BERKSHIRES AND VERMONT >> Theater blossoms in the Berkshires, the Shires of Vermont and environs the year-round, but at no time is the landscape more verdant, dense and diverse than the period between mid-May and Labor Day
"It's like shooting yourself out of a cannon," said Dina Janis, who is beginning her fifth season as artistic director of Dorset (Vt.) Theatre Festival, where she is producing four plays in 10 weeks, beginning June 25 with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" and continuing with Katie Forgette's "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily," involving Holmes, famed American actress Lily Langtry and British playwriting wit Oscar Wilde; John Patrick Shanley's recent Broadway hit, "Outside Mullingar," a wild love story about two 40something misfits; and Paul Rudnick's comedy "I Hate Hamlet," about a struggling young actor and the ghost of John Barrymore.
"Programming a season is a trick, a balancing act," Janis said by cell phone.
This season is the result of some winter reflection.
"We (came in five years ago and) rescued the theater, then stabilized it," Janis said. "So I found myself reflecting on what we've done and how I wanted to proceed.
She has two guiding principles. First, she said, is finding plays that move audiences in some way; that have characters who are worth spending time with for two or so hours. "What is it about these characters that make them worth investing in?" she asked rhetorically.
Second is finding plays that speak to the diversity of American culture; plays that bring fresh voices to Dorset; stories, Janis said, that need to be heard. Nottage's "Intimate Apparel" is one.
Janis also is pleased to produce the regional premiere of John Patrick Shanley's "Outside Mullingar."
"Finding a very good comedy is very difficult," Janis said. "For this one, think of (Shanley's film) 'Moonstruck.' "
South of Dorset, in downtown Bennington, Eric Peterson's Oldcastle Theatre Company has begun its third season in its home on Main Street. OTC wraps up its season-opening production of Lanford Wilson's "Talley's Folly" May 15, 16 and 17. The season continues with Donald Margulies' haunting drama, "Time Stands Still," followed by the Kander & Ebb musical "Cabaret" and Peter Shaffer's quirky farce "Black Comedy."
"We've talked about doing 'Black Comedy' for some time," Peterson said by phone from his second floor office at the theater. "Our audiences love farce, and this one is funny and clever."
Peterson said that Oldcastle's success with "My Fair Lady" last summer showed that Oldcastle can successfully produce a Broadway musical successfully, especially those that tell small stories against a broader canvas; thus "Cabaret."
The idea overall, Peterson said, is to assemble a season that "offers as much variety as we can — some comedy, some drama, some music."
West of Bennington, in Weston, music dominates the MainStage season at Weston Playhouse, beginning June 30 with the charming, easygoing, bouncy country musical "Pump Boys and Dinettes," followed by "Peter and the Starcatcher," Rick Elice and composer Wayne Barker's play with music that explores the origins of "Peter Pan," and then Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows' glorious "Guys and Dolls." Rounding out the MainStage season is Tennessee Williams' enduring classic "The Glass Menagerie."
Music is a key at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Berkshire Theatre Group in Pittsfield and Stockbridge, and at the popular Theater Barn in New Lebanon, N.Y. (11 miles west of Pittsfield), whose five-production summer season includes three — Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita," "The Fantasticks" and the lesser-known "John and Jen" by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald.
Barrington Stage typically begins its Mainstage season with a blockbuster musical and this summer is no exception. "Man of La Mancha" stars Jeff McCarthy in a role — Miguel de Cervantes / Don Quixote — that seems tailor-made for his considerable vocal and acting skills.
Berkshire Theatre Group's Colonial Theatre will take in an endearing 1956 musical by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (book and lyrics) and Jule Styne (music) — "Bells Are Ringing" — about a well-intentioned telephone an- swering service operator whose good nature leads to a lot of complications. Kate Baldwin stars in the leading role of Ella Peterson, originally played by the late, great Judy Holliday.
The rest of Barrington Stage's Mainstage season offers Neil Simon's rarely produced Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Lost in Yonkers" and the even rarer "His Girl Friday," John Guare's take on the 1930s MacArthur-Hecht comedy "The Front Page" and one of the play's many film adaptations, "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell.
