“Mr Burns A Post-Electric Play” A Long Night

In the play's third act, the actors don masks to look like Simpsons characters.

In the play’s third act, the actors don masks to look like  The Simpsons characters.

As the Bart Simpson and Mr Burns characters sang what felt like a nearly endless string of songs about dying in the third act of “Mr Burns a post-electric play,” I gazed at my watch. My God, man, just die, so this long, long series of songs can finally end, and we can all go home.

New Century Theatre’s most recent production of Anne Washburn’s dark comedy is a long theater experience– about two hours 40 minutes, including two ten-minute intermissions.  It was not the fault of the actors that I felt restless. It was the play’s ponderous second act, musical numbers that seemed to me to drag on too long, and a general confusion about what the point of all of this was.  I’m not alone–when this show opened in New York, some critics also felt that what the subject could have been summed up in a tidy two acts, instead of three.

The play is set in the near future–the bad future, where calamity has hit, people are talking about the terrible things that are going on in Boston. “It’s bad up there,” says Gibson (Paul Melendy) ominously, and there are scary people knocking at the door, and there are guns. But what the actors keep talking about is a long-lost episode of the popular cartoon TV show, The Simpsons.  We’ve all been there–you recount what you remember about a certain episode, and people chime in, contributing to the group’s collective memory of the episode.   It’s ok for a while–but what if you did this for fifteen minutes?  Ok, Ok, enough. Like the dying that couldn’t happen fast enough, this is pretty thin gruel for an entire first act, especially when there is a post apocalyptic world out there to worry about.   But maybe in this bleak world, memories of The Simpson’s episodes are better than facing more bad news like what happened to the people whose names are recorded in the notebooks. Scary, for sure. So when a stranger, Gibson, appears, the guns are drawn. It turns out he actually knows what happened to Sideshow Bob in that same damn Simpson’s episode!  Cue the music!

I”m a pretty big fan of The Simpsons,  but in a 22-minute cartoon, you can quickly cut in funny scenes like a Gilbert and Sullivan salute, and in just seconds, capture the point. In live theater, it just drags on, and the audience is left simply wondering why it is taking so long.  Most of the show’s laughs came directly from The Simpson’s scripts–clever banter between Bart and Mr Burns, or riffs on popular movies like Cape Fear.  The one character who got the most laughs was Gibson, (Paul Melendy), who later shows off a talented singing voice in the third act.  In the second act, he shouts out randomly, “call the plumber!”, and his nervous ticks and accents got more laughs than anything else.

I wondered what the many seniors in the audience who most likely, haven’t ever seen a Simpsons episode, were thinking.  As this play is billed as a dark comedy, it wandered into a grey area–what means what, and how would anyone know? I found myself parsing the song lyrics in the all-musical third act, trying to piece together what had happened to the world.  Washburn’s idea of a post-apocalyptic play set in ‘the near future’ and then having a second act seven years later, and a third that’s even 75 years later is clever.  But oblique hints are not satisfying, and the lyrics didn’t reveal more than ‘we don’t talk about that stuff.’

The second act is actually a play within the play, and we see actors reading lines along with the other actors slightly off stage mouthing the same dialogue, a funny kind of close-up into the actor’s world.  Quincy, (Stephanie Carlson) evokes grimaces from her fellow actors as insults a female actor, and talks about arcane details that were confusing..about how they buy lines from people in a mysterious place called “The booth;” about a rival acting company called “Richards” who seem to be attracting larger audiences. But this confusing shop talk is interrupted by a sudden urge to sing, and then we are given a rendition of a string of familiar disco hits mixed with the more familiar strains of the Simpson’s theme song. Confused?  I sure was.

By the time we got to the third act, which was all music, it was time for musical director Mitch Chakour to do his thing.  He helped punctuate the actor’s lines with his piano notes, and his three piece band was tight.  In this act everyone donned clay masks pictured above, looking a little like their Simpson’s characters, with the famous Itchy and Scratchy, (the violent cartoons inside every Simpson’s episode) representing the dark forces of evil people who, despite the frivolity on stage, still lurked out there in this very dark 75-years-ahead future.

This is indeed a dark comedy–maybe it’s like Mass MOCA, where I never understand any of the art. It’s entertaining for sure, and the actors do their best to muddle through this thicket of a script. It’s hard to pick out individual performances because of the nature of the the characters–I didn’t like any of them, felt no emotion about them because honestly, it wasn’t obvious to me what any of them felt about life after the apocalypse. And that’s a question much more interesting than what happened in that Simpsons episode.

