Image courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

THEATRE REVIEW: Great Barrington Public Theater’s ‘Bear Tales’ a welcome venture at a time when live theater is at a minimum

There is a sense of relevance to the pack of plays, a time-sensitive sensibility that gives even the least of them a reason to be heard and seen right now.

Bear Tales: Six Feet Together
written and directed by Jessica Provenz, Will LeBow, Carl Sprague, Anne Undeland, David Mamet, Alexandra Angeloch, Andrew Reynolds, Elizabeth Nelson, Michael Brady, Cindy L. Parish. Performed by the authors and Rebecca Pidgeon, and Aimee Doherty

In an era when no new plays are being produced because our theaters cannot accommodate a collection of actors, directors, technicians and designers, ushers and audience members ,the young Great Barrington Public Theater has been able to assemble 10 authors working basically with new and untried material, each of whom has directed and recorded their play in a safe place and a safe way to create an evening of new one-acts (a variation on their original plan to present them in the more traditional manner referred to above). One or two of them actually use the pandemic COVID-19 crisis as a launching point; most do not. Even so, there is a sense of relevance to the pack of plays, a time-sensitive sensibility that gives even the least of them a reason to be heard and seen right now. That is a point of excitement about the group.

My review of the group of short plays, each reviewed separately, will be in a random order. So here goes.

Aimee Doherty in ‘Playing the Part’ by Elizabeth Nelson, part of Great Barrington Public Theater’s ‘Bear Tales: Six Feet Apart.’ Image courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“Playing the Part” by Elizabeth Nelson, performed by Aimee Doherty; this play runs 10:42

A woman, a married woman, examines the concept of extramarital relations; in love with her husband, she is a woman who cannot have an affair. It is out of character for her. Then, through friendly circumstances, she takes an urgent step into a different world where a “famous star” (his name is revealed in the final moment of the play) is being honored after his opening in a new play. She likes him in spite of his warm, clammy handshake, but she discovers that though he is handsome, famous and compelling, up close and personal he is “just a man, a guy.” As he comes into her world, he is even more impressive and not even that clammy hand is discouraging.

Not a memoir, I believe, though probably based on some real events somewhere, the woman takes us through the experience of imagination and longing mixed with heavy loads of loyalty, love and human dignity. Delivered by the actress Aimee Doherty, the monologue is mixed with an urgency that is wonderful and a sincerity that is telling. A mid-length piece, its place in this show is assured by that almost unheard need to move on to something better.

Andrew Reynolds. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“The Eye of the Needle,” written and performed by Andrew Reynolds; 9:57

Almost as long as Nelson’s play, this monologue is about a gay man who barely survives a Canadian hike along the Fundy Footpath with his husband — a five-day dangerous and treacherous hike. All goes well for two days, but on the third day, taking an off-path for the view, he ends up with a broken leg. Lost in the middle of nowhere, they struggle to find a way out, but find that they cannot find a route. Our hero is suffering from diabetes and cannot go too long without food, so his partner goes on without him to secure some help.

Survival (an issue for many today) is the key to this piece, and the bulk of the play centers on his rescue and the post-relief revelations. Reynolds is a good writer, but this work seems seriously flawed. It is narrative and not dramatic. It is all told in the past tense without an immediacy to it. It is one of several pieces that tell the story rather than show us the endeavors. We know the outcome for he is telling the story. Reynolds reads the work decently and he does keep our attention.

Alexandra Angeloch. Photo courtesy alexangeloch.com

“Old Straight Female White,” written and performed by Alexandra Angeloch; 5:08

“I’m sorry” (over and over and over and over) is the basic theme of the work, and though tedious, it is character-driven and occasionally humorous. The play is dismissive of audiences (sometimes rudely so) and overly apologetic for the four aspects in the title. She continually loses audience in the play and perhaps in the observant audience, us out here, as well. “There’s a stack of 10-dollar bills in the lobby; you can help yourself to a refund,” she says to an unseen audience member who is walking out on her lecture. Angeloch’s performance does not make this concept any easier to take seriously. If her feelings about herself are as negative as the monologue would make them seem, there is no justification for her being where she is, saying what she is saying. Self-pity in a character is never very appealing, especially when it is so unrelenting.

