Since we’re already deep into fall, there’s no time like the present to finally share this post about the summer theater festivals I went to back in July and August. I visited venues I’ve been meaning to see for years! Can you believe I’d never been to Williamstown Theatre Festival before, the mecca of all theater festivals? Or even to the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, which is located not very far from where I grew up in Connecticut? I was eager cross these places off my theater bucket list and stop at some other New England area theaters as well. What follows is a brief recap of where I went and the shows I saw.
Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
I’ve long intended to visit the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut. They offer an impressive summer theater calendar as part of their National Playwrights / National Musical Theater Conferences, featuring world premieres and cabaret acts from some of the top theater artists in New York. The two shows I was most looking forward to — Queens by Martyna Majok, one of my favorite new playwrights, and the new musical Superhero by Tom Kitt featuring Tony winner Kelli O’Hara — did not line up with my schedule, but I was able to see a reading of the new one-act play The One ATM in Antarctica by Adam Esquenazi Douglas. (I had hopes this would be travel-related but the title is a metaphor for sobriety.)
Here’s a look at the pretty houses where guest artists stay on the O’Neill Theater Center grounds:
There is a little pub on-site, which features a portrait of O’Neill himself, as well as programs from all of the shows running this summer:
The walls of the pub are lined with programs from previous summers — this one catches my eye, as In the Heights debuted here back in 2005. Lin-Manuel Miranda and book writer Quiara Algeria Hudes have autographed the program:
If you are in the neighborhood, consider tacking on a daytime visit to nearby Monte Cristo Cottage, the home where Eugene O’Neill spent his childhood summers and set his plays Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Ah, Wilderness!
Williamstown Theatre Festival
Williamstown Theatre Festival is another place I’ve meant to visit for years — so many top theater professionals around the country have spent their formative years here, it’s like an exclusive club of which I’ve always wanted to be a member. So I’m glad to have finally at least set foot on this sacred theater ground. I wrote a whole post about it here — photos from the theater as well as restaurants and coffee shop recommendations on main street.
I attended a Lawn Talk in advance of the matinee I was seeing — Lawn Talks are open for free to the public. On this particular day, the featured guest was longtime Williamstown alum Steve Lawson, who was interviewed by WTF Associate Artistic Director Laura Savia. They talked about Chekhov’s body of work, as the show most of us were seeing that afternoon was a new adaptation of Chekhov’s play The Three Sisters called Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow (affectionately abbreviated to “Moscow x6”) by playwright Halley Feiffer.
Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow tells the story of The Three Sisters using hyper-modern language. I’d previously seen the original Chekhov play, but hearing it told through the prism of new language brought everything into sharp focus for me and I absolutely loved it. The play starred Thomas Sadoski, Tavi Gevinson, Cristin Milioti, Rebecca Henderson, Jeanine Serralles, Ryan Spahn, and Micah Stock.
Barrington Stage Company
Barrington Stage Company is located in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. They’ve been on my radar since their production of On the Town moved to Broadway three years ago. I jumped at the chance to buy tickets to see Company (one of my all-time favorite Sondheim musicals) starring Broadway favorite Aaron Tveit, who was also in Grease Live! last year. I am so pleased to report that this production of Company was truly outstanding and Aaron was a revelation as Bobby, supported by a tremendous cast of actors. Can you believe I saw this show from the front of the mezzanine for only $25 during previews? This would’ve been a $150 ticket in New York. Kudos to Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd (who also directed Company) for raising the bar with this show.
Dorset Theatre Festival
I didn’t know much about Dorset Theatre Festival until the last two years or so — they are doing fantastic work up in Vermont, producing a terrific summer line-up. Plus they are located in one of the most scenic areas of New England.
I saw the play The Legend of Georgia McBride by Matthew Lopez, which is one of the top ten plays being produced around the country right now. I LOVE this show but hate the nebulous title — I’d heard about this play for years without realizing what it was even about (drag culture) and once I finally knew the subject matter I had an interest in seeing it. The show is so much fun: an Elvis impersonator at a club in Florida gets pushed out of his time slot when drag performers take over the club. So he must either give up performing there… or take part in the drag act. This main character is a straight, cis-gendered man who has never had any interest in drag culture until his future performing career depends on it… and it turns out he’s an outstanding drag queen! We’re treated to a fun montage as his drag mentor shows him the ropes, and in a short time he becomes one of most popular performers at the club. But back home, his pregnant wife has no idea he’s traded in his Elvis jumpsuit for a sequined dress and wig. Here’s one of my favorite lines from the show as the mentor schools our main character about taking pride in this new career path: “Drag ain’t a hobby, baby. Drag ain’t a night job. Drag is a protest. Drag is a raised fist inside a sequined glove. Drag is a lot of things, baby, but drag is not for sissies.”
