Something about Williamstown Theatre Festival’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” just didn’t click for me. It was not for lack of ideas — several clever, a couple brilliant. It was the flow. I noticed it right away when the stage couldn’t seem to set up a rhythm with the laughter in the house. When a comedy is really cooking, a rhythm sets up. It’s a kind of play, this back and forth. When it is really good, it has a naturalness, even an inevitability. That did not happen in the performance I heard (July 4). Lines were often lost in the laughter; the house was often slow to respond, and once in a while the response seemed forced.
Try this for starters. Read a scene in rhymed couplets to someone you know, and ask them if it sounded natural. Not easy, is it? Great rhyme masters, from Alexander Pope to Richard Wilbur, require their readers to use these couplets on stage or page, and this is no small task. It asks from the performer something like singing. The regularity of the rhyme scheme, its dominance, can be treacherous. Peter Hall maintained that a script of Shakespeare’s can be read like music, but iambic pentameter is too strong and unbalanced to accept this kind of strictness all the time. Rhymed (sometimes called heroic) couplets need, indeed require, a balancing act. The listener knows instinctively when the rhymes are over-sung. I am saying there has to be a large and flexible middle to the actor’s method. This middle might be defined as the place that is returned to.
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.
The stage is stark and cold—dark but visible. Chairs and dozens of musical instruments sit against a circular back wall. At the right, a piano. At the left, a steep, winding staircase with a black, leafy, wrought-iron banister. It twists its way up at least two stories above the stage finally disappearing into the ceiling and a shaft of simulated daylight. We are intrigued, and Ten Cents a Dance, the third and final production on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, has yet to begin. We know what the instruments are for. Ten Cents a Dance is a John Doyle-conceived and directed musical. As in his revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd, both of which won him a Tony, his singer-musicians accompany themselves.
Touch(ed) is a terrifically effective and well-constructed play by a young actress and playwright who has managed to gather an impressive amount of experience in some very good places: after Harvard College and the Yale School of Drama, she has spent four previous seasons at the Williamstown Theatre Company. Director Trip Cullman [third WTF season] is a Yale School of Drama graduate, as is Emily Rebholz, costume designer. Andromache Chalfant hails from Tisch, and actor Michael Chernus [second WTF season] from Juilliard. There was a tightness and consistency about the various elements of this show that made me wonder about the connections among the principal creative forces. There is something seriously encouraging about such a successful creation coming from top Northeastern schools. It doesn’t always happen.
As the run of Oliver Goldsmith’s comic masterpiece, She Stoops to Conquer, draws to a close, by all means rush to catch it while you can. You will see an endlessly amusing and enlightening classic, a handsome set, and a cast of highly talented actors, including WTF favorites like Richard Easton, Paxton Whitehead, and Brooks Ashmanskas. The production is fast-moving—at the cost of some excessive trimming—and funny, as a good part of the audience found it. That said, it is a far-from-perfect production, in fact it is seriously flawed, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from seeing the show and enjoying it. There is a lot to enjoy, and much of the audience enjoyed Kristin Neilsen’s wildly exaggerated portrayal of Mrs. Hardcastle. You may even find that you are among them.
One more delicious and satisfying classic in the Nikos. Following the intimate character of A Streetcar Named Desire, the Williamstown Theatre Festival has served the playwright and the public most honorably in Sam Gold’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Like Streetcar, the production was meticulously detailed, scrupulously respectful of the play (whatever liberties might have been taken), and full of life, thanks to some vivid performances by outstanding actors. Jenny Gersten’s WTF seems to be hitting its stride in these physically small, but richly imagined performances, a new feature of the Festival since the construction of the “62 Center. Perhaps we should remember that what is now the subsidiary Nikos stage used to be the Adams Memorial Theater, and that an attempt to stage Chekhov’s Three Sisters on the Main Stage as a luxury production was a notable failure, not that there haven’t been some outstanding successes there as well.
Some years ago, when my sons were small and I used to frequent school fairs and street fairs, I always looked at the inflatable play structures with trepidation. As the children bounced about on them, it seemed to me inevitable that some exuberant or malicious one among them would puncture the balloon, and I imagined the whole—roof and pillars, dinosaur head, safety nets and everything—slowly and harmlessly caving in, until there was nothing left but a flaccid heap of plastic and rubber…and a horde of thoroughly delighted children worming their way out to the street, running away, and dancing tauntingly before their distraught nannies or parents. Minus the kids, this experience and the attendant fantasy came to mind during the boring moments of Jon Robin Baitz’s Three Hotels—of which there were many—and the evening gave me a more tangible idea of what such a deflation might actually be like: the show steadily kept on losing energy, until it finally collapsed.