The Way We Were

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Our Town

By Thorton Wilder, directed by Nicholas Martin

Williamstown Theatre Festival, through Aug. 8


Our Town is a play about simplicity. Simple words about simple people drifting through the simple acts of their daily living. And it’s a play about significance—about the import of those simple acts, about the poetry and beauty and vitality in the sum of life’s most humble moments.

Thorton Wilder’s script is set in the 1930s in fictional Grover’s Corners, N.H., a quintessential small town, certainly not unlike Williamstown itself. The play’s language and setting are spare, and its metatheatrical minimalism has led Our Town to be common fodder on high school and community stages. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play, incontestably groundbreaking in its day, is often mistaken as a sentimental old chestnut, nostalgic for days long gone. “This is the way we were,” the script explains, “in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying.”

But the current and beautifully understated treatment at Williamstown Theater Festival (helmed by WTF artistic director Nicholas Martin in his last directorial hurrah before his departure), is a wholly poetic argument for Our Town’s enduring relevance.

The audience is greeted by David Korins’ brilliant set, an airy framework of farm tables, ladders and chairs in warm wood, from which elements of the Spartan scenery are drawn and replaced. The symbolism is gentle and fitting: The fabric of our days is supported by the structure of our history and our ancestors, by every unremarkable breakfast conversation of every ordinary Joe stretching back ad infinitum.

Illuminated from shifting angles by the warm glow and quiet stillness of Kenneth Posner’s dawns and dusks, the uncomplicated set transforms, at turns dimensional and inviting or skeletal and foreboding. Posner and Korins build the stage space together with light and shadow, filling the stage and isolating intimate moments, always remaining true to Wilder’s bare aesthetic, which eschews the ephemeral trappings of life for the essential and eternal.

Gabriel Berry’s uncomplicated costuming defines period and character but remains familiar and timeless. The effortless donning and shedding of overclothes and accessories transforms the characters’ core clothing across years and events. Like Korins’ set, Berry’s costumes partner exquisitely with Posner’s lighting. The same modest housedress that befits bean stringing easily becomes suitable wedding attire, and in the end, a ghostly burial gown.

Martin has drawn together an impressive ensemble of WTF veterans and fleshed out the nearly 40-person cast with Berkshire locals. The result gives a comfortable, family feel to a potentially unwieldy ensemble. With all but a few forgivable exceptions, the peripheral cast holds their own against the core of seasoned celebrities—a difficult but essential success in a play that so heavily values life’s small moments.

Our Town follows the pairing of radiant Emily Webb (Brie Larson) and awkward George Gibbs (Will Rogers) through their growing up marrying and dying. Rogers lends a delightful dose of personality to the gangly Gibbs, and grows him thoughtfully from boy to man. Larson is feisty and glowing as Webb; she sustains the humility and nervousness of a small-town girl, but lets her beam with hope and potential. Larson is gentle and light with her final revelations, letting Wilder’s words breathe with their intended significance.

Dylan Baker bolsters the roll of Mr. Webb with comedy and sincerity in equal measure, and Becky Ann Baker infuses Mrs. Gibbs with tender vitality in a performance that proves a memorable gem in the already-sparkling production. As Doc Gibbs and Mrs. Webb respectively, John Rubinstein and Jessica Hecht each paint their characters with nuanced authenticity.

It is the subtlety and restraint of the performances that makes the wisdom of Wilder’s poetry sing, and nowhere is the power of that restraint more remarkable than in Campbell Scott’s casually omniscient and omnipresent narrator, the Stage Manager.

Scott is onstage for nearly all of the three-act play, from it’s discrete opening to its final benediction, even during the intermissions between. He is sometimes narrator, sometimes character, directing the jump and flow of the action through time, creating the slap of a newspaper on a front stoop, or the syrupy globe of a marachino cherry from thin air. Scott navigates the demanding role with ease, inviting the audience into Grover’s Corners with a comfortable welcome, like kicking off your shoes at the doorway of a longtime friend. And he delivers Wilder’s insights with unfussy candor that gives their simple beauty space to settle and sigh.

As director, Martin deftly guides his cast, crew and creative team to work, as all good theater should, in a seamlessly interwoven partnership, driven by a clear vision to the telling of their common story. His tenure at Williamstown has been brief and not unflawed, but Martin’s Our Town is an exquisite and resonant note to depart on.

“The morning star always gets wonderful bright the minute before it has to go, doesn’t it?”