Jessica Provenz. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“Baker’s Revenge,” written and performed by Jessica Provenz; 7:45

A baker, working at the White House and believing in what should be the president’s honor, finds herself serving a newly elected leader she feels is “shitting in America’s apple pie.” (Guess who?) While serving White House Ring Dings during an overheard review of the conditions of imprisoned immigrant kids, she has an emphatic revelation. So this Jewish-American Assistant Pastry Chef of the United States makes profiteroles of white chocolate for a party for the “imperial” wife. The plan — death by chocolate — provides a way to get a little bit back for her infant son and for the rest of the country.

The fact that she is alone, telling the story (again) into a recorder so that her family will understand her actions — a justification — is the basic setup for this piece. It is beautifully written and nicely performed by a quirky, jerky Provenz, who seems to live the role. This was an enjoyable work, to be sure, but maybe that reflects my place in the political realm of utter nonsense that I’m living through right now.

A still from ‘The Cherry Orchard 2020’ by Carl Sprague, part of Great Barrington Public Theater’s ‘Bear Tales: Six Feet Apart.’ Image courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“The Cherry Orchard 2020,” written by Carl Sprague; 13:51

A puppet play using materials created by his grandfather Julius Hybler, Sprague’s version of the Anton Chekhov’s masterwork is remotely revealed. It doesn’t go very far and I couldn’t read the credits so I don’t know who is doing the puppet manipulation or voices (they may all be Sprague).

Personally I like the Chekhov play very much, but this left me cold and I don’t really know why it is a part of this group of new works. It certainly hasn’t been reset in the present, so the addition of “2020” to the title makes no sense and it certainly doesn’t present a clearer vision of the play, so the reference is lost once again. I liked the marionettes and the stage setting. That’s the best I can say about it. Carl Sprague is a very talented designer and I’ve enjoyed seeing his work on our local stages for years. But this piece is not really a part of the vision of this evening.

Will LeBow. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“King Lear Boogie,” written, composed and performed by Will LeBow; 6:39

For almost seven minutes, Will LeBow, at his piano and mike, performs a musical piece on the “King Lear” story. Often difficult to understand (he provides a text of the lyrics so you can read along), the various voices used for character speeches increase the difficulty in grasping the words at times. His music is the best aspect of the piece, and often the Shakespeare quotes from the play resonate. I did like looking at the room he’s sitting in.

Cindy L. Parrish. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“WomAnimal,” written and performed by Cindy L. Parish, original music by John de Kadt; 8:53

A 55-year-old woman zoologist suffering menopause relates her sexuality to the reality of wild animals. She makes a point of the use of teeth to express passion, feral passion. This is a terrific story about the internalized dreams of humanity to return to the basics of animal existence, the improbabilities of relationships between the advanced humans and their ancient companions before transformation. She talks about the intimate nature of females of all species (and, at least once, a male) and the inherent ability of women to transform themselves into fox or wolf or some other zoological creature, sharing instincts and possibilities. Though beautifully filmed with fine effects, there is too much agita over the situation. Parish is clearly a talented writer and performer and this is a stark and difficult introduction to her and her work, though very worthwhile.

Michael Brady. Photo courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“Final Words,” written and performed by Michael Brady; 7:45

Writing his own obituary, the author reflects on how writers use words in their world. He speaks of how Emerson’s dementia and Thoreau’s death figure into his own reflections, ditto Chekhov and others. He examines his own experience with constant onstage dying in “Richard III” in a Boston production and how it factors into his thoughts and his family relationships. He even speaks for a while of his father’s death during a World Series that Boston lost. A narrative work that seems completely autobiographical, especially when performed by the author, it is almost too personal, with an ending that removes it completely from the sensibility of a play as he tells us his thoughts are too tied up with the current pandemic we all are living through. Again, this work is a confession rather than an acted monologue.

