WTF after 50 years: a personal recollection

By Ralph HammannPrint Story | Email Story
Michael Ritchie (Photo Courtesy of WTF)
Michael Ritchie’s first season (1996) took awhile to assert itself. The first three Main Stage plays were not very memorable save for introducing us to the exciting Hope Davis (in “The Royal Family”). Meanwhile, “MACS (A Macaroni Requiem)” set a new low on the Other Stage. Then Barry Edelstein’s revelatory production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” struck gold. A flawless cast and smart direction brought Miller’s play into the ’90s with an immediacy that showed the work’s artistry and universality. While the Main Stage production of Miller’s “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” was being trumpeted as the event of the summer, “Sons” at the Other Stage quietly stole the spotlight from the very bumpy, unnecessary “Ride.” It remains one of the WTF’s best productions ever. The cast responsible included Joe Costa, Michael Hayden, Stephen Barker Turner, Angie Philips and Linda Stephens. The inspired setting was by Kathleen Widomski; Jeff Nellis designed the lighting. With Jim Simpson’s production of Molière’s “The Learned Ladies” the Main Stage came to life. Narelle Sissons’ innovative sets were perfect for the stylized play, but most appreciated were the actors’ skills with the incessant rhyming couplets. Kate Burton, Miriam Margolyes and Richard Libertini were the chief joys in the accomplished cast, who mined the dialogue for its humor and sublimated the rhythms to create real music. James Naughton cut his directing teeth with Maria Tucci’s fluent translation of Eduardo de Filippo’s “Filumena,” and the results on Hugh Landwehr’s inviting set were as sweet and satisfying as a fresh cannoli. The treat went down easily with a cast headed by Tony Amendola, Joe Grifasi and Tucci in the title role. Odet’s “Rocket to the Moon” sputtered on the Other Stage, but Marisa Tomei had liftoff in her second role at the WTF. A special cabaret featuring Christopher Durang and Dawn was hilarious, the most fun I ever had at this erratic venue. Frankly, the Free Theater, with its mix of mosquitoes, allergens, unfocused audiences and poor acoustics, never much appealed to me, but I gave it another try since Steve Lawson’s adaptation of Dickens’ “Hard Times” was being staged in the courtyard at Mass MoCA. The results were uneven, but a quintet of performances saved the night. They were Keira Naughton, Daniel Gerroll, Larry Nathanson, James Judy and Molly Regan (in what was, regrettably, her last role at the festival). 1997 opened strongly with Jon Robin Baitz’s intelligent “The Film Society.” It featured Roger Rees’ discerning direction and a smart cast headed by Cherry Jones, John Benjamin Hickey, Dennis Holmes and the wonderful Tom Bloom. Doubtless inspired by Hunt’s “Counselor-At-Law” which Ritchie stage-managed, Sidney Kingsley’s “Dead End” with its realistically epic set by James Noone and lighting by Kenneth Posner, was a visual feast. Kids jumped off the front of the stage into a water tank that was New York City’s East River. Nicholas Martin directed with Psacharopoulian attention to detail, and all was right at the WTF. Robert Sean Leonard, Campbell Scott and Scott Wolf headed a sensational cast that included Bruce MacVittie, Lewis Black, Marian Seldes and Tom Brennan. But it was Hope Davis’ achingly touching and unaffected performance that remains in my heart. I can still see her slowly walking through the alley in seemingly fragile contrast to the dwarfing brick buildings. After this, Barry Edelstein’s wrong-headed revisit of “Arms and the Man” was a humorous disaster, while “Misha’s Party’ was a deadening one. James Naughton’s spotty revival of Charles MacArthur’s “Johnny on a Spot” offered the periodic diversions of Linda Purl (where has she been all these years?) and Naughton, but the season had already reached its apotheosis with “Dead End.” 1998 was one of the worst seasons ever, with its leaden “Glass Menagerie,” embarrassing “Matchmaker” and arid “Rainmaker.” “Hecuba” offered the awful spectacle of Olympia Dukakis acting off the Richter scale as if possessed, but it did bring to stage the incredible voices of KITKA as the most thrilling and touching Greek chorus I’ve ever heard. Matters were slightly better downstairs, where Joanne Woodward showed that Odet’s “The Big Knife” still had some edge, and A.R. Gurney’s “Far East” was well-acted by Wolf, Linda Emond and Bill Smitrovich. “Evolution” did not offer any hope for the future development of playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman, but it did