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Good, Good

Endgame

By Samuel Beckett, directed by Eric Hill
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Unicorn Theatre, through July24


Berkshire Theater Festival’s masterful production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame opens in silence, in darkness. Emptiness long enough and black enough to be uncomfortable. When the lights come up on the Unicorn stage, they come up on stillness, on the exquisitely bleak set by Gary English, a skewed, shadowy void that creates shifting senses of vastness and confinement, isolation and oppression. At center, a dingy tarpaulin drapes a seated figure. Down right, another tumbles over a pair of canisters on the dark floor. Pinpoints of gray light peek through the tattered, smoky curtains masking two high windows on the upstage wall.
Clov (David Chandler) enters into the emptiness, frayed and twisted, every movement its own small agony. In a minutes-long, painful and silent sequence, heavy with routine, he moves and mounts a ladder to open the curtains and peer through the filthy windows. He then whips the covers away, revealing two rusted trash bins, recessed into the stage floor, and a frozen figure, glowing palely in ivory brocade robe, like a wan moon in Dan Kotlowitz’s island of light, his sturdy frame locked in a makeshift wheelchair, a gauzy, blood-stained rag draped over his face. “Finished,” Clov’s first words explode into the silence. “It’s finished, nearly finished. It must be nearly finished.” And so Endgame begins.

As master artists value negative space—the place between the figures, the story in the emptiness—the challenge and the brilliance of Beckett exists in the subtext, the unspoken, negative space of dialog. Every page of Endgame has the potential to sing with heart-rending brilliance, and every page is fraught with potential disaster. It’s a play with no plot. One of its two main characters is blind and can’t stand, the other can’t sit. The final two live, legless, in trashcans. Their conversations are disjointed, the characters never touch.
But director Eric Hill and his superlative four-person cast are, too, masters of the negative space of performance: silence, stillness, shadow, and subtext. They imbue every word with layers of meaning, every silence with the echo and ache. And, as Beckett entreats, they plumb the darkness for all its anguished laughter.
As Hamm, Mark Corkins crafts the chairbound abuser from remarkably complex cloth. At once godlike, kingly, childish, manipulative, needy, hopeful and cruel, he employs his commanding voice with extraordinary control and, despite being locked behind black lenses, delivers a captivating performance that pierces to the core.
As Clov, Chandler limps through his doglike duties with the weariness of a man who insists, convincingly, that he has never known a moment of happiness in his many years. But the real power of his performance builds, not on Clov’s pains, but on the whips of unrealized potential Chandler weaves through his sackcloth exterior.
As Hamm’s toothless, can-stricken parents, Nagg and Nell, Randy Harrison and Tanya Dougherty are as beautiful as they are mangled, as warm as their world is icy. In a masterstroke, Hill cast strikingly talented young actors in the elderly rolls and, with the assistance of Charles Schoonmaker’s all-white costuming and makeup, they create a haunting and angelic pair, caught at simultaneous points between their prime and their end.

At every turn, Hill has guided the play carefully away from the cerebral pitfalls that so often doom productions of Absurdist theater and allowed it to breath and blossom with all the anguish and hope of its deeply human heart.

It is a brilliant and vital piece of theater, through and through. Without a doubt, one of the best plays to ring from the region’s many stages. Despite the weight of Endgame’s bleakness and despair, the sheer power, empathy and artistry of its creation renders the result uplifting. If you can get there, for the love of theater, for the love of creativity, of humanity and this oft-accursed earth, go see this play.

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Brush Right By

Photo by Jim McLaughlin

By Hal Corley, directed by Mark Fleischer

Adirondack Theatre Festival, Through July 17

Brush the Summer By, the current offering at Adirondack Theater Festival, sounds like it should make for a pleasant theatrical soak in the Adirondack Sun. Set in Lake Placid, the script (workshopped by ATF last season) draws its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, is penned by five-time Emmy Award- winning writer Hal Corley, and follows an encounter between a conservative divorcee on a leaf peeping drip from Maryland and a free-spirited bartender. Breezy summer fare. But from the moment the lights come up on said bartender sunbathing nude in the woods, the play stomps without subtlety towards its contrived end. The experience feels more like staring directly into the sun than basking in its glow.

Nearly all of the fault lies in Corley’s hackneyed script, which is devoid, even in its most tender moments, of the nuance, subtext and complexity of the intimate dialogue necessary to drive a two-hander. He panders to a regional audience, awkwardly inserting a string of jarring local references, but fails to create genuine human detail in his characters or story. Corley’s experience and awards come from daytime serial writing, and while the caricatures and gasp-weep-repeat formula of soap operas may be a welcome lunch-break respite for many, it doesn’t translate to stage.

As Ellen, Suzanna Hay eeks every ounce of heart possible out of the vacant script. She manages to spin some lovely moments from thin air, and flashes deftly between schoolgirl, siren and grandmother. Her performance is doubly impressive considering how little she gets in return from Kevin Kelly, who fumbled lines during his self-aware performance and brought little internal fire to help illuminate the vaguely written character.

