In the usual summer theater season, I’ll see dozens of plays and put hundreds of miles on the odometer. But in this most unusual summer, the car stayed mostly in the driveway and I stayed mostly in the house. I did get to over two dozen shows – or rather, they were brought to me, via Zoom, YouTube et al., as the porous fourth wall of live theater was replaced by the all-too-solid screen of my TV – and in one case, my car’s windshield.
Several Valley companies stepped into the live-theater void with homemade productions, and while the stand-ins couldn’t wholly replace the troupes’ planned in-person seasons, they gave nourishment to theatergoers’ cravings and kept the flickering ghost lights ablaze.
The shutdown also brought to my screen many shows from around the country and across the ocean that I might not otherwise have seen. National Theatre Live extracted some classics from its back catalogue, BroadwayHD offered recordings of original productions and revivals, and the Public Theater Zoomed topical originals, most movingly The Line, a searing piece of interview theater about New York’s frontline medical workers.
In the Valley, some theaters seized the opportunity to reflect, and reflect on, the summer’s insistent themes. The Ko Festival of Performance hosted a Zoomed reading of The Magic City Massacre, Deletta Gillespie’s investigation of the white riot that destroyed the prosperous “Black Wall Street” neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Rise Up Productions screened Harley Erdman’s original Lullaby of Zoomland, about two lovers quarantined at opposite ends of the continent but sharing fevered dreams.
Eggtooth Productions took us, virtually, aboard a flaming airliner in James McLindon’s Trumpworld satire, This is Your Captain, and also offered an escape from sheltering indoors with John Bechtold’s immersive audio-guided Promenades along leafy pathways up and down the Valley (still available here). Steve Henderson and Will Chalmus’s White, Black and Blue, a fraught confrontation between law and disorder, received a repeat reading in the wake of the police shooting in Kenosha.
Silverthorne Theater Company continued its staged-reading series with five online productions. I was part of the cast of 20 for the first one, Days of Possibilities, Rich Orloff’s dramatic memoir of sixties campus activism, and directed the second, [email protected], Daniel Elihu Kramer’s comic spin on Jane Austen as told in an online chatroom. These were followed by a taut drama set in a Syrian battle zone, a seriocomic encounter set in an Irish pub, and a set of sardonic monologues set in jazz age New York.
Chester Theatre Company adapted its practice of post-show talkbacks by inviting patrons to watch online productions from international stages, and then gather on Zoom to discuss. Last month the theater mounted its own online play, The Story of King Lear, Daniel Kramer’s story-theater adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, slimmed down to an hour with a cast of four.
And then, finally, there was live theater. As I reported here, Eggtooth presented Jack Golden’s one-man show Under the Stars, which was also up on the roof – a “drive-in” event performed atop the Greenfield Parking Garage (the through-the-windshield event mentioned above). Double Edge Theatre invited audiences to gather 6 Feet Apart, All Together in a Covid-safe version of its Summer Spectacle, a perambulation of its Ashfield farm incorporating images and excerpts from past productions.
Two Berkshire theatres were the first in the nation to have live, Actors Equity-approved performances. After extensively (and expensively) revamping its mainstage theater to safety specifications, Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company was driven outdoors when restrictions were suddenly tightened, and performed the one-man comedy-thriller Harry Clarke in a hastily arranged open-air tent to a reduced audience.
I missed that one, but this week caught up with the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Godspell, presented under another tent in downtown Pittsfield. It was likewise scheduled for the mainstage, but Covid restrictions not only nixed the indoors and cut the capacity, but inspired a complete revisioning of the production that made the season’s extraordinary context explicit.
In this variant of Stephen Schwartz’ musical, in which a hip young Jesus dispenses parables and aphorisms to his scruffy followers along with pop-gospel songs, the show’s communitarian feel was challenged by distancing rules. The cast of ten was spread out across the stage, forbidden to sing or speak directly to each other, sometimes screened behind plexiglass, and pulling up their masks whenever they crossed or exited.
They played not only Jesus and his disciples, but themselves. At the outset they described their lives when Covid hit. “I was in final callbacks for a lead role when the show was cancelled.” “When the theaters shut down, so did I.” “Even when I relax now, part of me never lets go.”
When my partner and I arrived, our temperatures were taken and we were led, with masks in place, to the theater’s back lot, where folding chairs (50 maximum) were ranged in scattered groups under a broad open-sided tent. The young players, richly talented and irresistibly likeable, performed under potentially deflating conditions. They were separated not only from each other but the audience, a good 30 feet away from the nearest seats. But they drew energy from the music and managed to connect with little eye contact and no touching (even the Judas kiss was long-distance), creating a bonded ensemble that earned, if not the foot-stomping cheers they might have received in a packed theater, a heartfelt standing ovation.
Overheard on our way out: “It’s just so nice to see live theater again!”
Under the Stars photo by Matthew Cavanaugh
Godspell photo by Emma K. Rothenberg-Ware
While the Valley Advocate remains on indefinite hiatus, Stagestruck will continue posting occasionally. Write me at [email protected] if you’d like to receive notices when new pieces appear.
Note: The weekly Pioneer Valley Theatre News has comprehensive listings of what’s on and coming up in the Valley. You can check it out and subscribe (free) here.