Williamstown Theater Festival Tries to Weather the Storms

I hate getting caught in the rain. But lately, with the mercurial weather and my new dog-walking schedule, I’ve found myself caught in bright sun showers, swampy mists and downright tempests. In my humble opinion, rain is nothing to sing about — Gene Kelly be damned.

After a sunny bus ride to Williamstown, Mass., walking with a pup, a tote and a backpack, I was caught again — soaked down to the soles of my Converse. Roughly 15 minutes later the skies settled as suddenly as they had erupted. It’s a problem the Williamstown Theater Festival, which I was attending for the first time, has had to contend with all summer. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the usually indoor festival has tried to adapt with three outdoor productions. But the area has received an above-average amount of rainfall this season, disrupting these plans and leading the festival not to open its shows for reviews from critics.

Adaptation, how the festival has successfully or unsuccessfully readjusted to the climate and the politico-cultural climate (namely the pandemic and the protests), was the theme of my weekend.

One of the first sights I saw on my damp walk from the bus to the hotel was of a Black woman on a stage: delightful. This was an outdoor rehearsal for one of three 30-minute plays curated by the playwright-director Robert O’Hara for “Celebrating the Black Radical Imagination: Nine Solo Plays.” In “The Master’s Tools,” cleverly written by Zora Howard (“Stew”), a Black enslaved woman named Tituba (a wonderfully devilish Rosalyn Coleman), like the victimized slave from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” recounts a treacherous storm that led to her mother’s decapitation. A storm is a “great equalizer,” she says, describing how nature howls “like it’s in heat” and how the trees shake “as though possessed.”

It made me glance up to the sky again from my seat on the front lawn of the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance, where the production was presented. A clamshell arched over the stage where Tituba told her story. Just a few minutes before she stepped onstage, ushers had handed out rain ponchos to the audience; the forecast had predicted afternoon rain.

The rain never came. But by that point the audience, who sat on the lawn without any covering, had already been exposed to the vicious midday sun for an hour while watching the two other short solos, all directed by Candis C. Jones, that were being featured in the last week of the anthology production’s run: “Mark It Down” by Charly Evon Simpson, and “The Last……(A Work in Progress),” by Ngozi Anyanwu.

In “The Last,” a queer Black man (Ronald Peet) reflects on a relationship, reeling from his isolation — a literal quarantine — and sense of loss. And in “Mark It Down,” a Black woman (Naomi Lorrain) takes account of her grief over her grandmother’s death during the pandemic.

These works by Black playwrights were another way the festival reacted to the moment — not to the coronavirus, but to the recent calls for more diversity onstage. But when the plays were taken within the context of the community where they were being staged, there was a disconnect. My mother, who had joined me, and I barely saw any Black people in town all weekend, with the exception of the festival’s Black cast members. What’s the point of producing new work about Blackness in America if there’s not a more concerted effort to attract Black audiences to receive it?

I asked the same question when I attended the experimental “Alien/Nation,” from the director Michael Arden and his company, the Forest of Arden. An immersive experience, “Alien/Nation,” written and devised by Eric Berryman and Jen Silverman, begins as a walking tour through the Williams College campus. (There’s also a version by car.) The audience is split into groups of about eight, and each group is led, via an app, along a path dotted with performers who act out bite-size, dance-heavy scenes about real events that happened in Western Massachusetts and beyond in 1969.

Not only does this first act — mostly about Black student protests at Williams College — ring out as particularly relevant right now, but so does the second, which takes place at a Covid-19 vaccination center. The third, which includes an odd but beautiful reproduction of the moon landing and a planetary fashion show, makes a sloppy effort to tie the ending back into the racial themes of the beginning.

While some parts of the production connect (the site-specific format, the wondrously fluid synchronized choreography of Jeff Kuperman and Eamon Foley), others show how the festival’s attempts to adjust to an innovative, pandemic-friendly experience failed. The complicated tech — audience members need to download an app, and must forfeit their driver’s licenses in exchange for earbuds — was prohibitive to many, myself included. The app didn’t work well, the tour ate up more than half my data, and my audio kept going in and out. And the first part of the lengthy production, which one of the company members described, understatedly, as “a little bit of a walk,” wasn’t very accessible, especially given the ample hills of the Williams campus. (“This is too much for someone my age,” my 56-year-old mother testily complained to a company member. “Especially for someone who had a hip replacement.”)

And, again, when looking at the makeup of the audience, my mother and I appeared to be the only Black people attending a play about Black civil rights and political action.

It was my final show of the weekend, however, that best captured the festival’s attempts to adapt theater in unpredictable circumstances. With a book by Daniel Goldstein and music and lyrics by Dawn Landes, “Row,” directed by Tyne Rafaeli, is staged on wooden platforms in the beautiful reflecting pool at the Clark Art Institute.

This musical was inspired by Tori Murden McClure’s memoir “A Pearl in the Storm,” about her effort to become the first woman to row solo across the Atlantic. By presenting “Row” outside at the Clark, the festival uses a local setting (the gorgeous views) to present a tale of resiliency. Led by Grace McLean as Tori with a soaring voice (best showcased in the cascading bellows of the classic-rock-inspired “Drowning”), the show intercuts Tori’s narrative account of her journey with scenes from her past. Her story — acting out, growing up in a difficult home, then finding herself in a fight against nature — hits many familiar notes but is still novel, if only for the site-specific setup and the fact that her quest really happened a mere 22 years ago.

But the show has also been plagued by the poor weather, and some of the sound crew walked off the job one night, complaining of unsafe and unsatisfactory working conditions in the rain. In switching gears to deliver outdoor theater, the festival has been able to step up during a challenging time for the performing arts, but it has struggled to manage the logistics.

“Bad weather’s on the way,” Tori says at one point in the show. During her long, treacherous time at sea, she constantly has to acclimate to the conditions in order to survive.

The same could be said of theater during the pandemic; easier said than done.

The morning after I returned from Williamstown, I got caught in the rain yet again. I’ve started wearing my rain boots, I just got a new raincoat, and at Williamstown I bought a blue rain poncho just in case. I’d rather be prepared for any bad weather on the way — not just run for cover.

Through Aug. 15 at the Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass.; 413-458-3253, wtfestival.org. Running time: 2 hours.

Through Aug. 15 in Williamstown, Mass; 413-458-3253, wtfestival.org. Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes.

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