David Esler’s multi-tiered set is packed with birches, torn strips of canvas evoking reeds and rushes, and a large A-frame and birch-bordered scrim at center, which served, except in a brief wordless moment, as a screen for scene-setting projections by Richard DiBella. The set manages to look busy, without ever creating a real sense of place or atmosphere, and the projections—scenic photos of the Adirondacks and hotel interiors, interspersed with stock animations—are a gratingly literal backdrop for the inelegant scenes.

A quick skim through the provided script, however, reveals that Corley’s heavy-handed stage directions (respected for the premiere production) left little to the imagination, even for the designers. He includes a parenthetical slide show of between-scene images, and burdens Esler and director Mark Fleischer with a nearly impossible number of locations for the quick-scened, intermissionless play.

Fleischer has done his best to create Corley’s world on stage, but the action is often stagnant or unnatural, the characters are broad and ill-defined and the plot, even after a dramatic twist in the latter half, predictable and preachy. The production comes as a particular disappointment after Fleischer’s evocative, understated and poetic work on last year’s Ordinary Days. His largest mistake, as ATF’s Producing Artistic Director, was in selecting Brush the Summer By for the festival’s stage.

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In His Hand

Phillip Patterson’s tall, lean frame is poised at a Formica table in the outermost corner of the Albany Medical Center cafeteria. His appointments at the hospital’s outpatient HIV clinic are done for the day and, for the moment, he appears as a serene pocket of stillness in the echoing cafeteria.The 400-plus page volume contains the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses: the first five books of the Christian Bible, the Torah in the Jewish faith and the Tawrat in Islam. The yet unfinished cloth cover reads, “The Plain Bible: Volume 1.” And the dedication inside, in crisp and careful hand on heavy watercolor stock: “To the triumph of the human spirit.”

Phillip Patterson has set out to handwrite the entire 1611 King James Bible. And this, begun in March 2009, is Volume One. When he gets home to his apartment at the senior-citizens complex in Philmont this afternoon, he will take up his pen, and the work of scribe, as he does for 10 to 14 hours every day—ruling 16-page signatures in pencil, writing the verses in meticulous and modest hand, erasing lines, stitching pages, beginning again and again and again.

Photo by Laura Glazer

His partner of 20 years is Muslim and, during a conversation about the similarities between the Bible and the Koran, he told Patterson that in Islamic tradition it’s not uncommon for ordinary people to write out the Koran. When Patterson joked that Christians don’t do that, because the Bible is too big, his partner replied simply: “You should do it.”The former performing artist and interior designer wears a loose ivory cotton sweater and a checkered kerchief knotted carefully around his neck. A well-worn, dark wood cane rests against the table beside his baseball cap. And before him, a huge handbound book obscures much of the tabletop. He grins. “Here it is.” P

eople expect him to be religious, Patterson says, a minister even. But it wasn’t religion that drove him to the writing, so much as “a thirst for knowledge and an understanding of what’s actually in that book.”
 

 

On one of his visits to the HIV clinic just over a year ago, Patterson made a snide remark in the small waiting room, which initiated new branching and blossoming for the Bible project. “There were stamp books,” he recalls. “You know, where there would usually be an Elle Décor or a Time magazine, or something. There are stamp catalogs. Stamp catalogs!” He shakes his head in lingering disbelief. “I kind of shouted out, ‘Who would bring stamp catalogs and put them here on the book table in the HIV clinic? Stamp catalogs?”When Laura Glazer popped her curly head up from behind her cubicle wall in response, he says, “Immediately I recognized the connection between her and the stamp catalogs—as being, well, something outside the box.”

Glazer, known to Capital Region residents for her Hello Pretty City radio show and her whimsical “Birds Are Beautiful” prints, was doing administrative support work at the clinic.

“From my cubicle,” Glazer recounts her own version of their meeting, with endearingly gleeful intensity, “I overheard someone with a loud voice saying ‘Who brings stamp collecting magazines here?’ So I ran out,” she screws up her wide smile into a fierce little knot, brow knit, tight fists lifted to her chin, “You know, dukes up! Ready to just politely defend: You can bring anything. . . . People surprise you, you know?!” Her face relaxes into a placid smile, her hands fall back to her lap.

“We just started talking,” she says. “I told him I was interested in stamps and pens and handwriting, and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m handwriting the Bible.’”

They are not a likely pair, this aging black scribe and bubbly young Jewish artist. But there is a sort of yin and yang about their spirits that creates a balanced fit. Within moments of talking to either, the partnership makes wonderful sense.

While Patterson’s energy is constant and casually contemplative, Glazer is quick, effusive, tangential and inquisitive. There is a childlike purity about her, which belies her insights. Asked if she is good at making connections with strangers, she squeals, “Ooooooh, too good! Way, way too good,” and insists it’s a flaw she is successfully working on remedying. “I tend to like everybody and think everybody’s good,” she says, but quickly adds breathily, like the confession of a secret crush, “I mean, I do still think everybody’s good.”

