Shakespeare & Company 35th Anniversary: A season of rebellion and revolution

Wednesday January 11, 2012

LENOX -- Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis and OBIEAward-winning actor John Douglas Thompson highlight a season of "revolution and rebellion" this summer at Shakespeare & Company.

"The season is designed to look at who we were, who we are, and where we’re going. Revolution and rebellion, that’s the energy of theater. That’s what we do," Shakespeare & Company artistic director Tony Simotes said as he announced plans for the summer portion of company’s 35th anniversary season -- which runs May 25 through Labor Day -- Tuesday at a news conference in the lobby of the company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre.

Dukakis will play Prospero in "The Tempest." The play is being directed by Simotes who is setting the piece in the 1940s.

"The Tempest" will play in the 413-seat main stage Founders’ Theatre mid-July through mid-August.

Thompson, who last appeared at Shakespeare & Company in 2010 as Richard III, returns to Shakespeare & Company after a year’s absence to play jazz great Louis Armstrong in a new play, "Satchmo at the Waldorf," directed by Gordon Edelstein, artistic director of Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and written by first-time playwright Terry Teachout, a former jazz musician who is now chief theater critic for the Wall Street Journal.

Set in May 1971 backstage at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel’s Empire Room, where Armstrong is getting ready for what would be his last performance, "Satchmo at the Waldorf" is about the relationship between Armstrong and his white manager. Thompson plays both roles.

The play, Thompson said during the news conference, is about "the Louis Armstrong we don’t know; the private Armstrong, not the public Armstrong." It is based on thousands of hours of live tapes recorded by Armstrong.

"Terry is the first journalist to be able to gain access to these tapes," Thompson said. "I felt the material was authentic; that it came from an authentic source."

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" is not only a first for Teachout; it’s a first for Thompson.

"Not only is this my first one-person show," Thompson said, "it’s the first real-life character I’ve ever played. I’m absolutely fascinated with it."

"Satchmo at the Waldorf" will be in the Founders’ Theatre mid-August through Labor Day.

Simotes said that producing "Satchmo Š" springs from his determination to expand the "& Company" portion of Shakespeare & Company’s name by developing and producing new plays and, in the long term, establishing Shakespeare & Company as a national theater center for new work.

Meanwhile, "King Lear," an old work by the company’s namesake, will open the Founders’ Theatre in mid-June. Shakespeare & Company’s director of training, Dennis Krausnick, will play the title role in a production that director Rebecca Holderness is setting in 1906 Czarist Russia. Kevin Coleman will play The Fool. Olympia Dukakis’ brother, Apollo Dukakis, who is in "The Tempest" as well, will play Gloucester.

The Founders’ also will house a two-weekend engagement of choreographer Susan Dibble’s "Dibbledance" and a new work by Split Knuckle Theatre, "Endurance," which links the true story of the unlikely survival of Sir Earnest Shackleton and his 27-man crew, who were trapped on their ship in Antarctic ice for two years, with the story of 21st century insurance man who is suddenly catapulted into an unlikely position of leadership in his firm.

Shakespeare & Company veteran Jonathan Epstein will play painter Mark Rothko in John Logan’s "Red," beginning Memorial Day weekend in the 197-seat Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre and continuing in repertory through Labor Day. Kevin Coleman is directing the two-man play. Epstein’s co-star is yet to be named.

Rounding out the Bernstein schedule are:

n "Cassandra Speaks," a new play by Norman Plotkin starring Tod Randolph as controversial journalist Dorothy Thompson;

n "Parasite Drag" by Mark Roberts, a dark comedy about two estranged brothers who are forced to make arrangements together for their sister -- a homeless drug addict dying of AIDS. Jason Asprey and Elizabeth Aspenlieder head the cast;

n and "The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife," Charles Busch’s comedy about a depressed, unfulfilled Upper West Side wife whose life and expectations are turned upside down when a childhood friend unexpectedly shows up. Jonathan Croy will direct Annette Miller in the leading role of Marjorie Taub.

Specific dates for all productions will be announced Feb. 14 when tickets go on sale.

The shape of the 35th anniversary season will be somewhat new. The Studio Festival of New Plays, for example, will unfold as a weekend series of play readings throughout the summer rather than in a one-day marathon at the end of the season. Also, to accommodate previous commitments by Dukakis and by Thompson, "we won’t be offering all rep all the time," Simotes said. "[Their] productions will be seen in [one concentrated period] of time and then [they’re] gone."

The changes, Simotes said, mark "the beginning of (a series of changes) as Shakespeare & Company moves forward to its 36th season (and) toward what we will become in 10 or 12 years."

According to Simotes, Shakespeare & Company is going into its 35th season on a high note.
With one more production left to the 2011 season -- Moliere’s "The Learned Ladies," which opens next month in the Bernstein Theatre -- Shakespeare & Company’s box office sales already are over $1.2 million.

As it did in 2010, Shakespeare & Company will finish the 2011 season in the black which means, Simotes said, "we can afford to take some risks" without, he added in a later interview with a television reporter, jeopardizing the company’s finances.

"When we began Shakespeare & Company in 1978, this area was very different," Simotes said. "We had no idea where we were going. We weren’t sure people would show up on our opening night [performance of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream"].

"Well, people did come and they’ve kept on coming.

"[In 1978], we were doing things no one else was doing. That same spirit of revolution and rebellion, that energy of theater, is what we’re trying to generate this summer. [I want us to] create a tidal wave of excitement in the Š community.

"I think we will do that with a season that is not only new but daring."

To reach Jeffrey Borak:,
or (413) 496-6212


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