Gwyneth Paltrow lights up a summer stage

Hollywood has moved east this summer to the Berkshires region of Massachusetts where the hills are alive with music at Tanglewood, dance at Jacob's Pillow, and drama at many theaters nestled in the small towns strung along the wooded two-lane roads.

While always a mecca for Broadway actors on leave from Times Square, the area is attracting even more film and TV stars this summer, especially at the Williamstown (Mass.) Theatre Festival (WTF), now in its 45th season.

Michael Ritchie, the producer, has an instinct for what's timely as well as a sense of the festival's traditions.

Bebe Neuwirth, a two-time Emmy winner for "Cheers"; Oscar-winner Eileen Heckart; heartthrob Ethan Hawke; and David Schwimmer, from the cast of NBC's "Friends," are among the actors who have appeared this season in Williamstown.

They are drawn by the ambience of this charming college town where the local deli features sandwiches named after visitors like Olympia Dukakis and Richard Chamberlain (his features turkey, Swiss cheese, cranberry sauce, and mayo), but also by the lure of only a five-week commitment.

The three-week rehearsal period and two weeks of performances allows these busy actors a stage credit and still leaves them time to return to the West Coast before the start-up of the fall season for TV shows.

A star lives up to the hype

Mr. Ritchie's biggest catch is Gwyneth Paltrow, one of Hollywood's hot tickets and a longtime member of the WTF family. Ms. Paltrow has been coming to Williamstown since childhood with her mother, actress Blythe Danner.

Paltrow moved into Hollywood's big league with her Oscar-winning performance in last year's surprise hit movie, "Shakespeare In Love." She began her stage career at Williamstown as a child in 1981, performing a variety of roles as she grew up, including Nina in Chekhov's "The Seagull," opposite Ms. Danner.

Paltrow has returned to lead the cast of Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It," playing through Aug. 15. But don't even think of calling for a ticket. The advance attention surrounding her appearance meant a sellout of the two-week run before the season started, along with press calls from far beyond the region. Among the actors on hand at opening night were Danner, James Naughton, Christopher Reeve, and Meryl Streep. Ben Affleck was spotted at a later performance.

The good news is that Paltrow and the show live up to the hype. Under the creative and sometimes sentimental direction of Barry Edelstein, a youngish New York-based Wunderkind, the production shimmers with all the myriad joys of young love, despite occasional dark overtones of adult rivalry and greed. Mr. Edelstein has taken the arching theme of love conquers all as his guide, no matter how eccentric some of the couples lost in the Forest of Arden, with Paltrow as Rosalind and Alessandro Nivola as the smitten Orlando.

The director has bestowed two major gifts on Paltrow: a superb cast to support her and proper guidance into a performance that makes the most of her presence as a dazzling young beauty not quite confident of her power.

Paltrow is all the more appealing for a slight awkwardness of posture and the occasional rushed speech, as if she were too breathless from her physical antics to stop and speak the words. She is a head-turner on stage, luscious in the red-chiffon prom dress she wears for her first entrance but no less charismatic disguised as a boy.

Hokey, yes, but star power wins out

The rest of the cast is compelling, too, especially Megan Dodds as Rosalind's cousin and best friend, Celia; the amazing Michael Cumpsty as Jaques; Mark Linn-Baker as Touchstone, the consummate clown; and Lea DeLaria as Audrey, the shepherdess with an attitude.

One of Edelstein's best ideas is to turn Shakespeare's comedy into a musical, complete with a jazz-based score by Mark Bennett. A small onstage combo appears and disappears as the lights come up behind a scrim. And Edelstein has gone Shakespeare one better by adding the 20th-century hit tune, "What A Wonderful World," sung in superb Louis Armstrong style by Larry Marshall, who plays the servant Adam, to accompany the quartet of weddings at the end.

It's hokey, yes, and an anachronism, but by then the spell of the lovers has suspended any need for consistency. Besides, the song further underlines Edelstein's notion of moving the action to the 1920s and '30s. Anita Yavich's costumes animate a cast of characters that could have stepped out of a Damon Runyon story.

The Berkshires' star power doesn't stop in Williamstown. In Lenox at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, television actress Linda Gehringer, familiar from episodes of "Ally McBeal" and "Evening Shade," is appearing as a desperately lonely, compulsive-talking divorce in Joan Ackermann's play "The Batting Cage," through tomorrow.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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