Art Notes: Two theaters, two plays, two different directions

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2022 7:04:25 AM
Modified: 4/14/2022 3:45:41 PM

The sharp contrast between two of the Upper Valley’s primary professional theaters is a recurring theme in these pages. Whatever Northern Stage might be doing, chances are Shaker Bridge Theatre is doing something not merely different but 180 degrees in the other direction.

That dynamic goes on display this week, as Northern Stage opens a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, a sprawling, funny, joyous musical, at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, and Shaker Bridge, in Enfield’s Whitney Hall, opens a production of An Iliad, a taut, one-actor show that traces its roots, as the title suggests, back to ancient Greece.

Where Shaker Bridge is maintaining its hold on intimate theater that tells barbed stories, Northern Stage retains its usual role, though its employees and devotees might not agree with this assessment: to please the crowd. Its promotion for Spamalot notes that we could all use a laugh.

“It’s that, and it’s also because big musicals haven’t been happening,” said Carol Dunne, Northern Stage’s artistic director and the director of Spamalot. “Every song in it is a wink at classic musical theater.”

Since it’s based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the classic 1975 movie, Spamalot is funny first and foremost. But the first act, Dunne said, is one of the tightest in musical theater, with song following song in quick succession. The show also has an amazing Broadway pedigree: It opened there in 2005 in a production directed by the great Mike Nichols. A film version of the musical is in the works.

Northern Stage’s Spamalot, which is currently in previews and opens Saturday night, marks the company’s return to a big production laden with out-of-town talent.

Producing theater with COVID-19 rules still in place is a challenge, Dunne said. Actors and stagehands have had to wear masks for rehearsals, and cast and crew are tested twice a week under strict rules set by Actors Equity, the union representing stage actors. (For the performances, actors will not be masked, but the audience will, and audience members must also show proof of vaccination.)

But the difficulty was overshadowed by the joy of doing a big musical, Dunne said. Some of the actors are making a return to the stage after not working during the two years of the pandemic.

“Some of them thought about giving up acting,” she said. “It’s fraught. A lot of people have left the theater.”

Smaller and midsize theaters are having trouble finding people to work behind the scenes. At Tuesday night’s dress rehearsal, Dunne helped with costuming. The lack of costume assistance also benefited the show, Dunne said. Without enough hands to make costumes, Northern Stage found an economical way to rent the show’s Broadway costumes, which give it some extra pop.

“It just lightens the load for our company members,” she said. “We’re all chipping in in ways that are similar to running a true startup.”

“It’s working, and it’s going to be great, but it’s never been so hard,” she added.

Shaker Bridge has had its own challenges to face, in addition to the COVID-19 protocols it has put in place, which are similar to Northern Stage’s. In January, the company’s founder and director, Bill Coons, suffered hearing loss in both ears that forced him to cancel a show he was directing. He still doesn’t know what the precise cause is.

“The hearing is about halfway back,” Coons said in a phone interview. “I can hear people, but it sounds like they’re in the backyard, underwater.” He’s going to be fitted for hearing aids on Thursday, he said, because “I don’t want to have to cancel anything again, ever.”

An Iliad, which opens Thursday night, is under the direction of Upper Valley actor and director Susan Haefner, which was the plan at the start of the season. Coons read about the play when it was produced in New York and ordered the script. Written by Dennis O’Hare, who originated the Poet, the play’s lone character, and Lisa Peterson, An Iliad was developed through the New York Theater Workshop, including during its annual summer stint at Dartmouth College.

About a third of the play’s language is drawn directly from Homer’s epic poem about the Trojan War. The Poet, played at Shaker Bridge by David Bonnano, has been telling the story for centuries and doesn’t want to tell war stories any longer.

Bonnano has performed at Shaker Bridge, Northern Stage and Weston Playhouse, where he played the Poet in a production of An Iliad last year. The Shaker Bridge production is quite different, Coons said, in part because Haefner brought in Lisa Brigantino, a friend and musician, to write and perform original music as a way to communicate the idea of the Muses and their inspiration of the Poet’s art.

“Like most people, I hadn’t read The Iliad since I was in college, 130 years ago,” Coons said.

With the ongoing war in Ukraine, the play is as topical as ever, an idea Coons acknowledged: “Except I don’t think there’s ever a time when it’s not topical, sadly.”

At one point in the show, the Poet, who might or might not be Homer himself, recites a list of armed conflicts, starting with the Peloponnesian War and ending with Ukraine. Our culture follows the same themes, but it’s forever expanding.

Or, as Coons noted, when a new war breaks out, “you just put it at the end of the list.”

No need to explain why we might need a laugh.

Monty Python’s Spamalot is in production at Northern Stage through May 15. For tickets ($19-$59), go to northernstage.org or call 802-296-7000.

An Iliad is in production at Shaker Bridge Theatre through May 1. For tickets ($16-$35), go to shakerbridgetheatre.org, email shakerbridge@gmail.com or call 603-448-3750.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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