introduce one of my favorite actresses, Marin Hinkle, to the WTF in a faultless performance. The excitement on the Other Stage was indisputably Paul Rudnick’s irreverent retelling of Genesis from a determinedly gay perspective in “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.” It inspired many belly laughs and a very positive review, which, in turn, inspired an angry, unevolved pastor to complain about a play he had not seen –- a reminder of how parochial these parts can be. “Corners,” a dreadful play with a clever lighting scheme and a charismatic dog, ended the season there. The sole joy upstairs was Rees’ excellent direction of Sheridan’s “The Rivals.” Frances Aronson lit Neil Patel’s sets, which showcased a cast to rival any: Bloom, Burton, Holmes, Dana Ivey and Jake Webber. Martin’s1999 revival of “Camino Real” featured a lively set by Noone, but the production remained in the shadows of the “Caminos” that preceded it at the WTF. Ethan Hawke was a serviceable Kilroy, and Richard Easton was an inspired Casanova, while Hope Davis inspired love and lust as a luscious Esmeralda. The newly named Nikos Stage opened with a minor play, “The Factory Girls,” given a major set by Michael Brown and a compelling performance by Gretchen Cleevely. Although it offered Bloom, MacVittie and Holmes a chance to show off their Shakespearean skills, Rees’ “The Taming of the Shrew” was a poorly conceived dud with one very major exception: Bebe Neuwirth, for whom I would suffer a slew of aberrant shrews if only to see her play Katherina again. With her magnetic energy and enormous stage power, Neuwirth was the quintessential Kate in one of the most anticipated WTF debuts. Shakespeare, as channeled through Tom Stoppard, fared better on the Nikos Stage, where Darko Tresnjak made magic with his extraordinarily inventive direction of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.” Christopher Evan Welch and Jefferson Mays (the current toast of Broadway in “I Am My Own Wife) captured the essence of Beckettian absurdity in this hilarious and thought-provoking contemporary classic. Upstairs, Jack Hofsiss gave us a beautiful production of Lorraine Hansberry’s indispensable “A Raisin in the Sun.” Even better than the one that currently played on Broadway, this featured a marvelously claustrophobic set that served as a crucible for a host of hot performances. Viola Davis and Kimberly Elise stood out, but it was Ruben Santiago-Hudson who elevated the drama to tragedy with his self-lacerating performance of Walter Lee Younger. Slighter fare appeared concurrently on the Nikos Stage in Warren Leight’s “Glimmer Brothers,” memorable only for Kim Raver and the valuable John Spencer. Meanwhile, Willie and Robert Reale’s enjoyable children’s’ musical “Quark Victory” played at Mass MoCA with fantastic sets, costumes and lighting by, respectively, Michael Brown, Mimi O’Donnell and Jeff Nellis, and a lovely performance by Anna Belknap (a talented non-Equity actress who appeared in many WTF plays). What was probably the best Shakespearean production to ever play the Berkshires came courtesy of Shakespeare scholar, Barry Edelstein, who fashioned “As You Like It” into a joyous celebration of comedy and love. Edelstein’s intelligent adaptation was aided by Sissons’ sets, Anna Yavich’s costumes, Rui Rita’s lighting and Kurt B. Kellenberger’s sound. The luminaries on stage included Bloom, Holmes, Byron Jennings, Mark Linn Baker, MacVittie, Alessandro Nivola, Angelina Phillips, Stephen Barker Turner and the exceptional Megan Dodds, who held her own with the show’s star. As Rosalind, Gwyneth Paltrow shone with the radiance that was her legacy. It was a perfectly realized performance filled with the bliss of acting and alive in each newly discovered moment. Beyond Paltrow’s delightful deceits as Rosalind masquerades as a boy, the moment that lasts is the end, when the casts shimmers under strains of “What a Wonderful Life.” Following “As You Like It” was difficult, but Naughton rose to the challenge with a highly satisfying production of Miller’s “The Price.” The memory of the WTF’s earlier production of it with Richard Venture still dominates, but Lizbeth Mackay, Bob Dishy, Harris Yulin and, especially, Jeffrey DeMunn were worthy successors. 