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Arts & Culture June 2016


From musical comedy to worldly intrigue

In new season, Oldcastle Theatre aims to build on recent growth


Elia Ganias and Amy Griffin play Matt and Sally in last year’s production of “Tallley’s Folly” at Oldcastle Theatre Company. The Bennington troupe opens this year’s five-show season on June 3. Courtesy photo/ Jon R. Davis

Contributing writer



Elia Ganias and Amy Griffin play Matt and Sally in last year’s production of “Tallley’s Folly” at Oldcastle Theatre Company. The Bennington troupe opens this year’s five-show season on June 3. Courtesy photo/ Jon R. Davis

Five years ago, Eric Peterson, the co-founder and artistic director of Oldcastle Theatre Company, wondered aloud to his closest charges whether a professional theater company would continue to exist in Bennington.

At the time, Oldcastle was unable to renew its lease at the Bennington Center for the Arts, where it had performed for many years, and the immediate future looked bleak.

Fast forward to today: Peterson is now on the cusp of opening his troupe’s 45th season -- and the fifth at Oldcastle’s new home on Main Street downtown.

With attendance up 25 percent in the 2015 season, Oldcastle finds itself in an enviable position for a regional theater. But it still faces the challenge of keeping the momentum going.
So in putting together this year’s offerings, Peterson said optimism was cautiously interwoven with careful planning.

“Our growth last year was highly encouraging, and we want to continue it,” Peterson said. “We closed 2015 with two very different critical and box-office successes.”

(Those were the musical “Cabaret” and James Goldman’s drama “The Lion in Winter.”)
Peterson said he hopes the troupe might be able to top last year with a new season of laughter, joy, and thought-provoking plays.

Oldcastle’s 2016 season offers something for everyone: a farce; a major Tony-winning musical comedy; a poignant family drama chronicling heated political and personal debates; a world premiere that has already won two playwriting awards; and a significant late work by one of America’s greatest writers.


Suspense, then a musical
The season opens with “39 Steps” (June 3-19) by Patrick Barlow. This two-time Tony and Drama Desk award winner features four actors playing up to 150 characters. The plot, loosely based on a 1915 adventure novel by John Buchan that was made into a movie in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, involves a man with a lackluster life who meets a woman with an accent who says she’s a spy. When he takes her home, she is murdered. Soon a shadowy organization called “The 39 Steps” is pursuing the man in a nationwide hunt – leading to a tense finale.

Oldcastle favorites Natalie Wilder and Patrick Ellison Shea -- who met on the Vermont stage a decade ago and wound up marrying -- both return from New York City for this show.
“I’ve loved ‘39 Steps’ ever since I saw the original production in London,” Wilder said.

Wilder said she took part in a production of the play in New York.

“I’m looking forward to going for another ride,” she said. “I’d be hard pressed to think of a show I’d rather do or people with whom I’d rather play.”

The second production of the season is “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (July 8-24), a 1985 musical with a book by William Hauptman and music and lyrics by Roger Miller, all based on Mark Twain’s seminal novel.

“Big River” won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and seven Drama Desk awards. Miller, a Grammy and Gold Record honoree, translated his deep musical talent to the nuance and beauty of Twain’s story, as retold by Hauptman.

“I’ve wanted to produce this musical since first seeing it on Broadway,” Peterson said. “The music is just fantastic, … [the] cast deeply talented. While we haven’t yet decided on the instruments or the number of musicians, we’re looking at a three- to four-piece orchestra.”

The play, Peterson added, is a natural complement to Twain’s story, one he called “instructive to this day in a uniquely American way.”

The positioning of “Big River,” the season’s only musical, into the second spot of the season is strategic. Peterson said the production of musicals has been a calculated shift for the past two years to help build audience awareness of Oldcastle and its new venue at 331 Main St. Musicals, he suggested, have the potential to draw more people from the Berkshires and the Albany area.
“Popular musicals attract major crowds, which in turn exposes new visitors to what an outstanding regional theater is just a short drive away,” Peterson said. “We noticed a few years ago how audiences swelled in the shows after musicals, so now instead of second to last in the schedule, our musical will be second.”


