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Spotlight: ‘The Nutcracker’ at the Academy of Music; “What of the Night?’ at UMass Amherst


Thursday, December 06, 2018

It’s that time of year

Wondering why Northampton’s Academy of Music has gone dark for the past week? It’s not because it hasn’t been in use — it’s just that Pioneer Valley Ballet has taken over the premises to prepare for its annual production of “The Nutcracker.” 

This year makes the 40th anniversary of what has long been a Valley tradition, when upwards of 300 people — dancers, actors, choreographers, stage crew, costume makers, lighting designers — culminate weeks of rehearsal and preparation with their version of the famous ballet featuring dancing mice and gingerbread soldiers, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and a little girl whose toy nutcracker comes to life.

PVB’s “Nutcracker” opens today (Friday) at 4 p.m. at the Academy with a “sensory and family safe show,” continues with a special 40th anniversary show at 6:30 p.m., and is followed by afternoon shows on Saturday, Dec. 8 and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Maryanne Kodzis and Tom Vacanti, PVB’s longtime co-directors, say “The Nutcracker” is always a logistical challenge, given about 250 teenage and younger dancers, plus adult actors and guest performers, are involved in the production (though they’re not all on stage at once).

In addition, there’s the challenge of keeping fresh a ballet dating to Czarist Russia, as well as maintaining fidelity to a well-known story. Kodzis and Vacanti say their approach has long been to build the choreography around the strengths and experience of the PVB students at the heart of the show. “We try to set then up to succeed,” says Kodzis.

“The Nutcracker” is also a popular forum for adult actors playing some of the ballet’s especially colorful roles, like Mother Ginger, the lady with a bevy of polichinelle (little clowns) concealed beneath her giant hoop skirt. Six men from the area will takes turns in that role this weekend, including children’s authors and illustrators Jarrett Krosoczka and Mo Willems.

Tickets for “The Nutcracker” range from $20 to $50 depending on day of performance and can be purchased at aomtheatre.com.

 

Finding hope in the darkness

Modern theater lost a seminal figure in October when Maria Irene Fornés, the avant-garde playwright and director who was a key member of the Off-Off-Broadway movement of the 1960s, passed away. But her work lives on, including at the University of Massachusetts Amherst this weekend.

On Friday, Dec. 7 and Saturday, Dec. 8, the UMass Theater Department will finish its two-week run of “What of the Night?”, a collection of four related plays for which the Cuban-American Fornés was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1990. The production takes place Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. at The Curtain Theater at the UMass Fine Arts Center.

Directed by MFA student Vishupad Barve, “What of the Night?” follows several generations of characters, all living on the fringes of society, desperately poor and struggling to eke out a living; one of the plays is set in a future, dystopian America in which society has pretty much broken down and basic survival is at stake. 

Yet, as production notes put it, there’s a persistent “thread of hope” running through this work, with Fornés' characters striving “for more than mere survival, seeking connection and community and challenging the audience to see beyond the signifiers of class to recognize their full humanity.”

Tickets are $15 for general admission and $5 for students and are available by calling 1-800-999-UMAS or by visiting umass.edu/theater/what-night. Note: The production contains themes of sexual and domestic violence and is not recommended for children under 14.

— Steve Pfarrer