A broad appeal on the Bennington stage: Oldcastle Theatre Company's 2016 season offers up laughs, tears and music


BENNINGTON >> With attendance up 25 percent during its 2015 campaign, Oldcastle Theatre Company is now in an enviable spot, and a challenging position. So in putting together the 2016 season, producing artistic director Eric Peterson said that 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, the musical 'Cabaret' and James Goldman's penetrating drama, 'The Lion in Winter.' We might just be able to top last season with a year filled with laughter, joy, and thought-provoking plays."

Oldcastle's 2016 season has something for every fan of the stage: 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.

June 3-19: "39 Steps," by Patrick Barlow.

This two-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winner offers nonstop laughs where four actors play 150 characters.

A man with a lackluster life 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 in pursuit of 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, romanced, and then married - 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. "I've been fortunate enough to be in a production [of it] in New York, and I'm looking forward to going for another ride. I'd be hard pressed to think of a show I'd rather do or people with whom I'd rather play."

July 8-24: "Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," music and lyrics by Roger Miller, book by William Hauptman.

This musical comedy won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical and Seven Drama Desk Awards. Grammy and Gold Record honoree Miller translated his deep musical talent to the nuance and beauty of Mark Twain's seminal novel told by William Hauptman.

"I've wanted to produce this musical since first seeing it on Broadway," Peterson said. "The music is just fantastic and 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. And no doubt about it, audiences are just drawn to musicals."

The play, Peterson continued, is a natural complement to Mark Twain's classic story, one he called "instructive to this day in a uniquely American way. It's one of our nation's great works of literature."

Aug. 5-21:"The City of Conversation," by Anthony Giardina.

Peterson said this play was "perhaps perfectly suited for a presidential election year and to address the state of political discourse today."

The action opens in 1979 in Washington, D.C., "back when people actually talked to each other," Peterson said. Adversaries fought it out on the Senate floor and 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 world view. 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."

Sep. 2-18: "The Consul, the Tramp, and America's Sweetheart," by John Morogiello.

Oldcastle has twice presented world premieres of plays by Baltimore playwright John Morogiello. "Engaging Shaw" has been produced around the world and "Playdate," which Oldcastle premiered in 2014, is now being staged by regional theatres throughout the U.S.

"'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, as well as take on the Nazi Consul to the United States.

Oct 7-23: "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan," by Arthur Miller.

The late Arthur Miller's 100th birthday is being celebrated around the globe and Oldcastle will revel with one of his last plays.

Lyman Felt, in his fifties, is a poet turned insurance mogul. Driving down Mt. 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, also cast is veteran British actor Nigel Gore, who delighted local audiences in 2015's closing play, "The Lion in Winter."

"I'm thrilled to be coming back to Oldcastle," Gore said. "[Also] 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. He came to Trinity [Repertory] while I was there and it was like God was in the room. I'm so intimidated by 'Mt. Morgan' and so excited to be doing it. [I] feel very lucky."

In all, Peterson considered the five-show season, and concluded that audiences were in for a treat.

"Regional theatre has now evolved into something very special," he 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 info call 802-447-0564 or visit: www.oldcastletheatre.org.

— Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist


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