Mr Burns a post-electric play, New Century Theatre, Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts at Smith College, through Sunday August 8. Tickets www.newcenturytheatre.org.

Tanglewood Afternoon, from Sunday August 2, 2015

A perfect lazy Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, with Joshua Bell on violin with the BSO.

A perfect lazy Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, with Joshua Bell on violin with the BSO.


Find Tanglewood schedules and tickets: BSO.org

zzzz on the lawn.

For many it’s a great way to catch up on zzzs, with really great background music.

Zipping around the stroller minus his sister.

Zipping around the stroller minus his sister.

Packed lawn but only under the trees.

The shade is the premium position at Tanglewood.

Tanglewood lawn.

I’ve never felt grass that’s as easy to walk on and smooth as what you find at Tanglewood in August.

Strollin' the grounds.

Strollin’ the grounds.

Tanglewood: Time is Fleeting, Drink it In

Wineglass holders are common accoutrements for any fashionable Tanglewood picnic. Max Hartshorne photo.

Wineglass holders are common accoutrements for any fashionable Tanglewood picnic. Max Hartshorne photo.

Tanglewood almost made the cut last week, except for our fear of pending rains that detoured us to another destination to the north. Every season Tanglewood looms as an important event I don’t want to miss, but when I examine the calendar, the window seems to shrink and shrink.

But once we settle into the comfort of the great expanse of Tanglewood lawn, and set out some of our picnic and get in the groove, we realize that it’s always a good idea to put the concerts on our calendars. Just gotta push the other stuff out of the way.

Summer parties, the Van Gogh show at the Clarke Museum in Williamstown, traveling hither and yon, they all chip away at our dates. We cancelled a 14-day cruise that would have taken us to Maine in order to better take advantage of Tanglewood and enjoy that fabulous lawn once again.

We had a plan last week to go with friends, and then tried to carry over the invite to this weekend. It didn’t work. The pull of Tanglewood is a big part of what makes summer in the Valley so special. We’re on our way! www.bso.org

Two Down in Deerfield

Two local retail businesses have closed down in South Deerfield.  Sadly, it was a chef-owned bistro, a small celebration sort of restaurant, which could not keep going. The staff was notified by a text, then the next day, they were closed and gone.

When MRKT first opened, it took me a while to understand what they were doing with the place. Then after a series of glowing reviews and good word of mouth, they got some people in the door. But there were too many bad nights, and the money ran out.  So the space that once attracted people to come downtown is no more.  So hard. I think their perception that it would be expensive kept some people away, since that location has always been the ‘high priced dining spot.’

Then out on Route 5, the Final Markdown has taken its own final markdown. They closed up on July 1.  They are an ultra discounter, and a great small store with surprisingly cheap stuff.  They still have stores in West Springfield and CT.  So two big spaces no longer occupied. Just up the road from the mostly vacant industrial park.  And the general store, still ‘Now Leasing’ it’s all just sad.  Our town can’t support many businesses!

Ashfield Lake House: Like a Summer Vacation Getaway

I have been reading about CThe Ashfield Lake House has new owners and a new energy!hris and Dre Rawlings’ purchase of the venerable Ashfield Lake House on Facebook for a few months. I’ve followed Dre’s reports of the sad state of the kitchen floorboards, and read many comments from people who have been coming in and raving about the place.  So on Saturday night, we decided that a paddle and a visit to the “NEW” Ashfield Lake House was in order.

We rendezvoused with our friends Charlie and Jen and hit the beach at 5 for a leisurely paddle around the lake.  The only thing that caused a concern was the Canada goose turds that lined the beach.  Later we saw the six culprits–is there any worse scourge then these birds besides mosquitoes?  If I ran that lake, I’d put out poison for these big birds. We got out in the shallow lake and chatted as we paddled around the short perimeter.  When we got close to the Lake house, there up on the deck were familiar faces–WRSI’s Monte Belmonte and local musician John Allen.  I always love it when friends are already in the place we’re about to visit.  Monte had his son Pax in his arms and a big grin on his face.  Yep, as usual, the guy who is everywhere was exactly where we were going.

