WILLIAMSTOWN, MASS. — If theater is often a family affair, then the Williamstown Theatre Festival (WTF) is summer-house central for many of the clans. And even for those actors, directors, playwrights, and designers who are not related here, the festival fosters a sense of kinship as the various players come back year after year.
Part of the fun of returning each season to WTF is to see these familiar faces from past productions. There's a thrill in watching an artist grow from fledgling to master-craftsman.
Two long-time members of the WTF family held the spotlight during the opening weeks of this 46th season - actress Blythe Danner on stage and playwright Austin Pendleton behind the dialogue.
The season's highlights that gave these two a chance to shine were "Tonight At 8:30," by Noel Coward, showing in two parts on different nights on the Main Stage, and "Orson's Shadow," by Pendleton, on the smaller Nikos Stage.
Pendleton, who began his career at Williamstown as a theater apprentice in 1957, has spent 21 of his summers here, as actor, director, and playwright. His newest work was inspired by an episode in England in 1960 when Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier teamed up on a theatrical collaboration. Pendleton, who is steeped in theater history, tries to imagine the collision of these two egos.
But if there's a royal family wielding a scepter at WTF, it's surely mother-daughter Danner-Paltrow. Last year, daughter Gwyneth Paltrow helped sell out the houses as Rosalind in "As You Like It." This year, it's her Mom's turn.
The season marks Danner's 21st season on the Williamstown stage. She's also serving on its board of trustees.
For "Tonight at 8:30," which played on the Main Stage at Williams College's Adams Memorial Theatre, Danner took on three characters. This production of six plays was pulled from a set of 10 that Coward wrote to entertain his friends. The set of play-musicals was broken into two programs, A and B. Danner, who appears in the three plays in program A, nearly stole the show in a triple-whammy of a performance as a gracious, Victorian wife in "Family Album," a ditsy, post-debutante socialite in "Hands Across the Sea," and a swept-away lover in "We Were Dancing." Danner has a natural graciousness on stage, coupled with a delicious sense of fun. She propelled Coward's witty caricature of an idle, upper-crust airhead into a genuine hoot.
While musicals are not generally on the WTF schedule, Coward's plays are not standard musicals. Some of the plays contain song and dance, but remain true to the playwright's melancholy tone and witty repartee. Danner, who is not known as a musical star, held her own in warbling the Coward songs.
Program B featured "Red Peppers" (about a music hall couple down on their luck), "Shadow Play" (about the repercussions of adultery), and "Star Chamber" (a gloss on the ferocious, scene-stealing tendencies of theater folk). To cover scene and costume changes, Coward musical favorites such as "Someday I'll Find You" and "World Weary" were delivered as stand-up entr'actes.
Director Michael Greif, who directed "Rent" on Broadway, returned for his third WTF assignment to guide Danner and one cast in Program A. Ann Reinking, who won Tony awards for "Chicago" and "Fosse" and who is in her fourth WTF season, directed Program B, led by Broadway dancer Charlotte d'Amboise (daughter of dancer Jacques d'Amboise) and master-mime Bill Irwin in their Williamstown debuts.
The satisfying performances had a few unsolved pitfalls: Some of the actors - Americans all - couldn't quite wrap their tongues around the British accents, and a small stage restricted dance.
The Coward plays represented the multi-talented writer and composer-lyricist trying on a variety of styles, "without technical creaking or overpadding," as Coward explained his use of the one-act structure. A performer as well, he starred in the original production of "Tonight At 8:30" in 1936, opposite his beloved friend, Gertrude Lawrence.
The rest of the summer holds promise of more enticing evenings to come: Lanford Wilson's "The Hot L Baltimore" (ending July 16); "Hedda Gabler," contemporary playwright Jon Robin Baitz's new version of Ibsen's drama (July 19-30); the pageant-like homage to the human race, "The Skin of Our Teeth," by Thornton Wilder (Aug. 2-13); and Moss Hart's theatrical valentine,"Light Up the Sky" (Aug. 16-27), all on the Main Stage. The Nikos Stage continues its world and American premires in a parallel schedule.
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