Highlighting the slate of developing and new musicals and plays tabbed for BSC's second stage, the St. Germain Stage, is Irish playwright Conor McPherson's newest success, "Shining City." Mark H. Dold, so impressive in last season's "Breaking the Code" at BSC, stars, Christopher Innvar directs.
In addition to "Bells Are Ringing," BTG's diverse summer offerings are highlighted by director Karen Allen's production of Terrence McNally's "Frankie & Johnny in the Clair de Lune" in the Fitzpatrick Main Stage in Stockbridge; two new plays — "I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn't Even Smile" by Suzanne Heathcote, about the relationship between a tough teenage girl and her aunt who has been gulled into looking after her; and "Thoreau, or Return to Walden," written by and starring David Adkins as the transcendental naturalist.
Elsewhere in Berkshire County, it's a time of transition — a hello at Williamstown Theatre Festival, a goodbye at Chester Theatre Company and a changing of the guard at Shakespeare & Company.
Highlighting Mandy Greenfield's debut season as artistic director at Williamstown is a "found" play by William Inge, "Off the Main Road" with Kyra Sedgwick; Eugene O'Neill's haunting "A Moon for the Misbegotten" with Gordon Edelstein directing Audra McDonald and Will Swenson; Jo Bonney directing Cynthia Nixon in the American premiere of Carey Perloff's "Kinship;" and the twin American premieres of two British plays — "Chewing Gum Dreams" and "An Intervention," performed in rotating repertory.
It's time for a change, said Chester Theatre Company artistic director Byam Stevens, who has been at the helm of this stimulating, often provocative theater company since 1998. So CTC's 26th season in Chester Town Hall will be Stevens' last. For his farewell, he has put together a season of one English play, an Irish play he discovered two years ago in Dublin, and two American plays, one of which — Scott Carter's "The Gospel Ac- cording to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" — is having its East Coast premiere beginning June 24. Stevens is directing this edgy comedy that finds Jefferson, Tolstoy and Dickens locked together in a room with no apparent way out.
The play had its world premiere at the Geffen Theatre in Los Angeles where, Stevens said in a cell phone interview from a New York-bound train, "It was a big hit."
The New England premiere of "Halcyon Days" will follow, by Irish playwright Dierdre Kinahan. James Warwick will direct this work which Stevens described as "a lovely play for people of a certain age."
"Memory House" plumbs a mother-daughter relationship, and the New England premiere of "Blink" tells a love story about a man, a woman, a fox and an old green coat.
"The season is a mix of new actors and familiar faces (appearing in) plays that take up issues we all face one way or another," Stevens said.
The changing of the guard at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox elevates two company veterans, Jonathan Croy and Ariel Bock, to the roles of co-artistic directors for a season that is as notable for the company Shakespeare is keeping as it is for the Bard himself.
The company's season begins May 22 in the intimate Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre with "The How and the Why," a play by Sarah Treem about the clash of values and ideas between two notable, brilliant female scientists, and ends Sept. 13 in the larger Tina Packer Playhouse with the final performance of "Red Velvet," a play by Lolita Chuckrabarti inspired by the true story of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello on the English stage in 1833. Performances begin Aug. 6. Daniela Varon directs; John Douglas Thompson — who last appeared at Shakespeare & Company in August / September 2012 as Louis Armstrong in "Satchmo at the Waldorf" — stars.
"This is a beautiful play," Croy said in a joint telephone interview with Bock from a backstage lounge in the Bernstein building.
"Aldridge's story is compelling and having John come back here to do this play is exciting. It's such a delight for us to have him here again."
In a summer season that includes four plays by modern playwrights, Shakespeare will come to Bernstein theater by a Bare Bard presentation of "Henry V" with Ryan Winkles in the title role and in the Packer by "The Comedy of Errors."
"I think it's an exciting season," Croy said. "This is a time of change for us. I'm an optimist. Change is opportunity. This summer seems to be a place where we can land."
And, as it happens, Lenox is not the only setting for Shakespeare this summer. The city of Pittsfield's own free Shakespeare in the Park returns for a second year with 12 performances of "Romeo and Juliet" on the Pittsfield Commons, performed under the stars by a company of high school and adult community actors.