2000 began with the largely disappointing two-part production of Noël Coward’s omnibus of one acts, “Tonight at 8:30.” Allen Moyer designed six elegant sets, which Rita brought to full life, but the work did not always represent Coward at his best. Still, Blythe Danner, Stephen Collins and Charlotte d’Amboise imbued the evenings with grace, with the later charming us in an extended dance sequence choreographed by Ann Reinking. Matters improved with Joe Mantello’s direction of Lanford Wilson’s “The Hot L Baltimore,” a perfect play for the end of the millennium. John Lee Beatty created a vast evocative set that suggested the elegance of bygone days and Kenneth Posner poignantly lit it. The sorry specimens of humanity were memorably played by Mandy Siegfried, Becky Anne Baker, Cyndi Coyne, Thomas Sadowski, Lois Smith Carol Woods and George Hall. Much was made of “Hedda Gabler.” I found it a flawed adaptation, with Burton miscast in the role that won her a Tony nomination when the production transferred to Broadway. It did boast a marvelous set by Alexander Dodge and a quietly commanding performance by Harris Yulin. Moss Hart’s “Light Up the Sky” missed the contribution of his frequent collaborator, George S. Kaufman, but it was given a fine comic treatment by Enid Graham and Eric Stoltz, who refrained from the temptation to overact that seduced much of the cast. Tresnjak’s direction of Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” proved the only stirring discovery on the Main Stage. A spectacle informed with intelligence and whimsy, it was in perfect harmony with Wilder’s imagination and featured strong performances by Kali Rocha, Bill Smitrovich and Emily Bergl. The final vista with its gigantic celestial clocks floating surreally over David P. Gordon’s set has endured the test of time. The Nikos Stage opened big with Austin Pendleton’s “Orson’s Shadow,” a stimulating look at what might have transpired between Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier when the former was invited to direct the later on his turf in London. Pendleton’s writing brought human dimension to his outsized subjects, and the cast was alarmingly realistic in conveying the essences of Welles (an amazing Jeff Still) and Olivier (John Judd) as well as Vivian Leigh, Joan Plowright and critic, Kenneth Tynan. Superb lighting by Jeff Nellis subtly helped to convey the differences in the two artists. Of the rest of the season on the Nikos Stage only A.R. Gurney’s “Ancestral Voices” came close to creating excitement with its cast that included Richard Easton, Marion Seldes, Josh Hamilton, Mary Beth Piel and Michael Gross. The dumb “How I Fell in Love” at least offered the pleasure of Traylor Howard, and the disappointing “The Late Middle Ages” gave Daniel Gerroll Bloom a welcome lead. It’s difficult to argue with the quality of Vernel Bagneris’ “One Mo’ Time,” which opened the 2001 season, except that it was merely a musical revue with a lame book. It was well performed, and it went to New York, where it promptly closed. Tresnjak’s version of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” was a low point for the clever director and the Main Stage. Matters didn’t improve much with Miller’s “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” but they really hit a New York brownstone wall with Michael Greif’s gutter-bound “Street Scene,” the victim of an idiotic concept and ridiculous set. The surprise hit of the Main Stage was the last play, Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come.” Hugh Landwehr’s setting of a cottage in Ballybeg, Ireland, was as infectious as an Irish brogue, and Rui Rita’s lighting thickened the mood. Under Kyle Donnelly’s direction, the performances, led by Austin Lysy and last-minute-replacement Noah Bean, were rich as Guinness on tap. On the Nikos Stage, Bruce Paltrow directed “Educating Rita” on Alexander Dodge’s engrossing set. Jacqueline McKenzie was wonderfully beguiling and irrepressible as Rita — one of the best performances of the year. Unfortunately, Edward Herrmann was an uninspired bore in the two-character play. However, Howard M. Gould’s black comedy “Diva” stands out assertively in memory. But then, with Bebe Neuwirth in comic command of virtually every scene, how could it fail? With her leveling gaze, whiplash timing, alluring innuendo, throwaway vulgarity and sensuous sarcasm, Neuwirth was a cyclonic force — a steam engine packed into a dancer’s taut body. The play also featured terrific work by Eric Bogosian, John Michael Higgins and Kurtwood Smith. It should have transferred to Broadway. 