ART's "Notes from the Field": Historic and Histrionic

Anna Deavere Smith in "Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Rarely have the historic and the histrionic combined as seamlessly as they do in the current
American Repertory Theater production of Anna Deavere Smith's Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, which begins as a monologue and segues into a dialogue. For the past three decades or more, Smith has created and nurtured a novel form of documentary theater. For this experience, she has created and written, and now performs, what is referred to as Act I, a series of monologues based on hundreds of interviews with people of extraordinarily different backgrounds (a Native American fisherman, a videographer, a protester, a pastor, and so on). After a couple of monologues that seemed hasty, Smith settled in for a very powerful, brilliant set of monologues that formed the first act. For Act II, however, she had other plans.

This is the New England premiere of the piece, after several workshops and in other venues across the country, from the West Coast to Pennsylvania to the East Coast (including Smith's hometown of Baltimore). It evolved into an interactive talk-back that was an integral part of the show itself. Based on some 250 interviews by Smith, it portrays the pervasive and abhorrent “school-to-prison pipeline” that often disproportionately impacts minorities, and the “zero tolerance” policies that lead to counterproductive suspensions of students over non-violent misconduct. It was this controversy that led to the audience being divided into groups to be led by trained facilitators, as opposed to the typical reaction that Smith refers to as “always talking about this conversation on race that we're going to have, but when do we do it? We never have it.” Following this Act II, Smith sums up the evening with a Coda that includes a quote from one of the nation's true heroes, still-serving Congressman John Lewis, from his participation in the March to Selma.

The technical elements were all simple, professional and focused, from the Set Design by Riccardo Hernandez, to the Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward, the Lighting Design by Howell Binkley, the Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier and especially the varied Projection Design by Elaine McCarthy. The effective Music Composition was performed live by bassist Marcus Shelby, who describes his contributions as encompassing call/response, improv, inflection and tension/release. It should also be noted that the program notes are unusually helpful, no surprise given that much is the product of the work of Dramaturg Alisa Solomon (author of last year's terrific Wonder of Wonders, a Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof).

Director Leonard Foglia likens this work to a documentary film with “civic engagement”, more a “community gathering than as a staged work of art”. Based on audience reactions (including the “call/response” effect alluded to above, common in evangelical churches), in a sense the wrong audience was present rather than the people who haven't yet gotten the message. The reality is that this audience seemed already aware of the crises that are addressed. In the end, though the theme of life with hope and faith was reinforced, it was yet another frustrating but honest example of preaching to the saved.


2016 South Shore Critic Awards, a.k.a. The Crabbies

Play: “Arcadia” (Nora Theater)

Musical: “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” (ART)

Director (Play): Lee Mikeska Gardner, “Arcadia” (Nora Theater)

Director (Musical): Rachel Chavkin, “Natasha, Pierre, etc.” (ART)

Ensemble Acting (Play): “Arcadia” (Nora Theater)

Ensemble Acting (Musical): “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (Ogunquit Playhouse)

Lead Actress (Play): Adrianne Krstansky, “Blackberry Winter” (New Rep)

Lead Actor (Play): Maurice Emmanuel Parent, “The Convert” (Underground Railway)

Lead Actress (Musical): Jackie Burns, “If/Then” (Providence Performing Arts Center)

Lead Actor (Musical): F. Michael Haynie, “Hunchback” (Ogunquit Playhouse)

Solo Performance: Phil Tayler, “ Buyer & Cellar” (Lyric)

Supp. Actress (Play): Anne Gottlieb, “Broken Glass” (New Rep)

Supp. Actor (Play): Will McGarrahan, “Casa Valentina” (SpeakEasy)

Supp. Actress (Musical): McCaela Donovan, “Little Night Music” (Huntington)

Supp. Actor (Musical): Bradley Dean, “Hunchback” (Ogunquit Playhouse)

Musical Direction: Dave Malloy, “Natasha, Pierre, etc.” (ART)

Choreography: Patricia Wilcox, “Bye Bye Birdie” (Goodspeed)

Scenic Design: Mimi Lien, “Natasha, Pierre, etc.” (ART)

Costume Design: Paloma Young, “Natasha, Pierre, etc.” (ART)

Lighting Design: Bradley King, “Natasha, Pierre, etc.” (ART)

Sound Design: Kevin Heard, “Hunchback” (Ogunquit Playhouse)


Cooperstown, NY: Basses Loaded

Opera Crossing from the parking lot to Glimmerglass Festival
(photo: JM Rothblatt)
Cooperstown, a bucolic destination merely two hours west of the Massachusetts border, is of course home to the Baseball Hall of Fame; its lesser known claim to fame: the annual Glimmerglass Festival of operas where the basses are always loaded (with talent, that is, as are the sopranos, tenors and baritones). This year's offerings ran the gamut from Rossini's seldom-heard Thieving Magpie to Puccini's popular and beloved La Boheme (inspiration for the musical Rent) to the relatively modern The Crucible (based on the Arthur Miller play) to the Sondheim work, Sweeney Todd.  All four can be seen over the same weekend, making for a true opera buffet.  And all four were beautiful to hear and see, with the exception of visuals of theTodd, with sets and costumes that almost detracted from the finest Anthony (Harry Greenleaf) and Joanna (Emily Pogorelc) ever.  The most memorable opera of the quartet was arguably The Crucible, which featured Jay Hunter Morris, whom Boston audiences were privileged to enjoy in Odyssey Opera's production of Die Tode Stadt last season.  Next summer's roster will include Oklahoma!, Xerxes, The Siege of Calais and Porgy and Bess. But sports fans and opera buffs have another treat in store in town, one they may easily share, a world-class museum.

The Fenimore Art Museum
(photo: JM Rothblatt)

That would be the Fenimore Art Museum (yes, that Fenimore, namely James Fenimore Cooper), an astonishingly unexpected treasure trove. In a single morning's visit, one could see several terrific temporary exhibitions as well as featured items from their incredible permanent holdings, most notably the Thaw collection of American Indian Art. The current temporary exhibitions include early works by famed photographer Ansel Adams, Shakespeare Theater Posters by Scott McKowen, an extensive display of Toulouse-Lautrec works, art by Lowell's own James Abbott McNeill Whistler, portraits of Native America Now, and New York Country Landscapes by Robert Schneider. There are historical displays including items pertaining to the Coopers, and a temporary exhibit of objects relating to Hamilton in the last days before his infamous end (of particular interest given the current Broadway show). All are beautifully displayed and organized in stunning galleries. The museum is complemented by its sister museum, run by the same folks, just across the street, The Farmers Museum, consisting of dozens of buildings brought to Cooperstown from towns all over New York State, including a working farm and a New York State inspired carousel.

A Lakota Painted War Hide, c.1880, Fenimore Art Museum
(photo: JM Rothblatt)

Thus it's plain to see that one could spend a fruitful long weekend in this charming town where it's easy to touch all the relevant bases.