Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Summer Stock - 1939

As the lazy summer of 1939 lingered, we would have no way of knowing that the peace, and the familiar world of the present, would be shattered on September 1st when Hitler’s march into Poland started World War II. The beginning of that promising summer in June marked the last summer stock season free of any impending threat of being interrupted due to the war. The only threat to summer theater in New England in those days, as now, were financial.

But Newsweek magazine reported on June 26th that “summer show producers are looking forward to a prosperous season” and in those innocent days, along with the Broadway hits and the Broadway stars, “the usual hatch of untried plays that come to life under a rural moon before braving the harsher lights of Times Square.”

Most summer theaters, then and now, are in rural locations, and that perhaps in itself presents them as old fashioned, from another time, from another more innocent world. In 1939 summer stock had gone from crawling to walking, and was in fine form before the war disrupted many seasons for many summer theaters.

That season Libby Holman and Clifton Webb took “Burlesque” on one-week stands to the Ogunquit Playhouse in Ogunquit, Maine, then to the Cohasset Theater in Cohasset, Massachusetts, and then down to the Cape Playhouse in Dennis.

Glenda Farrell returned to the stage after five years in Hollywood to appear in “Anna Christie” at the Westport Playhouse in Connecticut. After Westport, Glenda Farrell was hopping down to the Theater-By-The-Sea in Mantunuck, Rhode Island to appear in “Dateline, Geneva,” a new play by Alan Rivkin and Leonard Spiegelglass.

Mitzi Green was to appear in several plays over at the Ivoryton, Connecticut Playhouse. Walter Hampden and Kitty Carlisle appeared at the Cape Playhouse in July with “A Successful Calamity”, a play in this previous post on Walter Hampden’s appearance in Ridgefield, Connecticut in August of 1938.

Over on the other end of the state, Thornton Wilder appeared as the Stage Manager in his play “Our Town” at the Berkshire Playhouse.

Skowhegan, Maine’s Lakewood Theater would present “Indian Summer” with Jessie Royce Landis. Diana Barrymore, the 18-year-old daughter of John Barrymore, would make her stage debut in Ogunquit. Rudy Vallee would appear over at Deertrees Theater in Harrison, Maine.

Newsweek noted that Vermont and New Hampshire summer stock was thriving on “the stages of almost a dozen active cowbarn playhouses.” It might sound dismissive, but it’s really kind of a triumph.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review of "Sleuth" - Cape Playhouse

The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts is the oldest continuing summer theater in the U.S. Knowing that, and knowing that Henry Fonda and Robert Montgomery began their careers here in the summer of 1928, along with another first-timer who also ushered, Bette Davis, is part of the experience of attending a play at the Cape Playhouse on a warm summer night.

(c. 1940s photo.)It goes along with the rough broad-beam rafters in the peaked barn-like ceiling above, and the wooden floors, the wooden benches reminiscent of when founder Raymond Moore dragged (not by himself, surely) a former Unitarian meeting house to this sand-and-scrub pine lot along scenic Route 6A. This is no Cineplex, no grand beaux arts palace. It’s what summer theater used to be in an age when the greatest actors and actress of the day spent their summers playing in barns, and boathouses, tents, and old meeting houses.

A peculiar delight to sit on your bench, glance at the heavy rough oak rafters above, at the plush red curtain ahead, and imagine a young Bette Davis showing a perhaps much less-awed audience where to sit. A little of the shine is diminished today when you see a bored-looking young usher jerking his head and telling two elderly ladies with cardigans around their shoulders, “You guys are over here.”

Note to young people ushering, waiting tables, or running checkout stands in stores: ladies are always “Ma’am” and men are always, “Sir”, and should never be referred to as anything else except “ladies” or “gentlemen.”

I feel pretty sure even a tough gal like Bette Davis would have known that.

Another thing while we’re on the subject, the witless and lazy expression, “Have a good one” can be retired at any time.

Now, back to work. The Cape Playhouse just wrapped up its production of “Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer. Directed by Russell Treyz, the show starred Peter Frechette and Malcolm Gets.

Yoshinori Tanokura designed the multi-level set, which featured a high narrow staircase to an upper level landing, large arched windows, and dark wood paneling, illustrating an ornate English country house. The fire place, the large elk’s head mounted above it, the crossed swords on the wall, all give us the illusion of English aristocracy, wealth, power, arrogance, and this goes a long way to establishing the character of the master of the house, played by Frechette.

The plastic-domed turntable stereo with the LPs tucked beside it remind us it is the 1970s.

Mr. Frechette plays Andrew Wyke, the writer of mystery novels whose wife is leaving him for Milo Tindle, played by Malcolm Gets. He invites Gets to his home to discuss the situation man-to-man, and soon sets him up in a most creative, and most cruel, game to exact his revenge. Frechette is brilliant as the playful, funny, arrogant, and somewhat manic writer who uses his expertise at writing mystery stories to manipulate and bully Gets into humiliating, and occasionally terrifying, scenarios. Frechette is teasing, bubbly, childlike, scornful, and at times appearing a bit unhinged. That’s a lot of oranges to juggle.

Gets, a more sensitive but no less clever man, is at first overwhelmed by the forceful life-of-the party personality of Frechette, who makes him jump through emotional hoops, but in the second act Gets proceeds to ploddingly turn the tables. The final scene is shocking, and we see that the relentless drive to be the winner in this peculiar game of one-upmanship comes at great risk for both men.

It is a literate play, and frequently the dialogue erupts into long and complicated soliloquies, but this is managed very well by both actors. Both employ credible, and several, British accents in the course of the action as they role play. They are well matched, and deserve much credit for instilling a great deal of energy into what is essentially a very wordy play.