Anne Undeland in her play ‘Meet the Deadlies,’ part of Great barrington Public Theater’s ‘Bear Tales: Six Feet Apart.’ Image courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“Meet the Deadlies,” written and performed by Anne Undeland; 5:02

The shortest piece on the bill is really two short plays, part of a septet based on the idea of the seven deadly sins. This is a topic I’ve seen presented in many, many forms over the years and it has taken its place in the dramatic world like few others. Here, the key is comedic as the author, Anne Undeland, looks at each one through a different character from each’s unique perspective.

First is Gluttony. She is obsessed with French cheeses: their sources, their handlers, their creation, their commercials and their consumption — “Like it chose me, like it knows me,” she intones with passion. She speaks of a specific French brie, about which she knows more than she knows about herself as it is a cheese to eat “at 7 p.m. on Tuesday — not 5 p.m., not 8 p.m., and . . . not Wednesday.” The playlet is glorious and expressive and hilarious to watch as Undeland performs it with a sensual passion usually found in romances by Colette performed by the likes of a Geraldine Page.

The second playlet is Sloth. This character manages to present her entire world in a single sentence, and while I’d like to reveal it to you, you simply have to see it for yourself. These two character monologues are so good that I cannot wait to meet the other five.

David Mamet. Photo: Pam Susemiehl

“Dorothy Kilgallen,” written and directed by David Mamet, performed by Rebecca Pidgeon; 21:32

The piece de resistance is intended to be a new one-act by David Mamet. It was the last one I watched and it takes last place in this review. It is also the longest piece in the group.

World-famous columnist, reporter and personality Dorothy Kilgallen, sometime in the 1940s or ‘50s, is sitting in a bar talking, reminiscing with someone or no one, although she seems to refer her thoughts to Damon Runyan at times. She is telling the tale of how she came to be the woman people know. She blames her fame on her feelings about the Lindbergh baby murder. Her outspoken attitude about it, and about Charles Lindbergh himself, are in the center of her emotional retelling of her relationship to the murder and murderer. With Lindbergh a known Nazi sympathizer, a womanizer and presidential candidate, Kilgallen feels sure that he, and not Bruno Hauptmann, killed the child. An idea that has never left her, she has been moved from her beat to become a Broadway columnist and she has never forgiven Hearst for this.

Rebecca Pidgeon in ‘Dorothy Kilgallen’ by David Mamet, part of Great Barrington Public Theater’s ‘Bear Tales: Six Feet Apart.’ Image courtesy Great Barrington Public Theater

“Resistance,” her idea of how the murderer, Bruno Hauptmann, deflects the exploration of her version of truth — that Lindbergh killed his own child — is an attitude that haunts her, and she drinks and talks to avoid the concept for a short while.

While the piece is most interesting, its delivery by actress Rebecca Pidgeon under Mamet’s direction is awkward and removes each and every sting within the writing from having its particular effect on the viewer. The audience is never involved in this piece. Part of the problem is the delivery of the lines: stilted, starched, stiff. There is little of Kilgallen’s famous sound in speech. While many of today’s audience won’t remember her, sadly, I do, and I wasn’t able to buy a single moment of this work without Kilgallen being brought to life somehow. I think the play may be among the best of Mamet’s writing, or at least well along the way to being just that. But its presentation style doesn’t ring true.

A very adventurous undertaking, “Bear Tales: Six Feet Apart” is certainly a welcome venture at this time when live theater is at a minimum. It is a mixed bag of presentations, with Undeland’s and Provenz’s plays being my favorites. I confess that I know both ladies, but I also confess to knowing quite a few of the other writers as well. I am glad they are working on new plays. I am delighted to have a chance to see them in the comfortable setting of my own room. But how I wish they had a director and chance to work both the presentation of their plays and the growth that a rehearsal process allows the authors. That would have made a difference.

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Bear Tales: Six Feet Together is currently streaming at greatbarringtonpublictheater.org.