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BarnArts Enacts a Story Not Far From Where Sinclair Lewis Wrote It

  • Hartland resident Peter Mendes plays Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup in BarnArts Center for the Arts' production of "It Can't Happen Here," an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis' novel. Here Jessup confronts President Buzz Windrip (Daniel L. Patterson), reading aloud an editorial he'd written. (Courtesy photograph)



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, June 14, 2018

In Sinclair Lewis’ dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, small-town Vermont newspaper editor Doremus Jessup finds himself in the custody of supporters of a populist U.S. president-turned-dictator.

Only then does he realize how and why it could and did happen.

“The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor of the demagogues who do their dirty work,” Lewis wrote in the mid-1930s, just as Hitler and the Nazis were consolidating power in Germany. “It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of all the conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.”

In preparing to portray Jessup in the BarnArts Center for the Arts’ production of a new stage adaptation of the story, which opens Saturday night at Fable Farm in Barnard, Hartland resident Peter Mendes is reading back and forth between the novel and the play. Along with his flawed character’s motivations, Mendes has been exploring both the unfolding history that spurred Lewis, then living in Barnard, to write the story and the unfolding debate over whether the presidency of Donald J. Trump presages the turn to fascism that Lewis feared.

“It’s uncanny, reading it and understanding the parallels,” Mendes said this week. “In Doremus’ own arc, he sees that when you sit on your thumbs and do nothing this is what happens. If you want to make a difference, you have to act. You have to take action as an individual.”

Mendes is one of 18 Upper Valley residents — a mix of experienced actors and newcomers — portraying a cast of 30 characters. Weather permitting, they’ll perform the Vermont premiere of the adaptation, which California dramatists Tony Taccone and Bennett Cohen wrote in 2015 and first staged before Trump’s election, seven times on the outdoor stage at Fable Farm on Royalton Turnpike in Barnard.

“We’re hoping that the story sinks in no matter what the elements give us,” director Maureen Hennigan, a Bethel resident, said this week. “It’s Vermont. We’re not far from where the book was written. We’ve tried to go back and get some history around things. The context was important for us to get down before rehearsals, especially for younger members of the cast with no reference point to go by.”

The relatively new play — Lewis co-wrote an adaptation of his own in the 1930s — got its first introduction to the Upper Valley in late October 2016, just before the presidential election, in the form of a staged reading at Damon Hall in Hartland.

“Ordinarily I would have gone to it, maybe even participated,” said Mendes, whose day job is managing supplies for the operating rooms at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “But I was already committed to act in one of the murder mysteries they put on at Twin Farms for guests.”

Yes, that Twin Farms, where Lewis, whose nickname of Red referred to both the color of his hair and the drift of his politics, and his wife, Dorothy Thompson, lived for several years during the Depression, and where Lewis wrote all or parts of several of his novels, including It Can’t Happen Here

And, yes, that Twin Farms, the secluded resort-spa in Barnard for the very-well-heeled where the current president’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, reportedly retreated for a break from Washington last summer, landing in a corporate Trump helicopter.

“Understanding that that was (Lewis’) place prompted me to read Main Street and other things he’d written,” Mendes said. “So when Maureen came to me, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to be involved in it. I would have been happy with any part. Even the part of Buzz Windrip (the authoritarian populist who upsets Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the 1936 Democratic nomination) would have been a lot of fun to play.”

It didn’t take Hennigan long to convince the 56-year-old Mendes that the 60-something Jessup was the better fit.

“He’s so complacent at the start,” Mendes said of Jessup. “Then he goes through the whole, eye-opening experience, watches things go to an extreme. Once he gets over the shock, he’s figuring out how to go on from there.

“It’s a tremendous ride the character goes on.”

BarnArts Center for the Arts stages It Can’t Happen Here seven times over the next three weekends on the outdoor stage at Fable Farm in Barnard, starting Saturday night at 7 and ending July 1. For tickets ($15 to $20) and more information, visit barnarts.org or call 802-234-1645.

Best Bets

Ten venues host performances during Bradford, Vt.’s celebration of International Make Music Day on Thursday, June 21.

The party starts at 3, with Cliff Rudder playing acoustic rock at The Local Buzz coffee shop, and with fiddlers Gabrielle Anzalone, Aden Marcotte and Owen Marcotte playing at the Bradford Public Library.

