Murray Schisgal

Stockbridge: Summer 1966, A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Part III, Conclusion

A memoirist is like one of those blind men in the fable, famously describing an elephant, or like one of the witnesses to murder in Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashomon. Each person experiencing an event sees things from their own perspective, drags his or her own baggage to the place of recounting. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his study of Kurosawa, says “Memory of a single person cannot be trusted completely because of a human propensity for using memory as a means of self-justification.” Of course. I was there in the summer of ’66. I kept my eyes open (I was wide-eyed as only a young theater person can be),listened, took notes, and, like everybody else, carried my own baggage. I still do, stowing it overhead, seldom checking it at the gate, for fear it will get lost. I have the soul of an archivist, the heart of a librarian and the instincts of a packrat. Now and then I unpack and, as best I can, try to remember what happened.

The Merchant of Venice directed by George Tabori, Berkshire Theatre Festival, 1966

Stockbridge: Summer 1966, A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Part II (of 3): George Tabori’s Production of The Merchant of Venice, set in a Nazi concentration camp

As soon as the Wilder play opened, rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice began. Viveca Lindfors had already been rehearsing The Cretan Woman for two weeks and directors Tabori and Martin Fried would share the actors who were in both plays. Tabori’s task was an immense one, almost impossible. He and his actors dealt in rehearsal with three levels of reality at once. His production was based on legend, on the rumor that Shakespeare’s play had been performed by actors in an internment camp during the second World War. In this “model” camp, created by the Nazis to show the world that they treated their prisoners with kindness and compassion, imprisoned theater artists had approached their warders and proposed a theatrical production. The commanders of the camp had said “All right, but you must perform that anti-semitic play The Merchant of Venice.” George said to us “I don’t to this day know the production was done in the death camp, where, or by whom, or how, or ever. But the legend persists, unconfirmed and haunting as legends are. This spring, a Hungarian magazine carried an item, suggesting that the play had been presented, at the command of the Nazis, in Terezin, already famous for a performance there of Verdi’s Requiem.”

Front to back: Peter Maloney, Anne Bancroft, Arthur Penn.

Stockbridge: Summer 1966, A memoir of the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s inaugural season — Part I (of 3): Beginnings and Arthur Penn’s Production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with Anne Bancroft

Arthur Penn saw his chance in a proposal that the Hungarian writer/director George Tabori and his wife Viveca Lindfors made to the board of directors of the Berkshire Playhouse in Stockbridge, where Penn and his friend and colleague William Gibson happened to live. The Playhouse had operated for decades as a typical summer stock theater, often featuring stars in leading roles, but what was known as “The Straw Hat Circuit” was fading in popularity and the theater’s board of directors, hearing Tabori and Lindfors’ proposal, decided to try a different approach to summer theater.

Michael Raymond-James and Rebecca Brooksher in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Photo Emma Rothenberg-Ware.

A Singer’s Notes 125: Four Good Things—Aston Magna, Two from TMC Orchestra, and the Berkshire Theatre Festival

Aston Magna’s J.S. Bach concert in The Mahaiwe Theatre was a banquet of riches. The music itself ranged from abject woe in Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen to vaudeville hijinks in The Singing Contest of Phoebus and Pan. Where do I begin? The unique singing of Dominque Labelle arrests the senses. You must listen to it. Ulysses Thomas’s rich, aristocratic voice, Jesse Blumberg’s clear, actorly voice, William Hite’s beautiful, beautiful tenor, each spoke eloquently. Above all, the redoubtable Frank Kelley’s complete control of the act of singing, his exaggeration (wildly funny), his movement, and most wonderful of all, the subtle creativity of his timing, brought the house down. He is the complete package.

A Singer’s Notes 27: Christmas Past

Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is a moralizing tale, strictly speaking. It’s one of those that’s mostly tough with the sweetmeats at the end. It’s a story you already know. It is such a good tale structurally that it has proved irresistible to tinkerers of all sorts. The layout works. It has a little bit of everything — ghosts, little children, Christmas stuff, a happy ending. It seems to me the great message of the story is not the happy result of generosity, but something much more private, the promise that there still is time. It is not too late for Scrooge. This is the center of it. Good productions say this clearly. Eric Hill, in the Berkshire Theatre Festival’s Unicorn, got this across clearly. This actor has a technique so finished it disappears. At one point wandering around his premises, he made a series of sub-verbal noises — moans, groans — you knew exactly what he meant. He wasn’t a ferocious Scrooge; he just didn’t care – didn’t want to be bothered. This seemed right to me. He didn’t exaggerate his fear when Marley’s ghost appeared, nor did he overdo the high jinks at the end. I see this same economy in his directing, sometimes almost too much so, as in the recent Macbeth. But there is always a center line to what he does, and there is always cohesion. This was a real performance, not a holiday treat.

A Singer’s Notes 24: Words and Music

One Christmas my magic daughter gave me a picture of a baboon. Above it she wrote Prospero’s valedictory line: “I’ll drown my book.” The animal had an expression of imponderable grief on its face. Words are exclusively human. But could it be said that animals sing? Music sets words free, back to their primal origin, leaping into the heart. Music is a language of knowing, of certainty. It has the raw truth of the baboon’s face. Maybe Prospero, whose name signifies hope, begins to sing when the book is drowned and the grief is past.

A Singer’s Notes 23: Three from the Bard

The Winter’s Tale is the finest play by Shakespeare which nobody knows. Form and content meet and marry in this play. Everything is focused in a concentrated and clear line. The poet had two dry runs before writing the tale. Pericles, one of the most popular plays of the 17th century, is a rough-hewn rollicking tale which finds its heroine converting lechers and being lusted after by her own father. Next up, in the trial of romances, is Cymbeline, a complex rambling play with too many resurrections. The rightness of the The Winter’s Tale takes us by surprise. The themes of the last plays: separation, fathers and daughters, emotional destruction and rebirthing, here seem to have found a shape which sears itself into the mind. The most played and latest of the romances, The Tempest, can seem almost valedictory after Winter’s Tale.

Bernstein’s Candide at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, starring Julian Whitley

The story of the creation of Candide is a fascinating but hardly edifying one, considering the result: a series of miscellaneous libretti and various combinations of musical numbers, none of which are really satisfactory. Nonetheless, it is hard not to become engaged in its rag-tag series of satirical scenes adapted from Voltaire’s classic novella, and it is even harder not to fall in love with the music, which is stage Bernstein at his best. A cult has grown up around it, and Bernstein himself was especially fond of the score, returning to it several times, including at the very end of his life, when he conducted a concert version at the Barbican, which was videotaped and recorded.

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