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Preview: Shakespeare & Company to open season with “The How and the Why”

As “The How and the Why” says, the point is that the human race “moves forward only when the fool of this generation goes beyond the genius of the last.”

Lenox — Outside, the Shakespeare & Company rehearsal hall at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre spring has finally kissed the Berkshires: pastel blue sky, cirrus clouds, and bright green showing from the sprouting grass to the tips of leaves. Inside, the colors are no less interesting, but rapidly changing. Two actors, a director, an understudy, and a stage manager alternately struggle and laugh as they prepare to open Shakespeare & Company’s 38th season with playwright Sarah Treem’s fascinating exploration of feelings and ideas, “The How and the Why.” Sarah Treem’s work may be familiar to audiences through her writing of the first season of “The House of Cards,” or her on-going participation in Showtime’s “The Affair,” and HBO’s “In Treatment” —each one different from the other, and each one acclaimed and readily available on Netflix and TV.

Bridget Saracino, director Nicole Ricciardi, and Tod Randolph during rehearsal of 'The How and Why.' Photo by Enrico Spada.
Bridget Saracino, director Nicole Ricciardi, and Tod Randolph during rehearsal of ‘The How and Why.’ Photo by Enrico Spada.

I arrive with a dog-eared copy of the script, an invitation to watch an early rehearsal and to enjoy the privilege of interviewing the director Nicole Ricciardi and actors Tod Randolph and Bridget Saracino. I am concerned that this project is serious, seriously surprising and entertaining, and that it definitely requires great skill and subtlety to pull off. I want to know how they plan to do it.

Two evolutionary biologists meet for the first time before a prestigious scientific conference and become immediately entangled in verbal rivalry and one-upmanship. On arrival at the elder scientist’s “masculine” office, Rachel, the younger scientist is curiously edgy and angry. Zelda, the elder scientist is unaccountably accepting and patient with her aggressiveness. But they are immediately involved in an intense discussion that simmers and boils. What is this about? They’ve just met! The younger scientist wants to present her theory at the conference, but hasn’t been chosen. The more mature, award inning scientist is a powerful member of the board which has not chosen her. The two pretend to be open and honest in their conversation, yet each one lies repeatedly to the other. It becomes apparent that while they talk about the conference, they are fighting about something else. But what? Their complex relationship only intensifies at their second meeting at a dive bar after the conference has ended.

An hour or so later, we four sit in the break room while the principals eat their salads and I make notes. We become involved in an animated, wide ranging discussion of the play. Tod Randolph, who plays the older evolutionary biologist, tells me that at their first meeting, the group decided that in their production, science, while absolutely real and accurate, will be “secondary to relationships.” No wonder it is already so alive and engaging. Because in the rehearsal room I was immediately made to care about these people, their feelings, and their mysterious history. And let’s not discount the fact that their research is about sex—and that the theories of each seem to contradict the other. But after all, director Nicole Ricciardi tells me, “Science isn’t the point.” As “The How and the Why” says, the point is that the human race “moves forward only when the fool of this generation goes beyond the genius of the last.” And these two brilliant characters, pawing the ground and facing off, and representing succeeding generations are stuck.

We head back to rehearsal. As audience, I side with one generation, then the other. I switch and re-switch sides, puzzling all the way at the why and the how of it all — as Sarah Treem and this cast mean me to. So the play digs deep and goes wide, deliberately changing colors as it goes. Black and white, grey, red, all black, back and forth and on and on. And each color change brings another “aha.” It is clear these professionals know what they are doing and where they are going, and they are excited to take me with them. I question their direction as well as their intention. Their responses are thought out and thought through. They repeatedly question me back. They want everyone to leave the theatre knowing this is a story about shame and being shamed, about being loved and not loved enough, about intellectual and especially emotional choices gone right and wrong. And it is about people who devote their lives to thinking their ways out of centuries’ old boxes, and feeling their ways through diverging and converging individual lives. When one character asks the other if her whole life is “going to be this hard?” the other says depending on personal choices, it “will either be hard or boring. You get to pick.” But if you think you’re headed for one of those pat 20th century endings, think again. This is definitely the 21st century.

Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph. Photo by Enrico Spada
Bridget Saracino and Tod Randolph. Photo by Enrico Spada

Shakespeare and Company is accustomed to providing provocative ideas and clear, acute dialogue. While set and property designer Patrick Brennan and his crew crouch on the floor and lean off ladders, wielding hammers, saws, nails, and paints next door in the theatre itself, and costume designer Deborah Brothers and her people cut and stitch upstairs, Ricciardi, Randolph and Saracino refer to the sketches posted on the wall as well as to their scripts to use their minds, bodies and voices to challenge and entertain. They dare me to follow “The How and the Why” through its changing colors as they work to fuse the inner world to the outer world, biology to evolution, and body and mind to soul. They promise me laughter as well as thoughtfulness and sadness. They confidently remind mind me of what Zelda says when first presented with Rachel’s provocative biological theory, “My God, that’s ballsy.” We all laugh at the ironic understatement.

“The How and the Why” starts previews on Friday, May 22 in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox. Opening is at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 30th. It runs through Sunday, June 26th. For tickets, call 413-637-1199; for schedules, tickets, and performance dates, consult the Berkshire Edge calendar.

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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.