2002 was blessed with a genuine book musical, “Where’s Charley?” that was given the full treatment by Nicholas Martin. A thorough pleasure, it featured Christopher Fitzgerald in a lead performance that displayed the young actor’s multiple talents. Stellar support was given by Jessica Stone, Paxton Whitehead, Simon Jones, Sara Schmidt and David Turner. “Once in a Lifetime” might have worked had it not been for severe inadequacies in the cast (notably Tate Donovan, Kristine Nielsen and, to a lesser degree, Lauren Graham). Michael Greif brought a cinematic approach to Kaufman and Hart’s minor comedy and it worked to a considerable degree. Most effective were Allen Moyer’s stylish art deco sets and the sharply observed turns by Bergl, Joe Grifasi, Rocco Sisto, Christy Meyer, Tom Riis Farrell and Peter Frechette. Joe Orton’s valuable “Loot” featured a sublimely funny performance by Charles Keating, who seemed forever on the brink of collapsing inward under the incomprehensibility of a worsening situation. Fine work was also done by Lysy, Matt McGrath and Kellie Overby, but the real star remained Orton’s voice, albeit robbed of some humor in Jeffrey Jones’ somewhat labored performance. “God of Vengeance” provided the season’s best drama. Under Gordon Edelstein’s sure vision, Donald Margulies’ adaptation of Sholom Asch’s play about a cause célèbre was cause for celebration. Making their yearned for returns to the WTF, Diane Venora and Marin Hinkle were brilliant in a cast that also starred Jenny Bacon, Bruce MacVittie and a powerful Ron Leibman. Neil Patel’s set and Candice Donnelly’s costumes effortlessly transported us to a Jewish tenement in New York City’s Lower East Side of 1923. The Main Stage season closed with a mini-festival of small-cast (one or two persons) plays. Memorably terrible was Olympia Dukakis’ screechfest in “For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again.” It was offset, however, by Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s stunning emotional work and capacity to evoke multiple characters in his own play, the lovely “Lackawanna Blues.” The Nikos Stage had one of its least memorable seasons ever, but it did feature splendid performances by Vera Farmiga and Annabella Sciorra in “Under the Blue Sky,” Dagmara Dominczyk in “Red Angel” and Joe Morton in “Without Walls.” 2003 marked the welcome return of Peter Hunt (a pity he wasn’t brought back for the recent 50th anniversary season) with his fourth “Threepenny Opera.” A capable cast including Melissa Errico, Jesse L. Martin, Randy Graff, Betty Buckley, Karen Ziemba, David Schramm and Laurent Giroux ensured that Kurt Weill’s songs soared. John Conklin revised his concept and offered his richest set design, presenting a complex vision that anchored the action in the industrial revolution while powerfully drawing us into the gears and flywheels that dominated the set. I found it one of the best versions of the Brecht classic. The “Threepenny” thrills abated with John Guare’s flat “Landscape of the Body,” given a halfpenny production by Michael Greif. Another major disappointment followed in Tresnjak’s uninvolving “Under Milk Wood.” Difficult to follow, given some soporific performances (Dana Ivey, Jarlath Conroy), it did offer some salve in Alexander Dodge’s dense design and the earnest work by Dylan Baker and Rachel A. Siegel, an enchanting songbird. A.R. Gurney’s “Big Bill” (directed by Mark Lamos) repeatedly hit the sweet spot, especially in John Michael Higgins’s charming and trenchant portrait of the ’20s tennis pro William Tilden. John Lee Beatty’s verdant set, Rui Rita’s sunny lighting and Jess Goldstein’s blend of sophistication and innocence in his costumes perfectly underscored the pathos and tragedy Tilden courted on and off the court. The show deservedly transferred from the Nikos Stage to Lincoln Center, the WTF’s most impressive ally in New York. Michael Issac Connor, under Barry Edelstein’s knowing direction, was impressive in his one-person show, “Berkshire Village Idiot,” but after “Big Bill,” “The Chekhov Cycle” essentially dominated the Nikos Stage. Directed by and starring veterans of the festival’s earlier love affairs with Chekhov, the event consisted of staged readings of “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” directed, respectively, by Dukakis, Pendleton and Hunt. The image of these three working with the likes of Morfogen, Tucci, Naughton, Brennan and Louis and Christina Zorich was quietly and profoundly moving, and Jenny Gersten deserves great credit for orchestrating the event. While there were many such moments, the highlight was Pendleton’s performance of Vanya, especially opposite Kate Burton’s Sonia. I remain perplexed as to why this special event wasn’t held during the 50th anniversary season. The Main Stage concluded the 2003 season with two artistic triumphs. First, was Gregory Boyd’s dazzling direction of Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties.” The mental and visceral farce was a giddy romp through trounced stage