REVIEW: “Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires” in Williamstown

Williamstown Theatre Festival Engages the Berkshire Community

by Barbara Waldinger

Williamstown Theatre Festival, in its second season of COMMUNITY WORKS, has proven that is it no longer the distant “Theatre on the Hill,” but an active participant in the life of the Berkshires.  With over eighty performers gathered during a year of community workshops with nine local partners, director Laura Savia and playwright Lucy Thurber have demonstrated their commitment to another all-inclusive experience with their new show : Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires.

(Click HERE to read Gail M. Burns’ interview with Laura Savia and Lucy Thurber.)

Savia, the Associate Artistic Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival, directs and runs workshops throughout New York City, assistant directed Broadway’s The Merchant of Venice, won an IAMA-Ovation Award, a Drama League Directing Fellowship, and is on the faculty of Fordham University, NYU/Strasberg Institute and The New School.

Thurber, hailing from Western Massachusetts, is a highly decorated playwright, having won first Gary Bonasorte Memorial Prize for Playwriting, a Lilly Award, a Manhattan Theatre Club playwriting fellowship, and a 2014 OBIE Award for her five-play cycle The Hill Town Plays.  She has taught at Columbia University, NYU, Sarah Lawrence College and The New School.  Her play Orpheus in the Berkshires had its World Premiere last year as WTF’s first COMMUNITY WORKS production, also directed by Savia.

Over the course of the year, Savia and Thurber travel from New York City to run workshops with WTF’s community partners, to which everyone is invited.  After Thurber announces her subject, participants respond by writing, then reading their work aloud, after which Savia arranges for groups to act out the stories. Meanwhile Thurber takes notes, incorporating the ideas into her play, ensuring that what emerges onstage reflects community concerns and ideas.  All participants are encouraged to perform in the finished product.  (Anyone who would like to be on their email list should write to community@wtfestival.org.

Working with scores of community members, many of whom have never acted before, alongside professional performers and a huge artistic team and production staff, Savia and Thurber have created something approaching miraculous.  While both of Thurber’s community plays deal with problems facing Berkshire residents, Orpheus in the Berkshires, focusing on the opiod crisis and performed in a non-air conditioned old mill last year, was less cohesive (and significantly less comfortable) than her current production, which was mounted on WTF’s Main Stage. Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires is both poignant and relevant.  The story opens with an upcoming funeral for a young man who served in the military (special forces) but never recovered after returning home.  We are told: “No matter how hard we try we can’t get over the things we’ve seen.”  What a brave beginning for a play with so many young children both on the stage and in the audience!  There are two plots that eventually coalesce:  the struggles of the mourning family, and the oft-told story of their mythical ancestors, which the young children implore the grandmother (Penny Bucky) to repeat.

In this play-within-a-play, it seems that once upon a time, Miriam (Katasha Acosta), the leader of the Water People–fluid shape-shifters who worship Mother Octopus and Father Whale, married John (Brendan Dalton), the leader of the Rangers, a solid, camouflage-clad marching army.  John’s brother Scott (Keshav Moodliar), could not accept the blending of the two cultures, resulting in each losing the identifying characteristics of their tribe–the Rangers become more fluid and don the blue streamers of the Water People, while the latter become more solid and can no longer shift their shapes.  While John celebrates these changes as necessary and inevitable evolution, Scott feels threatened by them, believing that the Rangers are disappearing to the point where their children will not remember who they are—leading to a lovely and meaningful song questioning time and change, the fear of moving forward, the need to hold onto what we know and the obligation to adapt.  Each of the children, cuddled on a staircase listening to the story, asks the grandmother:  “Do we adapt?”

Meanwhile, the family, preparing for the funeral, begin to squabble.  Sue (Alexandra Templer), cousin of the young man who died, has gone off to live in the city, leaving her family behind to deal with the problems of rural life:  things don’t improve for future generations, jobs disappear, everything they strive for moves farther away and no one helps in their struggles.  Her relatives try to convince Sue, who has found happiness and success in the city (though she won’t talk to her family about her boyfriend because—heavens, he’s a liberal Democrat!!), to return home to help out.

