Berkshire Actors Theatre off to a great start with entertaining “Four Dogs and a Bone”

Four Dogs and a Bone at Berkshire Actors Theatre

(Seen above Deann Halper (Collette) and Michael Foster (Victor). Photo by Enrico Spada.)

Four Dogs and a Bone is a satire on the movie business, and in the hands of the brand new Berkshire Actors Theatre it is a funny, brisk and entertaining way to spend an hour and a half. The four dogs are the four Hollywood characters, the bone the underfunded movie whose few scraps are their ticket to fame. The language the playwright John Patrick Shanley uses is hilarious, sometimes Neil Simon-ish with an edge, with malapropisms Yogi Berra style. For example, the character Brenda (Clover Bell-Devaney) mangles the language by revealing that she was “incested” during her childhood. Oscar winner Shanley has a knack for comedy, he is the writer of Moonstruck.

If there is anyplace in America where the entrepreneurial spirit still thrives, it is in live, local theatre. In Berkshire County we have four large professional theatre companies with roots going back decades, and still more smaller ones of various vintages. Even hardscrabble North Adams has three, albeit one, Main Street Stage is homeless at the moment, while the other two – Mill City Productions and the Minerva Arts Center – have increased their offerings in an attempt to fill a void.

In Pittsfield, when the Beacon Cinema opened a year ago, the New Stage Theatre on the second floor also came into being. It’s not a perfect theatre space, carved out of what was once office space, but its very existence has spurred the birth of half a dozen new theatrical enterprises, including the Berkshire Actors Theatre which opened its first play last weekend.

This company could be seen as a group of theatrical adventurers staking out their claim to a piece of the theatrical turf. With a wonderful script by John Patrick Shanley, these intrepid explorers were left to fill in the details of the Four Dogs and a Bone, a comedy about Hollywood film making.

They have done such a good job that, seriously, we have a new contender in the local theatrical sweepstakes. They aimed high and succeeded. Clover Bell-Devaney who is the Founding Artistic Director played the novice film star Brenda, and was joined by Daniel Popowich as the film’s producer Bradley, with Deann Halper as Collette, the aging ingenue and Michael J. Foster as the script writer Victor. All have strong ties to the Berkshire region.

Andrew Volkoff, the director is well known in these parts thanks to his five years as an Associate Artistic Director of Barrington Stage Company. Almost all the technical and support roles were filled by locals as well.

In the New Stage space, the playing area was laid out in a way that neutralized the former problems when structural support columns have interfered with the playing space and sight lines. By using a diamond shaped setup, with the stage in one corner, the comfortable chairs were arranged on risers so that there was a perfect view from each of the 75 or so seats. Jeff Davis the lighting designer worked with serious limitations, yet the end result was functional and workmanlike.

Daniel Popowich (Bradley) and Clover Bell-Devaney (Brenda). Photo by Enrico Spada.

As Four dogs and a Bone opens we find the new actress and her producer in the midst of a verbal fencing match as she angles to make her part larger, and he tries to flatter her into getting her step-brother to invest in the underfunded film. By the time we meet the screenwriter and aging co-star it is clear that this is not only a comedy, but a theatrical outing where it is perfectly safe for each of the actors to chew up the scenery. The quartet did not disappoint as zinger after zinger was unleashed, much to the pleasure of the chortling audience.

The inside jokes are hilarious. “She’s not an actress, she’s a personality,” and “that’s not acting, that’s Kabuki” are among the rusty daggers being thrown around, especially between the two women. The men are equally adept at malevolent and vicious wordplay, and I must admit that it has been years since I have been party to such dishy repartee. What fun to see the four go at each other without mercy as each angled for an advantage.

Each member of the cast was just perfect, though the performances of Deann Simmons Halper as Collette and Daniel Popowich were both the funniest, and craziest. Along with Michael J. Foster and Clover Bell-Devaney they all had their timing down to a fare-thee-well, as they try to manipulate the movie to their own greedy and selfish ends. The plot rises and falls on such issues as completion bonds, rain, and a health condition of the producer (a graphically described rectal ailment) which brings a grotesque image to the notion of being in the drivers seat.

Moving along at the speed of a good comic book read, Four Dogs and a Bone has neither the time nor the pretension to be introspective or meaningful at all, it is just good fun. Director Andrew Volkoff seems to have kept faith with the script, and trusted Shanley’s sharp writing to carry the show. Therefore what movement there was on the modest stage was carefully calibrated to never get in the way of the endless stream of funnies that were pouring out of the mouths of the characters. Every move seemed to be a natural extension of the line being said, and even the outbursts, histrionics and emotional roller coaster each was on never veered off track. There is only one word to describe this: professional.

If you enjoy larger than life personalities, manipulative bitchery and a lots of laughs, this is a play that is worth your time, and a company that has laid down its marker for Berkshire audiences. From my vantage point, I would say it is a good bet that you will be seeing them again. Hopefully soon.

Berkshire Actors Theatre presents Four Dogs and a Bone by John Patrick Shanley, directed by Andrew Volkoff, Brian Prather (Set,Props), Jeff Davis (Lights), Brad Berridge (Sound), Arthur Oliver (Costume Consultant), Robert Allen (Stage/House Manager), Greg Vyska (Board Operator), Enrico Spada (Marketing Consultant), Allissa Wickham (Press). Cast: Clover Bell-Devaney (Branda), Daniel Popowich (Bradley), Deann Halper (Collette), Michael J. Foster (Victor). 90 Minutes plus one intermission. August 3-21, 2011 at the New Stage Theatre, North Street, Pittsfield, MA.

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