Theater review: 'Godspell' actors shine, even through plexiglass

Nicholas Edwards plays Jesus in Berkshire Theatre Group's open-air tent production of "Godspell."

PITTSFIELD — Beginning Tuesday, outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited in the state under Gov. Charlie Baker's revised COVID-19 guidance released last week.

What that means for two ongoing Pittsfield theater productions — and an outdoor musical production scheduled later in the month — remained an open question into the evening Monday.

Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group are seeking a waiver to Baker's order, which is aimed at curbing the spread of the virus amid a recent uptick in cases across the state. The governor's order leaves open the possibility of exceptions in certain instances, to be determined in consultation with the Department of Public Health.

"This is a cultural event in Pittsfield, not a big private party on Cape Cod," said Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, during a break in rehearsals for "The Hills Are Alive With Rodgers & Hammerstein," a concert-style revue. "There is a difference between a social gathering in which people are moving about freely, many of them unmasked, and a performance in which people are required to wear masks; whose temperatures are taken as they come in, and then they sit at a socially safe distance, 6 feet apart, for 75 or 80 minutes in an ... open-air tent. We have taken the strictest protocols, approved by Berkshire Medical Center, the city's health commissioner, and Actors' Equity.

Barrington Stage's "Harry Clarke" and Berkshire Theatre Group's "Godspell" opened over the weekend. "Harry Clarke," a one-actor drama, is being staged in an open-air tent in the parking lot of the Polish Community Club on Linden Street through Aug. 16. "Godspell," a 15-member-company musical, runs through Sept. 4 under a tent in a a parking lot next to the Colonial Theatre.

And the Rodgers & Hammerstein show is set to run Aug. 19-29 outdoors at The Common.

Boyd and Kate Maguire, artistic director of Berkshire Theatre Group, have asked state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to apply to Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel for an exemption for the Pittsfield productions. Hinds could not be reached for comment and it is uncertain just how long the exemption application process will take.

"This is our business, our livelihood," Boyd said. "This is about supporting the economy of Pittsfield. The arts are vital to that economy."

Boyd indicated she would honor the governor's restrictions if the exemption is denied, but how the theater will deal with the practical impact regarding ticketholders has not been determined.

Berkshire Theatre Group has set an audience limit at 75 for "Godspell," while "Harry Clarke" is capped at 96. The Rodgers & Hammerstein revue is set at 87.

With the exception of Tuesday's performance, "Harry Clarke" is sold out.

Barrington Stage also has on its schedule a series of solo musical performances; a staged reading, and a revival of Jeffrey Hatcher's one-actress play "Three Viewings" with Debra Jo Rupp.

And for Berkshire Theatre Group, also at stake is a $500 per ticket gala fundraiser Sept. 5 with Brian Stokes Mitchell, and a weekend series of solo pop-rock-folk-children's concerts in an open-air tent at the company's Unicorn Theatre in Stockbridge.

"Harry Clarke" and "Godspell" are the nation's first theater performances featuring union actors since the shutdown of theaters across the country in March in response to the pandemic.

Now the fate of those landmark performances hangs in the balance.

Noting that "we're both adhering to the same safety protocols," Berkshire Theatre Group executive director Nick Paleologos said via text. "[We are] still in that gray area and seeking clarification.

"There is basically no change since Friday," he said, referring to comments then from Maguire that "Godspell" performances will continue "while we try to sort through all the rules."

Asked how the company would handle performances and ticket sales this week, Paleologos quoted from a popular number from the show. "Like the show says, 'Day by day.' "