Performances starting at 3:15 feature jazz guitarist Tom Livingston at The Space on Main; the electric guitar duo of Concrete & Musty at J.M. Landscaping Nursery & Garden Center; and Rowe Williams with a harmonica workshop at Village Eclectics.

At 4, Don Sinclair and Jennifer Grossi lead a showcase of their music students at North of the Falls, while Dwayne Benjamin plays country originals at the David Penland jewelry store.

John Hollinrake performs Americana music from the South at the Colatina Exit at 4:30.

Metamorph plays electronic dance music at 4:30 at Wells River Savings Bank.

At 5, the festivities will conclude with an open mic.

Up, up and awa​y! ​​​​​​Gerry Grimo and the East Bay Jazz Ensemble open the 39th annual Quechee Balloon Festival on Friday afternoon with a concert at 3 on the main stage at the Quechee Green. And while pilots fill their sky chariots with air in preparation for the first flight of the weekend, the Dirty Dottys perform shows of danceable pop and Motown at 6 and 7:30 Friday night.

The entertainment lineup on Saturday begins at 10:30 a.m. with The Kapps, an alt-rock ensemble from south of Boston. Gary Hutchins and Dan Freihofer lead The Dinosaurs onto the main stage for a set of bluegrass and old-school country at 12:30 in the afternoon, followed by the Tricksters with a dose of top-40 classics at 3. Enfield native Brooks Hubbard closes the proceedings by leading a team of peers from his home base of Nashville during shows at 6 and 7:30.

The Never Too Late trio of Hilde Ojibway, Adam Sorscher and Sharon Whyte kicks off the Sunday festivities with a round of folk music starting at 10 a.m. Vermont singer-songwriters Patti Casey and Colin McCaffrey take a turn at noon, ahead of a 2:30 set of bluegrass by Sharon resident Jim Rooney and Front Range frontman Bob Amos. And at 5 p.m., Royalton saxophonist Mike Parker leads his Soulfix quintet onto the stage to lower the curtain on the festival.

Admission good for the three days costs $5 to $15, with dads accompanied by their kids getting in for the Father’s Day weekend entry fee of $10. To learn about these and other entertainment options, visit quecheeballoonfestival.com.

Violinist Roseminna Watson returns to her native Upper Valley to perform three concerts with Classicopia pianist Daniel Weiser this weekend, starting Friday night at 7:30 at Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. Subsequent performances, also featuring compositions by Beethoven, Brahms and Fritz Kreisler, are scheduled for a private home in Etna (where seating is limited, requiring reservations) on Saturday night at 7:30 and at First Congregational Church in Lebanon on Sunday afternoon at 2.

Admission costs $18 for the Friday and Sunday performances, and $40 for the house concert. To order tickets and learn more, visit classicopia.org or call 603-643-3337.

The Center for Advanced Musical Studies kicks off its Chosen Vale series of free concerts at Enfield’s Mary Keane Chapel on Tuesday night, with a performance by trumpet seminar instructors Marco Blaauw, Thomas Hooten and Clement Saunier. The music begins at 8, after a preview discussion that starts at 7:30. The series of trumpet recitals runs through June 30 and the percussion concerts are scheduled between July 6 and 14. To learn more about both series, visit chosenvale.org.

Looking Ahead

Tickets go on sale to the public on Friday at noon for country music star Sara Evans’ Oct. 11 concert at Lebanon Opera House. Her No. 1 singles on the country charts include A Little Bit Stronger, Suds in the Bucket and Born to Fly. For tickets ($55 to $95) and more information, visit lebanonoperahouse.org or call 603-448-0400.

Theater/Performance Art

The New London Barn Playhouse stages its season-opening production of Camelot over the next 10 days, starting tonight at 7:30. For tickets ($20 to $40), and more information, visit nlbarn.org or call 603-526-6710.

Music

The Afro-beat ensemble Barika serenades the weekly Feast and Field Market at Fable Farm in Barnard today at 5:30.

The Sostenuto Piano Quartet and the Kentucky Warblers Piano Trio rendezvous at Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hanover on Saturday night at 7, to play a concert benefiting Upper Valley Habitat for Humanity’s current construction project for a family in Sharon. Admission is by donation.

The a cappella ensemble Wrensong sings at Norwich’s St. Barnabas Episcopal Church on Saturday night at 7, in a free concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of the church sanctuary.

