Summer theater in the Valley

  • Margaret Odette (left) and Ami Brabson in a scene from “Skeleton Crew,” a 2017 play at Chester Theatre Company. Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

  • Joel Ripka (with microphone) and audience members in “Every Brilliant Thing” at Chester Theatre Company in 2017.  Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

  • From left, poet/spoken word artist Paul Richmond, percussionist Tony Vacca and guitarist John Sheldon join forces for the performance piece “Do It Now: Manual Override,” produced by Serious Play! Ensemble. Photo by Robert Toby

  • Helen Stoltzfus performs in her one-woman piece “Like a Mother Bear” at this summer’s Ko Festival at Amherst College. Image courtesy Ko Festival

  • “The Radicalization Process,” presented by the Detroit-based The Hinterlands company, opens this summer’s Ko Festival at Amherst College July 6-8. Image courtesy Ko Festival

  • Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield will reprise its 2017 performance “We The People” for four weeks this July and August. Photo by Bill Hughes

Staff Writer
Monday, May 14, 2018

From plays by Pulitzer Prize-winning writers to an improvisational performance combining guitar, percussion and spoken word to a one-woman show that invokes a close encounter with a grizzly bear, local theater groups and festivals have a lot on tap this spring and summer.

Northampton’s New Century Theatre, a staple in the Valley’s arts scene since the early 1990s, is on hiatus this year following some internal problems with the organization. But groups like the Chester Theatre Company, Northampton’s Serious Play! Ensemble, Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield and others are offering many options for theatergoers.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

Chester Theatre Company (CTC)

CTC’s director, Daniel Elihu Kramer, likes to joke that his theater’s motto could be “40 beautiful minutes from anywhere.” But it’s worth the drive, as CTC has built a reputation over the years for staging smart, intimate performances that The Boston Globe once wrote “can rival the best the area has to offer.”

This summer CTC is staging the work of one of the country’s most celebrated young playwrights, one with local roots: Annie Baker, Amherst Regional High School class of 1999, who won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2014 for her play “The Flick.” From August 9-19, CTC will feature “The Aliens,” Baker’s 2010 play about two thirtysomething men, friends who meet and talk in an alley behind a Vermont coffee shop.

In the way it takes ordinary conversation and makes it meaningful and illuminating, “The Aliens” is “a great fit for us,” said Kramer, who’s directing the performance. It’s the first Annie Baker play CTC has done in several years, he notes.

From July 5-15, the Chester company is offering a second play by a Pulitzer Prize winner, “Disgraced” by Pakistani-American playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar. The play, set during what becomes an explosive dinner party between two couples — all four people are from different ethnic backgrounds — explores issues of racism, islamophobia, and American identity.

Rounding out the season (and making its American premiere) is “Bar Mitzvah Boy” from June 21-July 1, a drama by Canadian playwright Mark Leiren-Young; and “Mary’s Wedding,” a story of a young couple, Charlie and Mary, who meet in Canada as World War I erupts and Charlie is called to service; it runs July 25-August 5.

Kramer says CTC is also offering something new this year from July 19-21, the interlude between the second and third productions: four performances of a one-person play, “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit” by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, that is never performed the same way twice or by the same actor. That’s because actors don’t see the script until they step on stage.

“We give them a certain amount of information 48 hours before the show, but it’s just a few directions,” said Kramer. “Otherwise, it’s up to the actor and the audience to make it all happen, and it’s never the same.”

Kramer’s summer theater recommendation: The Barrington Stage Company’s Pittsfield production of “The Cake,” which he calls “a really thoughtful examination, with no villains” of the conflict between personal beliefs and public policy. The play, which runs June 21-July 15, stars Debra Jo Rupp (who also performs in “White Rabbit, Red Rabbit”) as a conservative baker who’s asked to make a wedding cake for a lesbian couple, and her dilemma over what to do.

Serious Play!

In the last few years, Serious Play!, the Northampton immersive theater ensemble, has joined forces with Amherst guitarist John Sheldon to produce a new version of Sheldon’s “The Red Guitar,” the stage piece in which he combines music and monologue to tell the story of how he first developed as a player and the era, the 1960s, in which it happened.

In 2016, Sheldon and Serious Play! took the show to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, earning excellent reviews. This August, “The Red Guitar” heads back to the Fringe — along with a second production of words and music, “Do It Now: Manual Override,” in which Sheldon joins percussionist Tony Vacca and poet/spoken word artist Paul Richmond.

