That rite of summer is upon us when one of this country's premier new play festivals reveals what is on the horizon
for the theatergoing public. The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, WV, now in its twenty-first
season, has a five-play program (to 7/31) in various stages of development featuring some very big names and some soon to
be heard from. Themes of family, personal struggle, social injustice, and, most consistently, race emerge from the imaginative
and penetrating minds of the playwrights. These are hard-hitting plays that essentially leave nothing on the table,
with strong characters, language, and emotions.
the most fully realized work comes from the pen of David Mamet in Race. First produced in 2009, the writer,
through this play, continues to look for every opportunity to jolt the American public into confronting social issues without
turning them off. Mr. Mamet's "law procedural" with its staccato dialogue reads powerfully on the page,
but under Ed Herendeen's direction, with an accomplished 4-member cast, it virtually jumps into the audience. A
wealthy white client (Anderson Matthews) stands accused of raping a young black woman and comes seeking legal representation
from a small firm with just the right diversity to sway a jury: a white (Kurt Zischke) and black partner (Guiesseppe
Jones), assisted by an newly minted African American attorney (Crystal A. Dickinson). It will be 70 minutes of riveting
pleasure to watch Mr. Zischke and Mr. Jones, on Kathryn Kawecki's imposing boardroom set, explain the naked truths of
law and society to Mr. Matthews' uncomprehending character. Fans of Michael Connelly's Mickey Haller series
- including The Lincoln Lawyer - would find the cynical defense attorney almost quaint in this legal jungle.
Mr. Mamet has a few choice discoveries that will lead to a reversal by its powerful and ambiguous ending, which, like many
verdicts, will not satisfy everyone completely, but seems to be the hallmark of justice, however it is dispensed.
Another take on justice deferred is Lucy Thurber's The Insurgents,
now receiving its world premiere. If you've ever wondered about the social context that gives rise to an act of
violence or retributive justice - and who does not in these uncertain times? - Ms. Thurber's provocative riff on
racism will give you pause. (God is distinctly personal and vengeful in this Old Testament world.) The nightmare
conjured up from the mind of a drifting former student Sally (Cassie Beck), following the return to her poor white family
roots - with father Peter (John Ottavino) and brother Jimmy (Cary Donaldson) - examines home grown radicalism, American-style.
Ms. Beck's character is embarked on a self-study program of the disaffected, a reading list of righteous reform, for whose
messengers she's become the medium. Yes, the seeds of this discontent are planted in the present but rise to full
bloom in the voices of Nat Turner (Daniel Morgan Shelley), John Brown, Timothy McVeigh - played again by Messrs. Ottavino
and Donaldson - and Harriett Tubman (Stacey Sargeant) - three horses of the apocalypse (Mr. Shelley's portrayal in particular)
and Ms. Tubman, the play's hot walker. Director Lear Debessonet's confident staging of this creepy tale is stunning
at times, alternating the visual, physical, and musical elements of the story to great effect. With the choral movements
accentuated by Margaret McKowen's set and costumes and D.M. Wood's lighting, it almost seems like there's an opera
waiting to break out. These are outdone perhaps only by Ms. Beck's superlative performance as a troubled twenty-something
who seeks to find her own unique and nonviolent means of expression. There are some points of excess - it gets polemical
at times - and some areas lacking clarity and cohesiveness which weigh the play down before it ends at 100 plus minutes (with
no intermission). Some judicious pruning would give The Insurgents better traction to succeed with future
audiences. Still, you'll be happy to be on hand for the first time out of the gate with this play.
The family fabric is tested to the full in two other festival offerings:
We Are Here by Tracy Thorne and From Prague by Kyle Bradstreet, the first a play of loss - principally,
but not exclusively, the loss of a child - with magical realistic components - the second a mystery play, a fall of sorts,
with not so much a sense of loss as of absence, that of a parent, a lover, God.
We Are Here, which tells its story in a songbook around a mixed racial family's
projection of grief onto the character of Eli (Barrington Walters, Jr.), has a lot going for it. More complex and satisfying
than Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire, the play alternates between the future and present as well as the past
to bring the family picture convincingly into view. Ms. Thorne's penetrating look at those dynamics, manifested
in a kind of karaoke parlor game with legs, and director Lucie Tiberghien's insightful delineation of character and scene
will sneak up on you and leave you emotionally wrought. Credit also the generally solid casting which requires the actors
to perform vocally and instrumentally under the supervision of music director and composer Robert Strain. Everything
and everyone has a part to play in We Are Here and the pieces have a satisfying fit. Crystal A. Dickinson as
the boy's mother Billie is exuberant in her expectation, vengeful in her anger, and profound in her despair. Paired with
Cary Donaldson who plays her flat-footed stage partner Hal and Stacey Sargeant who as her feisty adoptive sister fights for
her place at the family table, the play questions early and often whether it's nature or nurture that determines our character
- especially when the hammer comes down in these lives (as it will for us all in some respect). Tamara Tunie playing the mother
(Vera) and Kurt Zischke the father (Everett) are utterly convincing as parents, second-guessing every childrearing moment,
each trying to reconcile the trainwreck that seeks to define their lives. Some of the opening scenes involving
the child are either unclear or were not fully shaped when I saw the performance about a week into its run. It may be
that the playwright's vision will find fuller expression down the road, perhaps further into the run or on a more traditional
stage (this was played in the round). Nonetheless when it worked, and it did so often, it was theater at its best, for
about two hours with one intermission.