My friend Brenna (who lives in nearby Toronto) suggested that I look into the Shaw Festival during my visit to Niagara-on-the-Lake, and I’m so glad so told me about it! This bucolic town is in Canada just over the border from Niagara Falls. My parents have visited during the holiday season before and raved about how pretty it is, with horse-drawn carriages trotting down Main Street. I’m pleased to report it’s quite lovely in the summertime too — bright flowers bloom up and down the town center with quaint buildings on either side. Here is the exterior of the Royal George Theater which is one of the venues used by the Shaw Festival:
I saw the play An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, one of my favorite playwrights of our generation. I missed this show when it debuted to much acclaim in NYC back in 2014. Since then I’ve seen three other works by this playwright and have been itching for a top-tier production of An Octoroon to round out my understanding of his work. So thank you, Shaw Festival, for producing such thought-provoking piece of theater. I am STILL thinking about this show months later; it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in 2017.
The show is about a modern-day black playwright writing a show based on the work of an 1800s Irish playwright named Dion Boucicault, whom most of us are not familiar with but was apparently quite prolific in his day. The modern playwright decides to write an adaptation of Boucicault’s play An Octoroon about slavery and land owners in the south during the Civil War. The company of actors uses face paint to express their race — so there are black actors playing white actors in white face, and a white actor who plays a Native American character using red face. These added layers obfuscate how the audience sees race, which allows us some distance from our usual preconceived notions of racial identity. It’s a bold, subversive choice that is telling of Jacobs-Jenkins’ brilliance.
This play riffs on similar themes from other shows I’ve seen lately, some of which were professionally produced AFTER An Octoroon so it’s hard to say what influenced what depending on their developmental timeline, or perhaps they were simply incubated in the same era, with similar ideas swirling around these playwrights’ minds. Those plays are: Indecent (reinterpreting an old play), Vietgone (actor as playwright addressing the audience), and even shades of Pippin (leading player idea).
Cape May Stage
I’ve already recapped my visit to Cape May Stage back in September, and even though they produce shows year-round so aren’t technically part of the summer festival scene, I thought it made sense to include them as part of this write-up. They are doing great work out there — two seasons ago they produced an entire year of work exclusively by female playwrights. I happened to catch The Gin Game during my visit, a play I had not seen before and was eager to know. The play itself did not land with me and I was surprised to learn it won the Pulitzer during the leaner years of playwriting in the late ‘70s. But the acting and staging was still effective, and made me consider how the recent Broadway revival with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones must have landed differently with actors around the age of 90 — exhibiting a certain end-of-life frailty that would raise the dramatic stakes in this story.
So glad to catch up with Cape May Stage’s artistic director Roy Steinberg, who I met while interning at Days of our Lives back in 2005!
Goodspeed Opera House
As someone who was raised in Connecticut, I can’t believe it’s taken me this many decades to finally see a show at the Goodspeed Opera House! It’s located on the shore of the Connecticut River in East Haddam, quite the idyllic location:
I saw their summer production of Thoroughly Modern Millie and loved everything about it. I’ve been listening to the Millie original Broadway cast recording for years but had never seen it on-stage. What a fun, fun show. I got a last-minute balcony ticket that was partial view but totally fine for around $30. The only weird thing is that the inside of the theater is historic and in desperate need of renovation. The balcony seats near the stage are especially tricky to get to, as you have to climb over or duck under a series of two poles — this proved quite tricky for the senior citizen patrons I saw nearly fall (!!) as they tried to navigate the way to their seats.
Also, I checked out this delightful coffee shop nearby called Higher Grounds.
They serve unique treats like lavender cookies. I only had time to try the cold brew coffee and will have to come back!
Norma Terris Theatre
And last but not least, the Norma Terris Theatre is the little sister of the Goodspeed Opera House — they run smaller shows from this venue located about ten minutes away from the Goodspeed. Back in the summer they had a musical called Deathless with an intriguing premise: in the not-too-distant future, you can take a pill that will make you live forever. But the Serling family lost their wife / mother, who passed away just before the deathless pill became mainstream. So the family goes on a road trip to Niagara Falls to scatter her ashes while contemplating life and their relationships to each other. Tony nominee Jennifer Damiano is the most engaging part of the show, delivering an impressive and heartfelt performance as she struggles to make sense of why her mom died and what her dad might be keeping from her.
Thanks for following along… I enjoy digesting theater experiences here on my site, even though this is a travel blog!