At his next visit, Patterson brought Glazer a fountain pen he was no longer using; she shared the product of a bookbinding class she’d taken in the spring. After seeing her hand binding, he ordered a bookbinding kit for $50 and taught himself the painstaking process. “We were always exchanging ideas about how to do something creative. It was really nice to be able to go and talk to someone about a shared interest,” she says, adding with a frank touch of surprise, “Not everyone’s into handwriting, you know?”

Last June, Glazer, who studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and had been in search of what she calls her “big project” for nearly eight years, invited Patterson to her photography show in Saratoga. “And he came,” she says. “It wasn’t until afterward that I realized what a huge deal that was.” The trip was more than an hour’s drive, and required Patterson, who struggles with stairs, to climb his way to the walk-up gallery.

After seeing the show, Patterson asked Glazer if she would photograph his project. “My first response was no,” says Glazer, who figured he wanted copywork, a straightforward documentation of what he had produced. “Then I was like, wait. Why don’t I just try to say yes to something?”

Their partnership and their project has grown from there.

Patterson, it turns out, did not want copywork at all.

“I wanted beautiful photographs,” he says. “It was a setting in which people are not expecting—an aging black man with AIDS—someone to create a beautiful world around that man. They’re expecting to see the desolation of the illness, of the blackness, of the age. I wanted beautiful photographs. Because I actually have a very beautiful life.”

And in that life, Glazer has finally found her big project.

“It’s something that I’m about too,” she says. “I don’t have to pretend. Scratch that. It’s just something I’m naturally drawn to. What he’s doing, I could do it. I would enjoy doing it. It’s in my natural fabric. It would just fit. So this fits with me.”

Today, Patterson is at work on the Book of Psalms, which falls in the fourth of what will eventually be an eight- volume Bible. He completed a special-edition of the Book of Ruth, which the pair had printed for purchase. It is, he says, his favorite book, “because it’s about decent people doing decent things.” The cover of the facsimile bears a photograph of Patterson in his writing chair, an open volume resting across his arms, the lushness of the deep warm silks softened by the humility of his rolled sleeves and calloused hands.

Photo by Laura Glazer

Glazer understands, says Patterson, what the project is about. “She found the beauty in the simple artifacts of the work,” he says of Erasers, a photo of his working supplies. “It’s just a ratty pencil case filled with erasers and pens. But each thing in there means something, and she made beauty out of it. To me, that’s genius.”

They have had ever-growing gallery shows, including a current exhibition at the Paper Sparrow in Troy, displaying Glazer’s photographs alongside Patterson’s pages. They hope, when the writing is complete, to publish a book.

In the meantime, both contribute regular wisps of reflection on a dedicated branch of Glazer’s blog. A recent entry by Patterson mirrors the candor and wit with which he approaches each page: “Started the Book of Job today. I knew little more about it than the hype. So far I’m pleasantly surprised by the ratio of mayhem to contemplation. I still have a ways to go so I’m just sitting tight. PP”

Neither doubts he will finish.

They each speak, in their own spaces, of the lessons of the work itself—about patience, about constancy, about mortality and determination and understanding and connection.“Some people, when they see the photos, their faces just light up,” says Glazer. “I don’t know if it has to do with religion, or with their own connection to the Bible, but some people just get it, in their own very personal way. To see people moved like that, it could be addictive.”

For Patterson, whose partner “is in the process of winding up his life,” the writing is proving to be a healing lesson in both the ephemeral and the enduring.
“At some point, I’m going to be alone with my Bibles,” says Patterson, choking, for a barely discernible moment, on his usually sure words. “But that is also a piece of this journey that I’m on, dealing with loss. The project bolsters me in the process of this loss.”

“As large as the project is, and it’s huge, the project is finite. You make the project as beautiful as you can. But there does come a moment, be it way in the future, that the project is finished. That’s it. You close the book. You put it to one side. That’s the finished product, and it’s beautiful.” He takes a patient breath, basking in the finality of this anticipated moment. “To me, that’s what one does, hopefully, with one’s life. It’s hopefully long, but it is finite. There’s no escaping that. And you have to approach that life as something you will leave behind that is beautiful.”

He has christened the project The Serenity of Knowing, and for all his assertions that he doesn’t have the answers, he is quick and sure with his reason.

“The serenity is the knowing,” he says, a gentle light igniting in his eyes. “There is serenity for me in knowing that I am finite. That my partner is finite, that this project is finite, but that I get to leave it behind. Ultimately,” the corner of his mouth twists with an impish chuckle, “the serenity is knowing what is in the stamp book.”

“And,” he almost sighs, resting his long, dark hand over the russet cover of the volume he has laid down in his own hand, “there is serenity in knowing what’s in that book.”

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