Sheryl Stoodley, artistic director of Serious Play!, says the ensemble is focusing most of its efforts this summer on preparing for that Scottish trip. But at two upcoming shows — May 12 (Saturday) at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke, and June 1 at the Hallie Flanagan Theatre at Smith College in Northampton — Valley residents can catch both shows, which each run about 50 minutes (more information is available at seriousplay.org).

“The Red Guitar,” Stoodley said, has been honed to a pretty fine edge. “Do It Now,” she adds, is much newer — it grew out of some impromptu jamming Sheldon did last fall with Vacca, a musician he’s played with before, and separate playing that Vacca, of Whately, had done to back up Richmond, of Wendell, at some of his readings.

“They’re doing structured improvisation,” said Stoodley, who began working with the trio on the show this past winter. “There are some basic touch points, but nobody knows the full set until it starts. We have the ability to set tempo and time, and also to work in some space and stillness … Every time we perform, it’s a fresh piece. But it’s still a work in progress.”

Stoodley’s theater recommendation: This year’s Ko Festival at Amherst College. “I love them — they take risks,” she said.

Ko Festival

Now in its 27th season, the Ko Festival, which runs from July 6 to August 5, offers its usual mix of workshops for actors and varied performances, including a story slam. The theme for this year’s shows is “Radical Acts.”

Longtime festival director Sabrina Hamilton says that term doesn’t imply the plays have a political bent: “It’s more about how individuals can make radical and dramatic decisions in their lives.”

Ko specializes in artist-devised work, and three of the four main productions are solo performances, such as “Like a Mother Bear” (July 27-29), in which writer/performer Helen Stoltzfus explores the intersection between her past infertility, pollution, and spiritual regrowth in the wilderness — including a close encounter with a grizzly bear in Alaska.

The festival will also debut “The Oven,” a solo performance by author and Amherst College professor Ilan Stavans about meeting a shaman in the Amazon jungle and his participation in a religious ceremony that involved taking a hallucinogen. The July 13-15 production is directed by Matthew Glassman, co-artistic director of Double Edge Theatre.

And Hamilton says a small ensemble piece, “The Radicalization Process” (July 6-8), examines the history of the country’s past revolutionary movements, including radical groups from the 1960s and 1970s, through the prism of some of the work of the historic performance group The Living Theatre, several of whose members touched down in this region in the 1970s.

“I think [the audience] will enjoy that connection,” she said.

Hamilton’s summer theater recommendation: “WAM Theatre in the Berkshires. They do some really cool work by and for women.” WAM (which stands for Where Arts & Activism Meet) stages plays in different places and also donates a portion of its take to groups that support women and girls.

Double Edge Theatre

Double Edge Theatre again presents “We The People,” which debuted last summer, with two preview shows on July 13-14 and then for over four weeks between July 18-August 19. Last year’s performance invoked both local and regional history, profiling characters such as women’s rights advocate Lucy Stone, the first woman from Massachusetts to earn a college degree; civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois; and Lydia Hall, the first American woman elected to public office — in 1855 in Ashfield.

It was something of a departure for Double Edge, which has tapped magic, art and South American literature, among other sources, for many of its colorful, outdoor/indoor productions. Co-artistic director Carlos Uriona notes that “We The People” was inspired in part by a special two-day festival the theater hosted last year in Ashfield and on its grounds that was designed to celebrate community roots and local history.

This year, cast and crew are developing some of the characters further from “We The People” while incorporating new themes, like Hispanic migration to this area. “The essence of the work will remain the same, but there will be changes,” Uriona noted.

Double Edge founder Stacy Klein adds that this year’s version of “We The People” will also focus more on how the the characters “relate to the environment, to nature, to the development of the land.” There will be added emphasis this year, too, on some of the acrobatics Double Edge is known for, Klein said.

The theater’s summer spectacles tend to sell out well in advance: Tickets can be ordered at doubleedgetheatre.org.

Also: Eggtooth Productions of Greenfield offers “Deus Ex Machina” June 20-24 at the Shea Theater in Turners Falls. Directed by John Bechtold, it’s described as an “immersive production” in which performers take audience members two at a time through the “nooks and crannies of the historic” Shea Theater to experience some of its history — from, for example, a 1920s dance hall to a controversial 1960s hippie commune called the Renaissance Community.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.