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Shakespeare & Company Hang Out At Jewish Barber Shop, Irish Horror Show

Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Tina Packer as Mag in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane.". (Enrico Spada/Shakespeare  & Company)

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LENOX, Mass. – At the ever-provocative Shakespeare & Company there are two recently opened plays that offer wildly opposing views about ethnicity. There is Robert Sugarman’s “Kaufman’s Barber Shop,” which casts a very skeptical eye toward Jews and assimiliation, and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” one of Martin McDonagh’s many warnings to run for your life when it comes to identifying too closely with your ethnic group, particularly if said ethnic group happens to hang out in rural Ireland.

The only problem with taking such a seminar is that “Kaufman’s Barber Shop” is a very good production of a flawed play and “Beauty Queen” is a flawed production of a very good play, so the lesson isn’t as enjoyable as it might have been.

The original Druid production of “Beauty Queen,” about the perverse relationship of a mother and daughter in a barren town on the west coast of Ireland, deservedly won all the acting and directing Tony Awards it was nominated for in 1998. And Jeff Zinn directed a magnificent production with Julie Harris, (who passed away Saturday) and a fine cast of Cape Codders in Wellfleet in 2000 so Shakespeare & Company certainly had big shoes to fill. Still, the Western Mass. troupe had its wonderful founder, Tina Packer, fresh from her triumphant turn in “Women of Will” in New York ready to play the Anna Manahan-Julie Harris role, so what could possibly go wrong?

It is a good thing, really, that there is a deeply humanist streak running through Packer’s work as director and actor as well as that of Shakespeare & Company, which is now in the hands of her successor, Tony Simotes. Perhaps that’s why neither Packer nor director Matthew Penn seem to be able to come to terms with the fact that bad boy McDonagh is kind of an anti-humanist who, when he was compared to Shakespeare, indicated that the Bard is a bore.

Tina Packer and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in "The Beauty Queen of Leenane.". (Enrico Spada/Shakespeare & Company)

Tina Packer and Elizabeth Aspenlieder in “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”. (Enrico Spada/Shakespeare & Company)

Packer’s attempt to find something supersized in her character pretty much sinks the boat. Ironically, it is by far the least human of the three performances I’ve seen as her Mag is a monster from the moment the lights go up till the end of the play, rather than a passive-aggressive crone. Penn then allows the production to become a story of victimization as daughter Maureen strives to free herself from her mother’s oppressive yoke. To that end, Elizabeth Aspenlieder turns in a lovely performance. (David Sedgwick as her suitor is also excellent.)

But victimization is not what “The Beauty Queen” [through Sept. 15] is about, at least the victimization of any one person. It takes two to tango in this macabre, codependent relationship and it’s the insularity that bonds everyone in Leenane together so incestuously that’s at the root of their problem. Their only hope is to get out and their collective tragedy is that they cannot.

The humorlessness of the production turns McDonagh into Grand Guignol, complete with Mother of Chucky fright wig for Tina Packer.

That point is made here, but the humorlessness of the humanism blunts it, turning McDonagh into Grand Guignol, complete with Mother of Chucky fright wig for Packer. A friend said it felt like “the mutated spawn of Tennessee Williams and David Mamet,” but there shouldn’t be any Williams here. This is black comedy, not Gothic tragedy and the success of most McDonagh productions can be measured by how loudly the audience is laughing, the better to underscore how necessary it is to leave the likes of Leenane behind. Unfortunately, at Shakespeare & Company, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is no laughing matter.

‘Kaufman’s Barber Shop’

Jonathan Croy, Kate Abbruzzese, Robert Lohbauer, Malcolm Ingram and Thomas Brazzle in "Kaufman's Beauty Shop" at Shakespeare & Company. (Kevin Sprague/Shakespeare & Company)

Jonathan Croy, Kate Abbruzzese, Robert Lohbauer, Malcolm Ingram and Thomas Brazzle in “Kaufman’s Beauty Shop” at Shakespeare & Company. (Kevin Sprague/Shakespeare & Company)

Sugarman’s humor is less black and his outlook less bleak. Jake Kaufman’s barber shop is home to Jewish immigrants in the ‘20s who finally have a place to get their hair cut in downtown Syracuse. Things are loosening up for Jews, as evidenced by Morris Schwartz, who has risen to become assistant district attorney.

His issue, as we come to see, is the opposite of the Leenanians. He wants to put the insularity of community behind him and become an upstanding American, chasing down communists and anyone else who threatens the body politic.

The production [through Sept. 1] really is in a barber shop — Upstreet Barbers in Pittsfield, an extremely convivial place in which the entire cast relaxes into their roles. It’s the three men from Shakespeare & Company’s “Heroes” — Robert Lohbauer (Kaufman), Malcolm Ingram and Jonathan Croy (Schwartz), who went in for Jonathan Epstein after he took off to teach in Florida. Rounding out the cast are Kate Abbruzzese as the Irish manicurist and Thomas Brazzle as the black shoeshine guy.

Sugarman does a fine job at making the humor that the three Jewish men share so infectious, at least until Schwartz slowly morphs into a Mr. Hyde right-wing stick figure that allows the other characters, and the audience, to feel ever so self-righteous. I don’t object to the politics, only to the pontification. And to the playing to the audience.

That’s where McDonagh excels. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” forces the audience to question its assumptions; “Kaufman’s Barber Shop” merely pats us on the back.

More on McDonagh and Shakespeare & Company

Ed Siegel on Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psycopaths” and “A Behanding in Spokane”

Ed Siegel on Shakespeare & Company’s “Heroes” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost”

Greg Cook on Shakespeare & Company’s “Mother Courage and Her Children”