'Kaufman's Barber Shop' looks at racism, immigration in Jazz age New York State

Thursday August 15, 2013

PITTSFIELD, Mass. -- Tales taking place in barber shops have a long and storied tradition, when groups of people from a neighborhood settle down in the old chairs as they discuss the events of the times. These stories have been told in books, on film and on the stage, but Shakespeare and Company is telling this story in the most unlikely of seemingly obvious places, a barber shop.

"I visualized it being done on a stage, (but) when (Shakespeare and Company artistic director) Tony (Simotes) first read it he said ‘I think it would be really fun to do it in a barber shop,'" said Shaftsbury resident Robert Sugarman, the show's playwright. "It really does work, it works very well. (But) there's a couple of problems, nobody can come late or they'll be on stage."

Sugarman joins the ranks of the illustrious playwrights who have worked with Shakespeare and Company with his new play "Kaufman's Barber Shop."

Sugarman, who has previously written plays for Oldcastle Theatre in downtown Bennington, is the eldest of three generations connected with Shakespeare and Company, both his son and daughter have performed with the group, and his granddaughter is now involved with a summer program there. But this is the first play of his the company has turned into a production.

The play, which opened yesterday, runs through Sept. 1, at Upstreet Barbers at 442 North St., Pittsfield, Mass. Actors will walk on "stage" by entering through the front of the shop, Dottie's Coffee Lounge next door will serve as a green room.

The story follows several successful Jewish businessmen, an Irish manicurist, and an aspiring African-American author, who works as a shoe shine boy. The group lives in pre-stock market crash New York state, and finds themselves constantly waylaid by prejudice and segregation in an America of changing demographics and tension.

"I've given it a kind of significance in the show," said Sugarman, who based the characters in part on his Jewish father and his father's friends they knew growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. "(It's) the kind of place where successful Jews could let their hair down, or cut, and not have to worry about the outside world."

"What I loved most after the first read were the characters and the relationships that are nurtured in a barber shop," said director Regge Life in a press release. "Barbering is not just cutting hair, it is listening to people recount their lives, the dreams, hopes, and particularly in the case of this play -- their fears."

Though the men have found success in business, they had been tempted early in their lives to go into Vaudeville, and the play takes advantage of the musical talents of the actors. While it was originally written to feature a piano player, when it came to light that one of the stars, Malcolm Ingram, was an expert uker, the instrument was changed to a ukulele.

"I was certainly open to suggestions, and I did make a lot of revisions (to the play)," Sugarman said. Other changes were to the setting, such as the time of year. Since the play was taking place in an actual barber shop not on a stage, it was decided the story be in the late summer, not Christmas time as to better fit the location.

Other changes came from the actors themselves.

"The actors who really know the characters better than I do," Sugarman said. For instance, "One character was too weak at the end, he sort of got into a fight and gave up." This was changed to better suit the character. "My characters have never changed, they've gotten stronger, they've gotten deeper and fuller."

"It's so wonderful to go from writing all by yourself into this wonderfully collaborative process, which rehearsal is," he added. "I couldn't want a stronger cast, I am just thrilled with them."

Sugarman hopes that while people enjoy the show, they also recognize that many of the issues faced by the characters are still issues today.

"I think (the play is) very enjoyable, at the same time it raises serious issues that are still with us today: immigration and race. A lot of what goes on in the play is about what happens to the black shoe shine boy who works there," Sugarman said. "We're a country of minorities, we don't have any natives except for the Native Americans, people forget that and they're mean to the next generation (of immigrants) So the issues of integrating minorities and races is what the play is about, it may be different groups now partly, but it's still very real issues."

The play stars Katharine Abbruzzese (as Maggie Fitzgerald,) Thomas Brazzle (as Walter Henderson), Jonathan Croy (as Maurice Shwartz), Malcolm Ingram (as Jesse Markowitz) and Robert Lohbauer (as Jake Kaufman).

Audiences are encouraged to visit nextdoor Mission Tapas for intermission fare. Tickets are $30, and can be purchased from www.shakespeare.org. Performances are Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays at 8 p.m. through Sept. 1 as well as Saturday, Aug. 17, at 3:30 p.m

Andrew Roiter can be reached at aroiter@benningtonbanner.com, follow him on Twitter at @Banner_arts.


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