Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2002

At the Williamstown Theatre Festival you get what you pay for. If you pay $50 per ticket you get the snazzy show on the Main Stage with big name stars. And at the Free Theatre you get the apprentices (who pay for the privilege of schlepping scenery and fetching coffee) in a piece of glorified children’s theatre. This is the WTF’s corporately funded “gift” to the community (Lord knows the unwashed masses in Williamstown NEVER see any good theatre). Considering what other area theatre companies offer to us regularly at less than half the price of a WTF Main Stage ticket, this is pretty shameful. And you would think that the local executives at KB Toys would notice this since they are based down the road in Pittsfield. This smells like another case of the epidemic Only-City-Folks-Stage-REAL-Theatre Syndrome, and it makes me sick.

I get a little cranked up about matters like this because I was born and raised in New York City and have seen plenty of theatre on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway, and regionally in New England, and there is no one location or type of theatre that has the monopoly on greatness. An equity card and a zip code that begins 100 are no guarantee of a stellar performance. So, how is The King Stag? Should you bundle the family in the car and go see it before it closes on August 3? Well, sure. It’s free. It looks great (they spent all their corporate cash on sets, props, costumes, sound, and lights) and the performers are all competent. Just be warned that it is junk food theatre. Earlier this season I likened a show to oatmeal. If you want to eat oatmeal, go right ahead, but don’t expect it to taste like anything more than oatmeal. The King Stag is the theatrical equivalent of Twinkies.

It used to be that the WTF gave us real plays at the Free Theatre – The Moonstone, Huckleberry Finn, Romeo and Juliet, Alice In Wonderland – but in recent years the scripts have degenerated into hastily adapted folk tales that no one has ever heard of. The King Stag purports to be based on Carlo Gozzi’s Il Re Cervo. There is a reason why this tale is not more widely known. At least in Eberle Thomas and Barbara Redmond’s adaptation it wanders quite a bit and contains some rather careless killing (the King Stag of the title does not survive the first act).

The WTF folks then spice this questionable script up with their usual batch of in-jokes and pack the crowd with their own people. I always get the feeling I am going deaf in one ear when I attend a WTF show because there is more laughter and applause coming from one side of the audience (the packed side) than the other (the regular folks who don’t care about the in-jokes and know good theatre when they see it).

As I said, the show looks great. Kasia Lewinska has designed a passel of fun and functional costumes, and Eric Jiung Ting has created a few outstanding puppets, notably the King Stag himself, as operated and performed by Alec Beard. Ken Elliott’s lighting design blends seamlessly with the natural daylight, twilight and darkness occurring in nature, and Drew Levy’s sound design is right on the money except for a confusing echo effect that is used blessedly infrequently.

Christopher Pine turns in a clever performance as King Deramo, who has his body occupied for much of Act II by soul of the evil Tartaglia (played for most of the show by Matthew Wilkas). I thought for the first few moments of his “possession” that he was lipping synching to a recording of Wilkas’ voice, but it was just an uncannily good imitation.

I also admired Tim Corrigan’s ability to play a believable statue (it is NOT that easy to stay that still for that long). The noisier half of the audience went nuts for scenery chewers Daniel Zaitchik as Truffaldino and Kathleen McCafferty as Smeraldina, but I found their antics overdone and stereotypical. In fact there was a lot of stereotyping going on, and the women in the cast bore the brunt of it.

So go if you want to, but don’t expect The King Stag to stick to your ribs.

The Williamstown Theatre Festival Free Theatre production of The King Stag runs through August 3 outdoors on the Buxton School field in Williamstown. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission. Rain cancels. Suitable for all ages. Call the box office at 413-597-3400 for tickets and information.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002

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