Ralph Hammann: WTF party to trashing its glorious past

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WILLIAMSTOWN — In an invitation to its upcoming gala in New York City, the Williamstown Theatre Festival includes a link to an article written by a New York Times theater critic, Jesse Green, who points out that seven of this season's Broadway and Off Broadway shows originated at the WTF. While the quality of these shows is debatable, it is understandable that Mandy Greenfield, artistic director of the WTF, would want to publicize this news. However, rather than quote this part of the article, she has sent and thereby given her blessing to the entirety of an article that maliciously disparages the quality of WTF productions during Green's time there in 1980 when he was a general assistant who, in his words, was "flipping French toast."

Green writes that doing the classics in those days was at most, "an acting exercise for B-list movie stars nostalgic for the stage" and adds that "it was hardly a theatrical hotbed except in the sense of older celebrities seeking humid flings with young wannabes." A look at the actors working here in 1980, the very year Green was here, reveals Green to be a perpetrator of the Big Lie.

MANY A-LISTERS

Colleen Dewhurst, Blythe Danner, Austin Pendleton, Celeste Holm, John Glover, George Morfogen and Kate Burton were among those cast in "The Cherry Orchard." Richard Dreyfuss starred in "Whose Life is it Anyway?" Christopher Reeve and Edward Herrmann sparred in the large cast production of "The Front Page." Danner and Herrmann headlined George Bernard Shaw's "Candida." And the jewel in the crown of that season featured a sensational Frank Langella as the lead in an epic production of "Cyrano de Bergerac." B-list movie stars? Wannabes? I saw all of these plays and can attest to the standards of excellence that Nikos Psacharopoulos demanded and to which the company rose. And this was not an uncommon season.

In fact, the year before Green arrived to flip French toast, the considerably more knowledgeable and perceptive critic of the Times, Mel Gussow, gave Blythe Danner and Carrie Nye raves for their performances in Gorky's "Children of the Sun." And five years before that, Gussow on reviewing "The Seagull," wrote, "Many of the finest actors and actresses of the American Stage have appeared in many of the world's finest plays at the Williamstown Theatre Festival under the direction of Nikos Psacharopoulos. This is a place where serious artists can nurture and test their talents by playing roles that might not be available to them in the commercial theater."

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In the six seasons that preceded and followed 1980 these notables acted at the WTF: Joanne Woodward, Joel Grey, Sam Waterston, Olympia Dukakis, James Naughton, Bernadette Peters, Joe Morton, Allison Janney, Dianne Wiest, Sigourney Weaver, Raul Julia, Patricia Clarkson, Nathan Lane, Holly Hunter, Richard Chamberlain, Karen Allen, George Grizzard, Laurie Metcalf, Ken Howard, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Dylan Baker, Christine Lahti, Stephanie Zimbalist, Ann Reinking, Richard Thomas, Marsha Mason, Kenneth McMillan, Nancy Marchand, Christopher Walken, Stockard Channing, Patricia Elliot, Paxton Whitehead, Rosemary Harris, Richard Kneeland, Eileen Heckert, Michael Cerveris, Roberta Maxwell, Teri Garr, Daniel Davis, Linda Lavin, Ron Liebman, Laila Robbins, Diane Venora, David Alan Grier, Jobeth Williams, Carol Kane, Tom Hulce, Mary Tyler Moore and a child named Gwyneth Paltrow. As well, there were equally renowned directors and designers whose production values have not been equaled in recent times.

FAILED PROTECTOR

Whether due to the personal vindictiveness of a failed wannabe (or victim of humidity) — or a complete failure of aesthetics, it's difficult to ascertain Green's motives in so thoroughly misrepresenting the WTF in its golden ages. But the person who must be called to account here is Mandy Greenfield who perhaps would like the glorious past to be forgotten lest it illuminate the shortcomings of her own tenure. Greenfield should be the custodian of the WTF's rich history. She should be ashamed of herself for disseminating this article under the auspices of the WTF and should receive the censure of the board of trustees — some of whom are denigrated in Green's article.

Green closes with a tribute to the apprentices and underlings who make the festival possible. Ironically, in the days Green derides, these persons were much more highly esteemed in actual action as opposed to words. Nikos and his associate directors saw to it that there were at least two epic plays per season in which these young persons could appear on stage as vital parts of large, exciting productions. That does not happen anymore.

If not self-aggrandizement, what could be Greenfield's reason for her mass distribution of this article that effectively trashes the past WTF artists who built it into the force it once was? These are artists to whom she is indebted, but as we are made aware everyday on national news, there are such leaders who resent owing debts of gratitude to others.

Ralph Hammann was a theater and film critic for 30 years for publications including the Advocate and Metroland. He taught theater for 35 years at Pittsfield High School.


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