Transformative work on stage


Each summer, the Berkshires transforms from a peaceful retreat to a hive of cultural activity. And when a new work evolves from an old story and finds its way from page to stage, the transformation is no less striking.

Williamstown will become Edwardian London when former artistic director Nicholas Martin directs Tony Award-winner Robert Sean Leonard as Professor Henry Higgins opposite Heather Lind's Eliza Doolittle in "Pygmalion" by Irish literary giant George Bernard Shaw.

The masterwork represents layers of transformations. Shaw re-envisioned the myth of Pygmalion. From the Greek myth of a sculptor smitten by a statue that becomes a real woman, he formed the tale of a phoneticist who bets he can turn a Cockney flower seller into a "lady."

Higgins may succeed in Eliza's transformation, Martin said, "but finally, she can't transform him -- he just can't go where she wants him to."

Martin directed Leonard in the role in January at San Diego's Old Globe.

"It was the biggest [nonmusical] moneymaker they ever made," he said, "an achievement for a 100-year-old play".

He commended Leonard's command of Shaw's language and character.

"I've watched Bobby grow up and turn into exactly the actor we all hoped," he said.

For Martin, the humor in the play was a real discovery. Mr. Doolittle, Eliza's father, in particular, he said, is a show stopper.

"You can recognize yourself in these people almost immediately," he said.

While musical and film adaptations end romantically, he added, "that's absolutely not what Shaw wanted."

In the end, Martin remains true to Shaw's intentions.

The classics again prove fruitful inspiration for "An Iliad," Homer's indictment of the Trojan war, in a contemporary reimagining by Lisa Peterson and Denis O'Hare from Robert Fagles' translation.

Director Sheila Siragusa continues her collaboration with Steve Hendrickson with this all-too-timely one-man play about relentless warfare.

With just a battered suitcase and Tom Shread's music for company, a wandering poet is fated to repeat the tragic tale.

"We see this character completely transformed and sapped of life," Siragusa said. "He can't stop telling the story because we are yet to understand it -- that we can take all of that enormity in our humanness and turn it into something that is not violent."

The poet is not supposed to be Homer, she explained: "He is the carrier of the story, come through the ages to the modern world."

Between the beauty of the text and our compassion for this person who is literally dying before us, she said, audiences are in for an incredibly moving journey.

The original Greek is incorporated into the performance, "a key to opening up the song in the poet's meter text," Siragusa said. And where Homer methodically lists ancient warfare's human cost, "An Iliad" renders war's history right up to present day Syria.

As a director, Siragusa divides her time between the classics and new works.

In "An Iliad," she finds the confluence of both.

With "The Great Gatsby" storming cinema screens, F. Scott Fitzgerald is once again a hot ticket. In "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah," he will come face to face with his friend and nemesis Ernest Hemmingway, when playwright and director Mark St. Germain premieres a fresh look at the relationship and writing of two American literary giants.

Long an admirer of the sparse ruggedness of Hemmingway's language and the lyricism of Fitzgerald, St. Germain imagines a meeting of these two brilliant, troubled minds shackled to self-destructive personalities. It takes place on July 4th at the hedonistic Garden of Allah apartment complex in Hollywood (named after silent film star Alla Nazimova), in a clash of egos, insecurities and insults.

Hemmingway visited Fitzgerald while on a trip to Hollywood, "and I just wondered what that last meeting was like," St. Germain said. "They're really ‘frenemies' -- the relationship between them was very complicated."

His play confronts the real difficulties of being a writer, as their works emerge through the prism of the pair's growing differences. Hem is at the top of his game, while Scott survives by writing short stories and Hollywood scripts.

"This is a total reversal from the beginning when Fitzgerald helped Hemmingway get an editor," St. Germain said.

"After Fitzgerald died, Hemmingway spent the rest of his life defaming Fitzgerald and putting him down," he explained. "I don't think he wanted to acknowledge that there was someone who was as good at writing as he was.

"He would have been very surprised to know that Fitzgerald's reputation would come back in the huge way it did."


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