Good company on a warm summer night on Cape Cod.

For more on the rest of the season at The Cape Playhouse, have a look at this website.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Upcoming Plays - July, August

Here are some upcoming plays in summer theatre:

The Acadia Repertory Theatre of Mt. Desert Island, Maine presents the comedy “Pool’s Paradise” by Philip King July 21st through August 2nd.

At the Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass., the thriller comedy “Sleuth” runs July 16th through August 1st.

The Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass. presents “The Einstein Project” by Paul D’Andrea and Jon Klein, directed by Eric Hill.

The Mt. Washington Valley Theatre Company, of North Conway, New Hampshire presents the musical comedy “The Producers” July 15th through August 1st.

Rhode Island’s Newport Playhouse & Cabaret Restaurant presents the comedy “Goodbye, Charlie” by George Axelrod, directed by Bruce Lackey, July 15th - August 23rd.

New Hampshire’s The Peterborough Players gives us the musical comedy “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”, book and lyrics by Joe DiPetro, music by Jimmy Roberts, July 15th through 26th.

The New London Barn Playhouse of New London, Connecticut presents Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic American musical, “South Pacific”, directed by Kathryn Markey, July 7th through July 19th.

Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, presents another classic American musical, “Guys and Dolls” July 15th through August 8th.

Vermont’s Weston Playhouse presents the New England premiere of the rock musical “Rent” July 30th through August 22nd. Book, music & lyrics by Jonathan Larson, directed and choreographed by Bill Castelino. Music director is Greg Brown.

Connecticut’s Westport Country Playhouse presents “How the Other Half Loves” by Alan Ayckbourn, directed by John Tillinger, July 28th through August 15th.

And finally, the Cape Playhouse of Dennis, Mass. (also, see Barrington Stage above) presents the thriller comedy “Sleuth” by Anthony Shaffer, July 6th through July 18th, where a wealthy crime writer matches wits with the unemployed actor who ran off with his wife, “plotting games full of twists and turns that end in potentially deadly results. A classic chiller that will have you on the edge of your seat!”

This blog will review the Cape Playhouse production of “Sleuth” next week.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre

The Mount Holyoke College Summer Theatre retired their trademark orange and white tent at the end of their 18th season in 1988, and so symbolic was the tent to the identity of the theater that the future seemed uncertain for the organization. But, there would be a 19th season, and many seasons more until at last the curtain rang down for good.

But this was theater-in-the-round, where there are no curtains, and that is surely one of the factors that made the Mount Holyoke Summer Theatre so fondly remembered as a unique theatre experience. Their productions were, by necessity, intimate and cleverly presented.

Founded in 1970 by Mount Holyoke College Department of Theatre faculty member Jim Cavanaugh, this South Hadley, Massachusetts summer stock event was borne of a desire to create, as Mr. Cavanaugh wrote in the 10th Anniversary special program, “a theatre in which students would take positions of responsibility, on and off stage, and learn by doing.” Students had shared with Cavanaugh their less than satisfying experiences paying money to apprentice with major professional companies and “learning little except how to withstand lack of sleep.”

The first season produced eight plays in eight weeks, as Cavanaugh notes, “We didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so we did it.” Some memories over the years includes stopping a performance of the musical “Carnival” for 35 minutes to wait for a rain shower to stop so that the audience hear the performance. In the meantime, the actors taught the audience the words to songs from the show and they had a sing-a-long until the rain stopped.

Occasional rumbles from C5 aircraft taking off from nearby Westover Air Force Base always required a pause in the action, but were thankfully less frequent, and not as long-lasting than very loud rain on the tent roof. In fair weather, there was something tantalizing about the warm summer night, with the moon and stars lingering just beyond the tent wall and the screened door.

The series was reduced to seven plays in later seasons, and always ran the spectrum of comedy and drama, from MoliƩre to Thornton Wilder, from Neil Simon to Tennessee Williams. No big names from Hollywood or Broadway were among the casts, but none were needed. The mixture of professional guest actors and technicians, and company apprentice and journeymen students created a vibrant, intimate, and emotionally charged world in the orange and white tent. They are still missed.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Walter Hampden at Ridgefield Summer Theatre

Continuing our season of summer theatre, we take a look back at Walter Hampden’s appearance with Connecticut’s Ridgefield Summer Theatre in August of 1938.

Hampden was himself a resident of Ridgefield, having bought a farm here in 1911. He seems to have been part of a vanguard of wealthy New Yorkers to establish grand homes here. One America’s foremost Shakespearean actors of the turn of the 20th century, Walter Hampden toured the US and Europe, and formed his own stock company in 1919. In the 1920s he launched his own theater in New York, playing Hamlet to Ethel Barrymore’s Ophelia.

Hampden also enjoyed a varied Hollywood career noted in this post from my Another Old Movie Blog (see here).

This small town in Connecticut where he rested on his farm between engagements may have been a less illustrious venue for his considerable stature as an actor, but Walter Hampden’s appearance here in “A Successful Calamity” by Clare Kummer demonstrates what once was common among the great actors. Actors, real actors, toured in summer stock, no matter their stature or fame, no matter if the theater was a high school auditorium, a barn, or a boathouse, or a tent.

Hampden’s own personal ties to Ridgefield must have made this minor engagement all the more appealing. Ridgefield, Connecticut has two theaters today, the Ridgefield Theater Barn, and the Ridgefield Playhouse. The Wilton Bulletin of August 11, 1938, in anticipation of the coming event reported that Mr. Hampen, “has played “A Successful Calamity’ many times and has always delighted his audiences.”