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How to solve these two situations—the issues between the Water People and Rangers, and Sue’s problem with the demands of her family?  Clearly, what is required are the Banshees:  dressed in earth colors, swinging multi-colored lights and dancing to the music of drums, the Banshees  live inside every one of us, representing all the “hope and horror hiding in our throats”—they assure us that we are not alone.  With their aid, the inner feelings of the characters are expressed aloud and their love, buried under fear and anger, comes shining through.  The audience joins the cast in the title song, composed by Heather Christian, lyrics by Lucy Thurber, included in the programs.

The design team is top-notch, including the amazingly creative costume design (by Anna Blazer) for each of the different and distinctive groups (Miriam’s billowing water dress is exceptional); exciting and colorful lighting (Aaron Tacy, designer); a terrific band under the direction of Jack Mitchell; various styles of choreography, including hip-hop, by the talented Jenn Rapp, a simple, effective scenic design by Lawrence E. Moten, III that allows for quick changes and smooth transitions; all helped by actors like Templer, Acosta, Moodliar, and Dalton, who bring their professionalism to this worthy effort.

But the most moving element of this production is the diversity of the cast—senior actors paired with children, performers of every race and type, including Banshees in wheelchairs escorted onstage by assistants, and a message of inclusion that teaches us what can be possible in our fractured world.

Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires runs from August 13-16 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage.  For tickets call 413-458-3253 or online at wtfestival.org.

Williamstown Theatre Festival presents Once Upon a Time in the Berkshires.  Director:  Laura Savia; Composer:  Heather Christian; Choreographer: Jenn Rapp; Music Director:  Jack Mitchell; Scene Designer:  Lawrence E. Moten III; Costume Designer:  Anna Blazer; Lighting Designer:  Aaron Tacy; Production Stage Manager:  Brendan O’Hara.  Running Time:  one hour fifteen minutes, no intermission; at Williamstown Theatre Festival’s Main Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA., from August 13, closing August 16, 2017.

CAST

Grandmother: Penny Bucky – North Adams, MA

Sue: Alexandra Templer – Atlanta, GA

Jim: Andy Hogeland – Williamstown, MA

Tom: Hiram Delgado – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Carol: Judy Sellman – Jacksonville, VT

Auntie Gene: Shirley Edgerton – Pittsfield, MA

Uncle Nick: Bill Sellman – Jacksonville, VT

Abby: Amanda Lyn Jungquist  – East Tawas, MI

GRANDCHILDREN:

Sean Colletta – Pittsfield, MA

Ari Kraiman – Philadelphia, PA

Devon Lennon – Lanesboro, MA

London Martin – Pittsfield, MA

Crystal Moore – Pittsfield, MA

Abdul Peoples – Pittsfield, MA

Cloey Parlapiano – Pittsfield, MA

Ethan Shaw – Pittsfield, MA

Nick Trapiani – Pittsfield, MA

Naomi Tayi – Pittsfield, MA

Job Vengali – Pittsfield, MA

Grace Wallis – San Marino, CA

WATER PEOPLE:

Miriam: Katasha Acosta – Gainesville, FL by way of Havana, Cuba

Pastor: Ryan Haddad – Parma, Ohio

Tameka Bennett – Mobile, AL

Jetta Berthiaume – Pittsfield, MA

Zachery Berthiaume – Pittsfield, MA

Aileen Bliss – Stockbridge, MA

Chloe Boehm – Pittsfield, MA

Gael K. Bryant – Williamstown, MA

Jennifer Daley – Pittsfield, MA

Lyndsay deManbey – Sandisfield, MA

Joan Diver – Williamstown, MA

Maura Dubuque – East Greenbush, NY

Carolyn Fabricant – North Adams, MA

Isaac Gotterer – Lenox, MA

Emma-Margaret Gregory – North Adams, MA

Krishan Gutschow Rai – Williamstown, MA

Tashi Gutschow Rai – Williamstown, MA

Chris Hall – North Adams, MA

LouAnn Hazelwood – Leeds, MA

Piper Jacobs – North Adams, MA

Tess Johnstadt – Williamstown, MA

Kameron Knott – Katy, TX

Kate Lauzon – Pittsfield, MA

Michael Lively – North Adams, MA

Carter Marks – Lee, MA

Bella Maisonneuve – Pittsfield, MA

Karen McNulty – Pittsfield, MA

Meghan Mongeon – North Adams, MA

Eva Moser – North Adams, MA

Michael Ortiz – Stamford, FL

Maggie Seckler – New York, NY

Courtney Pontier – North Adams, MA

Keya Robertson – Pittsfield, MA

Ed Sedarbaum – Williamstown, MA

Ginger Sumner – Pittsfield, MA

Sam Tucker-Smith – Williamstown, MA

Regina Velázquez – Williamstown, MA

Serafina Velázquez – Williamstown, MA

Xavi Velázquez – Williamstown, MA

Sonal Vyas – Williamstown, MA

Arya Vyas – Williamstown, MA

Stella Waynick – Williamstown, MA

Linda White – Williamstown, MA

Maxine Wisbaum – Pittsfield, MA

RANGERS:

Scott: Keshav Moodliar – New Delhi, India

John: Brendan Dalton – Upper Darby, PA

Ranger Dad: Christopher ‘BIGZDAKING’ Barton – North Adams, MA

Hook: Xaida Brazeean – Chesire, MA

Steel: Michael Obasohan – North Adams, MA

Dead Drop: Danny Trotter – North Adams, MA

Julian Abelskamp – Santa Cruz, CA

Marion Cimini – Pittsfield, MA

Lottie Dustin – Williamstown, MA

Wendy Jones-Gregory – Williamstown, MA

Jeff Kosharek – Rochester, NY

Marilyn Larkin – Pittsfield, MA

Barbara Mahony – Pittsfield, MA

Yamalia Marks – Malibu, CA

Bradford Rosenbloom – Pittsfield, MA

William Valles – Barrington, RI

BANSHEES:

Lead Banshee: Jessy Yates – Broadview Heights, Ohio

Drums: Otha Day – North Adams, MA

Cindy Keiderling – Lee, MA

Fatima Anaza – Houston, TX

Mary Ellen Cangelosi – Williamstown, MA

Phil Case – Westfield, MA

John Chapdelaine – Westfield, MA

Natalie Celebi – Bath, ME

Mary Deyo – Westfield, MA

Karel Fisher – Richmond, MA

Karel Fisher – New Rochelle, NY

Carolyn Kettig – New York, NY

Donna Leaf – West Springfield, MA

Shira Lynn – Williamstown, MA

Chrissy Margevicius – Cleveland, OH

Doris McNabb – Williamstown, MA

Carol Neuhaus – Housatonic, MA

Angel Rathbaum – Lee, MA

Phyllis Riley – Williamstown, MA

Kathleen Ryan – Housatonic, MA

Leslie Scarlett – Lenox, MA

Rachel Skalka – Woodbridge, CT

Shannon Spargo – East Berne, NY

Susan Taylor – Pittsfield, MA

Reiko Yamada – Williamstown, MA/ Sapporo, Japan

BAND:

Vocals: Cali Cybulski – Pittsfield, MA

Saxophone/Guitar: Zev Jarrett – Richmond, MA

Vocals: Grace Ida Marks – Lee, MA

Guitar: Dan O’Connell – North Adams, MA

Guitar: Vladimir Zeleny – Pittsfield, MA

Bass: Tyler Shaw – Adams, MA

Drums: David Ball – Stephenville, TX

dysFUNKcrew:

Becky Ahamad – Chesire, MA

Jamal Ahamad – Chesire, MA

Ashton Darrett – North Adams, MA

Michael Obasohan – North Adams, MA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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