Musicians from Tuck’s Rock Dojo, the project of Upper Valley rock sensei Tuck Stocking, perform at the Storrs Pond Recreation Area in Hanover, on Sunday afternoon at 4. Admission is $5 per person and $10 per carload. To learn more, call 603-643-2134

The Brian Cook Band rocks the Norwich Green on Sunday afternoon, with a free Father’s Day concert between 5 and 7.

The North Country Chordsmen sing a cappella classics on the bandstand in Lebanon’s Colburn Park on Monday night at 7.

The Moonlighters big band kicks off its summer tour on Wednesday night, with a 6:30 performance on the Quechee Green.

Dance

The FLOCK ensemble is inviting Upper Valley dancers of all ages and abilities to a tryout, on Saturday afternoon at the company’s Star Mountain Amphitheatre in Sharon, for the presentation FLOCK will make there on July 21. The 3 p.m. tryout will include sharing ideas, determining the experience level of each dancer and scheduling rehearsal time. The dancers chosen will work on the July presentation between July 15 and 20. To learn more, visit flockdance.org or email artistic director Carol Langstaff at carolang@aol.com.

Bar and Club Circuit

The Dinosaurs perform old-school country and bluegrass at Peyton Place in Orford tonight 6 to 9. And on Sunday night at 6, guitarist Ted Mortimer leads his jazz trio through a suppertime set.

Moonlighters bandleader Janet Hewes moonlights at Dana’s by the Gorge in Quechee this weekend, playing piano on Friday and Saturday mornings at 9 and on Sunday morning starting at 11:30.

Frydaddy comes home to play a set of rock at Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corners on Friday night at 9.

The Conniption Fits provide the rockin’ soundtrack to the Lebanon Salt hill Pub’s 15th-anniversary celebration on Friday night at 9. Turner Round turns up the volume on Saturday night at 9.

Singer-songwriter Jim Hollis performs at Salt hill Pub in West Lebanon on Friday night at 9, followed on Saturday night at 9 by singer-songwriter Ryan Alvanos.

Doug Lantz plays ukelele and tells stories at Newport’s Salt hill Pub on Friday night at 9, and About Gladys shares its blend of rock, funk and blues Saturday night at 9.

The weekend line-up at Salt hill Pub in Hanover features FLEW-Z frontman Alec Currier with a set of acoustic rock on Friday night at 9.

Nova Cloud pulls into Windsor Station to play its mix of progressive and indie rock, reggae, jazz, metal and psychedelic music at 9:30 Friday night, and Derek and the Demons rock the house on Saturday night at 10.

Pianist Sonny Saul performs jazz at the On the River Inn in Woodstock on Saturday and Wednesday nights from 6:30 to 9.

Soulfix plays the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee on Saturday night starting at 8:30.

The Americana ensemble of keyboardist Doc Winslow, bassist Tom Lord, guitarist Kit Creeger and drummer Bryant Harris serenades the weekly brunch at Poor Thom’s Tavern in Meriden on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The Strangled Darlings duo performs Americana music at SILO Distillery in Windsor 1 to 3 on Sunday afternoon.

Enfield-native Brooks Hubbard leads his Nashville-based Americana quartet into The Skinny Pancake in Hanover on Wednesday night at 8. Admission is $5.

Saxophonist Michael Parker and guitarist Norm Wolfe play jazz Wednesday night at 6 at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm.

Open Mics

String players of all ages and abilities are welcome at the weekly acoustic jam session at South Royalton’s BALE Commons on Friday night from 6:30 to 10.

Joe Stallsmith leads his weekly hootenanny of Americana, folk and bluegrass on Monday night at 6 at Salt hill Pub in Hanover.

Woodstock’s Jim Yeager hosts open mics on the following nights over the coming week: at Bentley’s Restaurant in Woodstock on Monday at 7:30; at the Public House in Quechee on Tuesday at 6; and on Wednesday from 8 to midnight at Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland Four Corner  s

Fiddler Jakob Breitbach leads a weekly acoustic jam session of bluegrass, Americana and old-timey music on Tuesday nights at 7 at The Filling Station Bar and Grill in White River Junction.

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304. Entertainment news also can be sent to highlights@vnews.com.

Correction

International Make Music Day will be held in Bradford, Vt., on Thursday, June 21, with 10 venues hosting performances by Upper Valley musicians starting at 3 p.m. An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect date for the celebration.