The Actors Theatre Playhouse (ATP) is the one of the oldest continuous performing arts groups in the tri-state region of southeastern Vermont, southwestern New Hampshire, and central Massachusetts, and it is still going strong.
This year, to mark its 40th anniversary, ATP offers a variety of theatrical experiences ranging from two productions from a new Playhouse program called Literature as Performance, to a trio of Saturday Staged Readings, to a four-week main stage run of a Broadway hit by playwright Conor McPherson.
“After 40 years of producing plays, you tend to collect a lot of memories,” says Sam Pilo, founding member of ATP and a seasoned director. “In theater, however, memories can turn into stories that become epics.
“While we are forward-looking at the Playhouse and we don’t spend much time gazing backward, we’re aware that one can’t escape the power of the past as it influences the present. One incident gets filtered and recorded differently by everyone in the story — the Rashomon Effect.
“This season, purely by accident it seems, we have tapped into a stream of ‘memory’ plays. What is memory? How does what we remember shape who we are, and determine who we might become? Where does truth enter the picture and does that matter? After so many years who really knows? Let the playwrights speak.”
The season’s opening event introduces Literature as Performance with an innovative free-form interpretation of New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel’s latest poetry collection Interval, inspired by Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Poetry and music come together to inspire strong emotional responses through music, dance, video, and improvisation in performance pieces of varying length to reflect Fogel’s poems.
“This is a non-traditional piece,” director Josh Moyse says.
“There is no story with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, there is a rigorous structure intended to elicit strong emotional responses. This approach is designed to move the audience and give them a sense of play while deepening their appreciation of Fogel’s poetry and Bach‘s work.”
This piece of experimental theater is followed by three Saturday Staged Readings, a Playhouse specialty.
The first, Moonlight and Magnolias, combines slapstick comedy with a Hollywood story. It’s 1939 and legendary producer David O. Selznick has shut down production of his new epic, Gone with the Wind, because the screenplay isn’t working. Selznick calls in screenwriter Ben Hecht and director Victor Fleming, locks them in his office, and feeds them bananas and peanuts as they labor together for five days to fashion a memorable film.
Ron Hutchinson’s farce is based on a true story that peeks into the dysfunctions of three industry giants as they battle one another’s oversized egos to create an epic motion picture. As one reviewer put it, “Margaret Mitchell would be giggling in her grave.”
The Memory of Water is the second Saturday Staged Reading, featuring playwright Shelagh Stephenson’s Laurence Olivier Prize Winner about three sisters who reunite to attend their mother’s funeral.
In this rapid-fire situation comedy, the characters cling to humor to cope with tragedy. Mom makes a few visits, a husband and a lover attempt to keep things proceeding smoothly, and the sisters talk about memories that have been diluted by time and fantasy. The play is peppered with humor as it explores the psychology of relationships, the inner workings of family, and the limitations of memory.
In the final Saturday Staged Reading, Albertine in Five Times, Canadian playwright Michel Tremblay imagines an independent, complex French-Canadian housewife in five decades of her life. Five actresses are on stage simultaneously, allowing them to interact, squabble, and share a lifetime of limited happiness and loads of blame and guilt.
Again, memory looms large as a theme, both confusing and enlightening the past.
The play begins with Albertine, age 70, moving into a home for seniors that she says “smells of death in dribs and drabs.” She remembers herself at 30, 40, 50, and 60 as she takes the audience on a heart-rending, dramatic life journey riddled with poverty, addiction, and triumph.
“Don’t we all imagine what our world was like 10, 20, or more years ago,” director Burt Tepfer wonders. “In this ingenious play, Albertine’s challenges and choices gradually reveal themselves so that she can see her life more clearly. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had the opportunity to do that for ourselves?”
The season’s fully staged production is Conor McPherson’s haunting comedy The Seafarer. It’s a dark and stormy Christmas Eve in Dublin. Sharky has returned home to look after his aging brother who has recently become blind. Old drinking buddies Ivan and Nicky are holed up at the house too, hoping for a card game. But the arrival of a mysterious stranger raises the stakes and Sharky may be playing for more than he realizes.
A long night’s journey into day, The Seafarer also reflects upon what is knowable in life and what is not. Booze plays a big part in what transpires, but not in the way of the usual Irish-drunk story. It is more existential than that because McPherson is really considering the impenetrable question of what it means to be alive.
“This Tony-nominated play tangles with big themes in small rooms,” says director Sam Pilo. “Conor McPherson lumps together a collection of Irish unlovables, tosses in Christmas Eve, poker, Paradise Lost and paradise found, stirs in memory and myth, good vs. evil, and then tops the evening off with a dose of hopelessness healed by love.
“It’s serious, funny stuff. He has created some marvelous ’ejits’ and placed them in a basement flat where he shakes and stirs their cauldron. Great fun and wonderful literature emerge.”
The Playhouse season concludes with a second Literature as Performance offering that will appeal especially to women and the men who love them. Love, Loss and What I Wore, written by Nora and Delia Ephron, is based on a book by Ilene Beckerman in which a series of vignettes reveal a lot about women’s lives.
Prom dresses, high heels, and short skirts make their way into the mostly comic stories, but there are also sad and sentimental moments, especially when the characters reflect on disapproving mothers and disappearing men, not to mention rape, the loss of a child, and being a cancer survivor.
The theme running through ATP’s 40th year is clearly memory, the gift that keeps on giving and distorting what happens in our lives.
The little theater in West Chesterfield, N.H., provides ways both funny and powerful to remind us of who we are, where we come from, and where we may be going.