Berkshire Fringe Festival moves to Pittsfield


PITTSFIELD -- When professional clowns perform a new comedy adapted from Victor Hugo's "Hunchback of Notre Dame" in the former Notre Dame Church of 1895 -- they may ring the real church bell.

Thirty three men trapped underground in a coal mine, a riot in a London Ikea, a young gay man coming of age in Kentucky, two brothers coming to grips with their past ... the Berkshire Fringe Festival has come to town in a whirl of stories and laughter.

The Fringe is celebrating its 10th year by inviting some of their favorite performers to come back. They have come to a new city and a new space too at Chrispina ffrench's Shire City Sanctuary.

So Under the Table Theatre Ensemble of Brooklyn, N.Y., will perform their "Hunchbacks of Notre Dame" not only in a church, but in one with the same name as the French cathedral where Quasimodo tolls his bell.

"We'd have chosen Pittsfield first," said Sarah Petersiel of Under the Table, laughing, "even if Paris had been an option."

They have found Hugo's novel a rich source, she said -- a gypsy, a hunchback, a priest, rejection, oppression, religion and hypocrisy.

It drew them because people know of the book, but they don't know it, said her colleague, Josh Matthews.

Tom Brennan and Jesse Jones of the Wardrobe Ensemble from Bristol, England, said the same for their new work, "33" -- 1.2 billion people around the world watched this story on the news.

"33" is inspired by the true story of Chilean miners in Copiapó trapped 2,300 feet underground by a cave-in. They survived 69 days underground before their rescue -- and 17 days before they were found.

The Wardrobe actors researched the story extensively, company member Jesse Meadows explained -- the men underground and their families above, daily life in their hometowns, mining equipment.

But actors emphasized that the play is not a documentary. They could not talk with the miners, Brennan said, though they tried.

"They have a pact that they won't talk about it," Jones said, "those first 17 days when they thought they were going to die."

The miners' wives got a lot of media attention, whether they wanted it or not, said company member Kerry Lovell, and they learned to make it work for them. When people threatened to give up the search for the trapped miners, their wives would sit in the car park with the news cameras on them, refusing to leave until their husbands were found.

"33" follows the crisis and the media spotlight on it and the aftermath. The miners became world-famous -- and then forgotten. Quite a few of the miners have gone back to mining, Meadows said.

They have a unique kind of poverty, Brennan said. One of them may have a house but no employment -- or a Suzuki bike donated to them, he doesn't know how to ride it and has no money for gas.

Like all the shows in this year's festival, "33" is still changing.

"Our shows are never set," Brennan said. "They change every night. ... With nine writers in a room, we constantly shift and adapt."

And all the actors thanked the festival for giving time and space to work and to be together. The Under the Table and the Wardrobe Ensemble teams live spread out, working long-distance and getting together for performances

Here they have the room and the time to talk about their work and their future as a company.

"One reason we love these companies so much is that they have longterm relationships as collaborators and creators," Katzoff said.

Not many companies work that way in the Berkshires, she said, incubating a new work, reworking it through performances, sharing its growth.

The festival takes good care of the actors, Petersiel said, and the crowds are generous.

Matthews agreed.

"The technicians are badasses -- and I demand that -- they do their jobs so well, and they're so professional. They're also friends," he said. "Our company has done a number of festivals, and this one is unique."

"I was saying to people, ‘we're home,'" Petersiel agreed. "It's an amazing place."

Festival interns come back as volunteers, she said. One woman flew in from Florida to join in this summer's entertainment. Like the actors, the crew are plain having fun.

"Play is such a huge tool with our company," Matthews said. "The lens of play, fun, are the spectacles we want to see through."

The audiences seem to be having fun too, Katzoff said.

In "Hunchbacks," people even get to throw rocks at the cast. The audience gets cast as the angry mob, said artistic director Matt Chapman. They stop short of actual rocks, and the audience gets into the spirit and silliness of the game.

"We give people a chance to do things they've always wanted to do," he said.

Thursday, Aug. 7: ‘33' at 7 p.m., ‘Hunchbacks' at 9 p.m.

Friday, Aug. 8: Sweet Soubrette free concert at 5 p.m.,
'Solo: A Two-Person Show' at 7, ‘33' at 9 p.m.

Saturday, Aug. 9: Free community performance lab at 1 p.m., Kills to Kisses free concert at 5 p.m.,
'Hunchbacks' at 7, ‘Riot' at 9

Sunday, Aug. 10: Free community performance lab at 1 p.m., ‘Hunchbacks at 7 p.m., ‘33' at 9 p.m.

Monday, Aug. 11: ‘Clownolio' at 7 p.m., ‘Riot' at 9

Wednesday, Aug. 13: ‘33' at 3 p.m., Melissa Hughes free concert at 5 p.m., ‘Clownolio!' at 7 p.m., ‘Riot' at 9 p.m.

Where: Shire City Sanctuary, 40 Melville St., Pittsfield

Admission: Pick-your-own price on first nights, most others $20



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