victims of tropical storm Irene, and many of the historical sets and props which go back to the early days of the festival’s history have been lost. WTF have launched a campaign for funds to rebuild the destroyed workshop and to retrieve what can be saved.

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