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The hills are alive--and so are the Cape, the coast, and the islands--with summer theater. Caroline Nesbitt takes stock of the situation in New England.

By Boston
When summer heat drives Bostonians out of the city, they head for the Berkshires, the Cape, the coast of Maine, or the cool hills of Vermont and New Hampshire. And when they get to those places, there is nearly always a theater ready to greet them. Yes, unbeknownst to many city dwellers, the boonies ain't what they used to be. And when anybody sings the old song about the hills being alive with the sound of music, it's usually coming from a stage, with a chorus and an orchestra. New England summer theaters employ hundreds of actors, from the famous to the aspiring, and bring both cultural cachet and a positive economic impact to the towns they grace. Their fare--from the serious to the silly, from old warhorses to world premieres--entertains thousands of people from all walks of life.

At last count, StageSource--the Boston-based Alliance of Theatre Artists and Producers--counted 140 producing-member theaters in a roster that covers greater Boston, the suburbs, and outlying areas, including northern New England. The New England Theatre Conference has a group membership that approaches 200 professional theaters. Both organizations estimate that the actual numbers of summer companies is as much as double these numbers. To try to do justice to every one of these theaters at all, let alone in this space, would be impossible. But with apologies to those left out, here are some of the more venerable summer theaters in the region, and what they're up to as the season passes its halfway mark.

Going east out of Boston to the sun and surf of shores both north and south, you're bound to run into Gloucester Stage Company, home of playwright Israel Horovitz. This award-winning company has made a career of introducing new plays to the theatergoing public, and this summer's late offerings continue the tradition, with the world premiere of emerging playwright Neena Beeber's Jump/Cut playing through August 13. The season closes with another premiere, this time of Horovitz's new play, promises.com, playing through September 3.

John Kuntz, the writer/performerof Starf*kers!
John Kuntz, the writer/performer
of Starf*kers!
Continuing south onto Cape Cod brings you to the Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater, where Fuddy Meers, a wacky comedy that enjoyed an extended run in New York this past season, plays August 11 - September 3, and Starf*ckers!, a one-man show about celebrity-obsessed culture, plays Monday and Tuesday nights through August 29. Hopping the ferry to Martha's Vineyard brings you to The Vineyard Playhouse, where Martin McDonagh's very dark comedy The Beauty Queen of Leenane runs August 3 - 20. August 24 is the opening of A.R. Gurney's Far East, which plays at the Vineyard through September 10.

If it's mountains you prefer, a trip to the Berkshires will net you both incredible scenery and some of the best-known professional summer theaters in the East. At Great Barrington's Barrington Stage Company, the main stage production of Susanne Bradbeer's Full Bloom continues an acclaimed premiere performance through August 5, while the second stage offers a double feature of The Actor's Nightmare and Writer's Block through August 20. August 12 sees the opening of the fast-paced musical thriller, No Way to Treat A Lady, which will close the season on August 27.

Up the road in Stockbridge is the Berkshire Theatre Festival, also running two stages. On the main stage, The Shadow of Greatness, starring Richard Chamberlain as a jaded playwright, continues through August 12, followed by Say Yes!, which takes place during the 1940s World's Fair, from August 15 - September 2. At the Unicorn Theatre, The Einstein Project runs August 3 - 26, with that charming evergreen, The Wind in the Willows taking its place as a children's offering August 9 - 26.

From The Compleat Wksof Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)
From The Compleat Wks
of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged)
No summer is complete without Shakespeare, and at The Mount, Edith Wharton's former estate in Lenox, the venerable Shakespeare & Company doesn't disappoint with a smorgasbord of the Bard's works on five stages. At the Duffin Theatre, Twelfth Night plays through August 6, sharing the space with The Compleat Wks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged), closing on the same date. At The Stables Theatre, Much Ado About Nothing runs through September 3, as does Tina Packer's production of the rarely seen Coriolanus, which opens August 4. Also playing at the Stables is the non-Shakespearean Jack and Jill, through October 15. The outdoor Oxford Court stage features The Winter's Tale August 12 - September 3, and the outdoor main stage feature presentation is Romeo and Juliet, in all its romance, gore, and glory.

And, of course, a theatrical trip to the Berkshires has to include the Williamstown Theatre Festival, long-noted for the high quality of its offerings. Still running on the main stage through August 13 is Thornton Wilder's classic The Skin of Our Teeth. Opening August 16 is Moss Hart's brilliantly funny Light Up The Sky, a grand finale that runs through August 27. On the second stage, The Late Middle Classes closes August 6, to be followed by Maria Tucci's translation of Eduardo de Filippo's Christmas in Naples August 9 - 20.

Moving ever northward into Vermont, you eventually find your way to Dorset, home of the Dorset Theatre Festival (802-876-5777). Most theater professionals are familiar with artistic director Jill Charles as the editor of the invaluable Regional Theatre Directory and Summer Theatre Directory, among other publishing ventures. She is also in charge of DTF's summer season of five plays. Currently playing there is Murder on the Nile, through August 12. Following that is "the world's favorite musical", The Fantastiks, August 17 - September 2. And going into fall, they offer How High the Moon September 7 - 23.

Close to the center of Vermont, you find the town of Weston and the Weston Playhouse (802-824-5288), which faces a traditional-looking New England green and boasts a resident company that returns year after year. Running there through August 15 is Threepenny Opera. This will be followed by My Fair Lady through August 26, then by the Restoration comedy The School For Wives through September 9. This year a fall production of Molly Sweeney will extend their season into October, with three performances October 12 - 15.

A cruise northeast to Tamworth, New Hampshire, will fetch you up against The Barnstormers Theatre (603-323-8500), one of the oldest professional summer stock theaters in the country. This resident company still rehearses one play during the day and performs another at night, doing eight per season in a model you don't find very often anymore. With a pace that leaves you breathless, they play Black Coffee through August 5, The Caretaker August 8 - 12, The Happy Time August 15 - 19, Wild Honey August 22 - 26, and finally their old standby The Ghost Train August 29 - September 3.

Continuing into Maine, your magical theater tour brings you to Maine's popular Theatre at Monmouth, whose lively renderings of Shakespeare's plays inspired the Maine State legislature to designate it the state's official Shakespeare theater. At Monmouth, all plays run in rep. This season, you can expect to see Twelfth Night, Ah, Wilderness!, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Anne of Green Gables through August 26.

The Maine Shakespeare Festival
The Maine Shakespeare Festival
Still on a Shakespearean note is Bangor's Maine Shakespeare Festival on the waterfront, which is Penobscot Theatre Company's summer arm. Here you can expect to see Hamlet through August 10, The Comedy of Errors through August 12, Rosencranz and Guildenstern Are Dead through August 11, and for young audiences, Charlotte's Web through August 6. You can also be entertained by various Renaissance entertainments--fire eaters, jugglers, sword fights, and cheerful mayhem--alongside of the plays here.

This list barely, barely, scratches the surface of worthwhile theater in the regions to the east, west, and north of Boston. Check even a portion of it out, and it will change your view of rural New England forever, because there's theater in them thar hills.


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