a world premiere, crashes the fourth wall from the opening, with each of the three actors arising from the audience,
seated in pews, and then returning to them or others to view their individual sagas collectively. The actors - Charles
(Andy Bean), the oldest brother, Anna (Julianna Zinkel) the partner of his middle sibling Geoff, and Samuel (John Lescault),
Charles' father - have nowhere to hide for the next 90 minutes and neither will you. There's been a death in
the family - actually two - from whose implications the characters reflect and recoil. From Margaret McCowen's Golgotha-like
set - toppled crucifix, slanted altar, stones askew - to Mathew M. Nielson's creative use of sound (including a Tubular
Bells number and some Gregorian chants - to the excellent casting and Ed Herendeen's fluid and hands-on direction - everything
has gone into giving this play the best possible look. From Prague is challenging in its structure. Mr.
Bradstreet uses three distinct characters to comment on three others we don't see (and some we do), moving from present
to past and back again as we pass through two funerals in two countries. These characters are difficult to warm to,
though at its best the play offers some interesting insights into the human condition, particularly life's contradictions.
Charles, played with flippancy by Mr. Bean, who reminds one of a sprightly Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver),
has a need to believe yet everywhere finds rejection; Anna, a professed atheist who is given a quietly elegant portrayal by
Ms. Zinkel is looking for connection with the wrong people in all the wrong places; and Samuel, an academic and sometimes
agnostic, whose biblical persona Mr. Lescault conjures up in an amazingly powerful performance, is anything but a leader of
his clan (except in a negative sense), though he is part of its memory. At its worst the play remains obscure, with
the three interwoven monologues tied together like a bad knot. From Prague is sex, lies, and internal videotape
from the endless reel of this family's history, as it loops from one perspective to another. Mr. Bradstreet's
poetic and post-millennial vision may be in advance of its audience. Or perhaps since this is part of a series he's
developing to further explore matters of religion, we'll have a clearer understanding of his project. Right now,
it's a slice of life's big canvas through which we are trying to peer.
After four verbally intense, conflict-laden, and going-for-the-jugular
productions, you'll be happy pull up trail at The Frank Center and rest your heels at a performance of the Ages of
the Moon by Sam Shepard. Featuring not one, but two unreliable narrators essayed by veterans Anderson Matthews
as Ames and John Ottavino as Byron, these two old codgers are brought to life swapping tall tales at a mountain cabin.
Ames has summoned Byron to his place of solace after a marital indiscretion has forced him to beat a hasty and protracted
retreat. With whiskey and wit, both buddies seek to one-up the other in interpreting the past. How they do it,
and the pace with which it's accomplished, is a tribute to the director's and actors' handling of Mr. Shepard's
script and some excellent choreography by fight director Aaron Anderson. Mr. Herendeen, in his third production of the
festival, pulls on the reins here, to get the show in at 60 minutes, without an intermission. The production feels just
right: not too fast, not too slow, and not too long. The playwright has a fondness for inverting the arcs of his
paired characters as the narrative unfolds, from True West to A Lie of the Mind; so the lunar metaphor seems
fitting as each of the two old-timers (and their accounts of unseen respective spouses) wax and wane, then suffer temporary
annihilation in an awaited eclipse. Ages of the Moon has a nice lyrical flow that might have come out of his
stories such as Day out of Days, where the hourglass is sifting down on life and ready for flipping. Or it
may have come out of juxtapositions in his real or imaginative life. Happy trails.
There's plenty to sink your teeth into in the festival - either in performance or in
the many side events that are scheduled. I found this year's program better organized as a whole and better staged
and more provocative than the last - and that's saying a lot! This is reflected in the excellent program guide,
which includes dramaturg Adrienne Sowers' interviews, helpful notes, and playwright chronologies for the shows.
But it's also demonstrated in the many patron conversations overheard and bound to continue. Photo credits: Ron Blunt
Best lines - "Family life
is the ultimate hostage situation" from We Are Here
Best individual performance - Cassie Beck as Sally from The Insurgents
Best rep actor morph - Anderson Matthews as Charles in Race
and Ames in Ages of the Moon
Biggest surprise - The Insurgents, mass murderers, a freedom fighter, poor whites,
and music: who knew?
Best staging - From Prague
Due diligence paradox - Lawyers from Race rake the grass
but miss the snake
Most with the least - Ages of
the Moon, two guys, a finicky fan, and Earth's Number One Satellite
Can I have a song - We Are Here, give us your best in our key
Pragmatism in action - Mamet's take on America's enduring philosophy
Next movie - From Prague, deaths in the family crossing borders. Get me: Tobey,
Carey & Liam Best CATF review - From DramaUrge.com
by John F. Glass, July 16, 2011 - All rights reserved