conventions, philosophical silliness and breathtaking thoughts. A game cast, led by the miraculous David Garrison and Stephen Spinella (and consisting of Candy Buckley, Lynn Collins, Herb Foster, Gregor Paslawsky, Kali Rocha and Michael Stuhlbarg) frolicked on Neil Patel’s knockout sets — sometimes to the accompaniment of John Gromada’s teasing music and sound design, always under Rui Rita’s spot-on lighting. Gerald Freedman’s yeoman production of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” (in a new version by Christopher Hampton) followed. It was superbly realized in a clean concept by Freedman and his set designer, John Ezell, whose oversized machinery echoed Conklin’s industrial design for “Threepenny.” A play that spoke resonantly from the turn of the 20th century to the turn of the 21st, it found a powerful voice in Mandy Patinkin’s passionate portrayal of a man who spoke out against a society of greedy hypocrites. Patinkin, in a supremely balanced and nuanced performance, ignited the stage with smoldering coals and eventual fireworks. Would that the past 2004 season, the 50th, had as many positive highlights. It began with the disappointingly arranged “Cabaret & Main,” the hits of which (Charlotte d’Amboise, Bill Irwin, James Naughton, Lewis Black, Sara Ramirez, Dana Reeve, Janine LaManna) were insufficient to justify its three weeks on the Main Stage (which robbed us of not one, but two plays). And it hit rock self-referential bottom in Nicholas Martin’s memorably misbegotten “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Nikos Stage was only redeemed by Audra McDonald’s musical performance in “R shomon,” Gretchen Cleevely’s pointed portrayal in “The Water’s Edge” (and the set by Thomas Lynch), along with the work of Haviland Morris, John Rothman and Susan May Pratt in the now-forgotten “Rodney’s Wife.” Hugh Landwehr’s three sumptuous sets were the incontestable stars of Noël Coward’s wonderful “Design for Living,” but the humans soon came into their own under Gregory Boyd’s assured direction. Campbell Scott, Steven Weber and the vivacious Marisa Tomei managed to find more style appropriate to Coward than is usually the case these days, and they were well-supported by Jack Gilpin and Tom Bloom. That they allowed Coward to speak so clearly and with such immediacy and wit to society’s current hypocrisies was deeply appreciated. Unfortunately, Kristine Nielsen, in one of the worst performances by what passed for a human being, ruined every scene she was in. Then the unimaginable, for me anyway, happened. Michael Greif directed the best version of “The Cherry Orchard” I’ve seen or ever hope to see. Using the sublime translation by Paul Schmidt, Greif found the precarious balance of comedy and tragedy that easily eludes directors. Moreover, he restored a balance in the classes that oft goes overlooked, the result of which was one of the finest and riskiest performances of Chekhov that I’ve experienced. And I do mean experienced, because Ritchie Coster’s Lopákhin was a revelation at all levels, particularly the visceral. Also worthy were Linda Emond, Reed Birney, Michelle Williams, Jessica Chastain, Chris Messina and Jessica Stone. Brilliant designs by Allen Moyer throughout combined to seal the power of this production, which made its own ironic statement about the fall of things great to the dubious march of progress. It was impossible to see this show and not bemoan the passing of the precious Adams Memorial Theatre to the monstrosity subsuming it. During his nine seasons as producer, Ritchie’s legacy includes 24 of my favorite WTF productions (as compared to 20 during Hunt’s six years). The number of actors Ritchie introduced to the WTF was impressive, but it came at the expense of reducing the number of long-time members of the WTF family making appearances. The festival seemed to become more of a guest directors’ theater, with the producer allowing the directors to choose their teams and material. Thus, WTF regulars and favorites were under-utilized or disappeared altogether. A notable exception has been Kate Burton, who has been the one constant, but of course that was to be expected, as she is Ritchie’s wife. Personally, I’ve missed the presence of James Whitmore, Linda Purl, George Morfogen, Molly Regan, Don Perkins, Laurie Kennedy, Conrad L. Osborne, Peter Hunt, Austin Pendleton, Tom Tammi, Laila Robins, Bob Morrisey, Richard Venture, Louis Zorich, Tom Brennan, John Bennett Perry, Daniel Davis, Jean Hackett, Richard Thomas, Jennifer Harmon and Patrick Boll. Even Blythe Danner has been absent too often.

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