One thing that I had worried about was a bad review a friend of mine had posted to TripAdvisor.  While I know how some people are particular and tend to exaggerate problems in restaurants, I was almost scared off. But I am glad that we stuck with our plan, and truthfully, we had a completely different experience than he did.  You can read the bad and the good on TripAdvisor.  When we walked into the Lake House, the first thing we noticed was a familiar change. Like we did in our own house, they created large openings in the wall, so that the two seating areas of the restaurant now feel all combined into one. It make the Lake House feel much larger, and was a great improvement.

The menu at this point was still being written, so we tried a few basic items–some grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato and pesto, some of their hand cut french fries, and some drinks. They had Rolling Rock drafts for only 2 or 3 bucks, and the wine was also inexpensive. So far so good!   The grilled cheeses arrived promptly and Dre told us that they got their bread from Bread Euphoria in Williamsburg. YEAH!   Looking out the window we saw three sailboats docked right outside. It felt like we were on vacation in Maine, but we had only driven 30 minutes up Rte 116.  We wanted to try the grilled polenta with veggies but they weren’t ready. Oh well, next time for sure!

So far I’d say the new Lake House is off to a fantastic start. Can’t wait to come back for another paddle and dig into more of the menu.

Luna Gale at New Century Theatre: Riveting from Start to Finish

The cast of Luna Gale at a talk-back after Thursday's show at Smith College.

The cast of New Century Theatre’s Luna Gale at a talk-back after Thursday’s show at Smith College. 

“Luna Gale” is the best play I’ve seen New Century Theatre perform in the five years I’ve been enjoying their annual summer slate of shows at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. From start to finish, we were transfixed by the fast-paced dialogue, spot-on characters, and the impressive four-sided rotating set that provided realistic rooms, shifting between a social worker’s office, a home kitchen, a break room and a shabby apartment. There were two other sets on either side, creating rich and realistic environments in which to unfold this complicated and riveting story about a custody battle for an infant named Luna Gale between a mother and her teenage daughter.

Playwright Rebecca Gilman is famous for her on-the-money accurate dialogue–she works in the acronyms, the jargon, and most importantly, the attitudes of the parties involved with such ease that the dialogue almost didn’t seem scripted.

Those in the audience in the social work field agreed at a talkback after the show that the premise, the actions and the conflicts ran true to their experiences in the challenging world of custody battles. Nothing was clear cut, there was no easy answer, and it would have taken a wiser man than Solomon to decide which outcome would be best. But the inherent issue was that everyone in the play has an agenda.

The play begins with Karlie (Ashley Malloy) and Peter (Connor Paradis) waiting in the emergency room with their baby being treated for problems that come from parental neglect. Peter is slumped over and obviously on drugs, and Karlie is fantastically irritated as they wait, and then Caroline, (Cate Damon) the social worker, emerges with bad news. They’re obviously not suitable parents, and we watch as they learn that they are losing their child. The scene switches (with the use of the rotating set, a whole new room is swung into place) to Cindy, (Sue Dziura) Carly’s mother’s apartment.

We learn of her desire to gain full custody and then we begin to get a feeling about who she is. As the actors said afterward, what’s worse–a evangelical Christian or a meth addict? Sadly, in our Universe that’s a Hobson’s Choice, and we follow a complicated series of scenes that reveal each character’s own agenda. For Caroline, it’s a matter of what she thinks should happen, affected by her own terrible childhood memories of abuse. She uses her knowledge of how to work the system to achieve her goal.

But it’s not all smooth sailing, as her boss, Cliff, (Greg Alexander) pushes back since he is friends with her pastor, and shares his Christian beliefs. While Cindy and the pastor talk of the Rapture, and Karlie fails her drug test, there are so many reasons why each of them both do and don’t deserve to have custody. But there is goodness that we see in Peter, which makes it all the more complicated.

Each of these actors are both believable and honest, they are able to evoke true empathy from the audience and they make their cases strongly. Stand outs were Cate Damon’s exasperated social worker Caroline, who is in nearly every scene, and Cliff, who serves up a perfect rendering of the bureaucrat looking to make District Manager while battling with Caroline his challenging employee. Karlie and Peter nail their late teenaged dialogue perfectly. This show kept everyone on their seat’s edge, and with dialogue like this, that’s no wonder. Highly recommended.

Luna Gale continues through July 25 at Smith College’s Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets at www.newcenturytheatre.org 413-585-3220.