With formidable sweat equity, the First Annual Berkshire Theater Awards has been launched. The winners were announced, and two of the four major Berkshire companies, Barrington Stage Company and Shakespeare & Company, dominated.
While 17 critics have voted, not all of them saw most of the nominated productions. This is particularly true for companies on the fringes of the Berkshires. It is likely that the majority of critics, however, saw most of the productions of the four major companies which were well represented in nominations.
While Williamstown Theater Festival is often touted for its New York and Broadway connections, the surprise of this first annual slate of winners is that WTF sailed wide of the mark. In general, its marquee appeal failed to produce winners. It is a notable, for example, that its production of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo did not claim kudos for its star, Marisa Tomei. The other Williams production, Cat on the Hot Tin Roof, at Berkshire Theatre Group, was nominated but failed to win.
While WTF had strong productions in its smaller Nikos Stage, the two Main Stage offerings other than Rose Tattoo, a hit with critics and audiences, ranged from bad to worse. Its Nikos musical Poster Boy, which was not open to review, according to media consensus, would have won for best new musical had it been eligible. That award went to Barrington's Broadway Bounty Hunters, which got mixed reviews. At the last moment, Julianne Boyd jumped in as director to save the show and surprisingly won for that category.
The dominance of Barrington Stage comes as no surprise to Berkshire theater insiders. Unlike New York-oriented WTF, artistic director Julianne Boyd has often stated a policy of not casting marquee actors. This raises costs as well as expectations. The team for Pirates of Penzance, however, was composed of Tony winners and Broadway veterans. It was far and away the best reviewed and most popular production of the season.
In any other year, however, a delicious and raucous production of Little Shop of Horrors by Berkshire Theater Company deserved to be a winner. While it was presented at the large Colonial Theater, there was a feisty production of the musical Fiorello!, which was compressed effectively into the small Unicorn Theater. The show traveled to Off Broadway this fall where it earned positive reviews.
To say the least, Shakespeare & Company has gone through several seasons of turbulence. Despite patched-up administration and the announcement of yet another artistic director, overall, as reflected by nominations and winners, the company managed a strong season. There were remarkable performances including Johnathan Epstein (didn't win) in Merchant of Venice, the incredible solo of Stephan Wolfert in Cry Havoc, and the over-the-top Nehassaiu DeGannes in Or (in a tie with Scarlett Strallen in Penzance).
At the beginnng of the season, The Boston Globe wrote a feature noting women as artistic directors of the four major equity companies. At S&Co. Ariel Block shared those responsibilities with Johnathan Croy. Add to that mix, Kristen van Ginhoven, co-founder and artistic director of WAM Theater, which mandates productions by and about women and girls. Not surprisingly that equated to a season notable for message plays and feminism.
Often, one emerged from an evening of theater feeling more educated than entertained. Some of these productions proved to be remarkable and memorable. Others felt misdirected, preachy and flat. Given the horrific state of racism, xenophobia, sexism and current politics perhaps Berkshire theater aptly reflects the national zeitgeist.
In putting together seasons, artistic directors have the option to enforce their social and political agendas. Ultimately, audiences decide on the success or failure of programming. Moving into the next season, artistic directors have to explain empty seats to their boards. It is interesting, for example, that for its three Main Stage productions, WTF featured strong roles for women. Theatergoers noted the lack of a mainstream musical or an "entertaining" show. By default, that was Marisa Tomei in Rose Tattoo. Critics noted her strong but generally miscast performance. She was edged out by Tamara Tunie in American Son. Many felt that the ambitious Nikos program was superior to what appeared on the mainstage.
Of course there is always next year.