Politics and a world premiere
Next on the schedule is “The City of Conversation” (Aug. 5-21) Anthony Giardina. Peterson said this play is “perhaps perfectly suited for a presidential election year and to address the state of political discourse today.”

The action opens in Washington in 1979, “back when people actually talked to each other,” Peterson said. Adversaries fought it out on the Senate floor, then smoothed it out over drinks and hors d’oeuvres. But it was all about to change.

Spanning 30 years and six presidential administrations, Hester Ferris – to be played by Oldcastle’s beloved Christine Decker -- throws Georgetown dinner parties that can influence Washington politics. But her cherished son turns up with a go-getting Reaganite sweetheart and a new conservative worldview. Hester must then make conflicting human choices between ideology and blood.

“This is a play about family as well as the inner workings of government,” Peterson said. “It’s about politics in a family and family in politics. It examines the ever-changing tapestry of American government and the people who shape it. It’s also a very human tale to which everyone can relate.”

The fourth production will be “The Consul, the Tramp, and America’s Sweetheart” (Sept. 2-18) by Baltimore playwright John Morogiello.

Oldcastle has twice before presented world premieres of plays by Morogiello: “Engaging Shaw” has been produced around the world as well as in Bennington; and “Playdate,” which Oldcastle premiered in 2014, is now being staged by regional theaters throughout the nation.

“‘The Consul’ has already won writing awards and hasn’t yet seen its premiere,” Peterson said. “This will be number three for Morogiello, all at Oldcastle.”

The play has won the Julie Harris Playwriting Award and first prize at the Dayton Playhouse Futurefest. Its plot concerns Charles Chaplin’s film masterpiece “The Great Dictator” and Germany’s attempts to prevent the movie from being made.

One character is the silent screen star Mary Pickford, who became head of United Artists, the studio she formed with Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. The play contains definitive comedic pieces from Chaplin’s films and shows a young woman trying to make her way up the administrative ladder in Hollywood while also taking on the Nazi Consul to the United States.


Arthur Miller at 100
The 2016 season will conclude with Arthur Miller’s “The Ride Down Mount Morgan” (Oct. 7-23). Miller’s centennial is being celebrated around the globe this year, and Oldcastle will revel with one of his last plays.

The plot concerns Lyman Felt, a 50-something poet turned insurance mogul. Driving down Mount Morgan in the snow, he crashes his car and is then hospitalized. Called to his bedside are his daughter and his two wives: Theo, the older WASP he had married decades earlier, and Leah, the younger Jewish entrepreneur who had been Lyman’s lover and insisted on becoming his wife.

Along with Oldcastle regulars Rick Howe and Katrina Ferguson, the cast features veteran British actor Nigel Gore, who delighted local audiences in the closing play of 2015, “The Lion in Winter.”
“I’m thrilled to be coming back to Oldcastle,” Gore said, and “thrilled to be working with Katrina Ferguson and Rick Howe, both whom I have admired immensely since I saw them in ‘Tale of Two Cities.’

“I think Miller is a genius,” Gore continued. “He came to Trinity [Repertory] while I was there, and it was like God was in the room. I’m so intimidated by ‘Mount Morgan’ and so excited to be doing it.”

In all, Peterson said he believes Oldcastle is well positioned to continue its upward trend from last season, even amid an uncertain economy for the arts and culture.

“Regional theater has now evolved into something very special,” Peterson said. “The best acting in this country is now taking place in regional venues such as Oldcastle. Our increased attendance even in difficult economic times is a testament to that. We aim to build on it further with this new season.”


Oldcastle Theatre Company is located 331 Main St. in Bennington. For tickets and information, call (802) 447-0564 or visit www.oldcastletheatre.org.