SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 11, 2013 – As we’ve been doing since the beginning of the current century—first for the Washington Times newspaper and now for WTC Digital News—we’ve just spent the past week drinking in the sights, sounds, and dramas currently being performed during the month-long Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF). The Festival and associated events have been staged for 23 years now primarily on the campus of Shepherd University, located in this picturesque colonial town on the banks of the Potomac.
Notably, this season marks the 100th production staged by CATF, a fact that’s proudly printed front and center on the title page of this year’s festival program booklet.
From the start, CATF’s founder and producing director Ed Herendeen and his staff have striven to bring the best and often the most provocative new and nearly-new plays to the festival, which has gradually developed into a genuine must-see event for East Coast drama fans and beyond.
Playwrights on CATF’s long have ranged from the barely known to the exceedingly well-known, and have included theater luminaries like David Mamet and Sam Shepard in recent seasons. It’s no wonder, then, that Shepherdstown’s pubs, amazingly fine restaurants, shops, B&B’s and hotels brim with activity every summer when the festival is in town.
This year’s plays are being staged at the University’s large theater at the Frank Center; at the small performance space located in the University’s nearly-new Center for Contemporary Arts Building I; and at the spacious, state-of-the-art theater space in the Center’s absolutely brand new Building II. Christened the Marinoff Theater in a brief dedication ceremony on the afternoon of July 7, this is a wonderful, eminently reconfigurable space boasting comfortable, steeply-raked seating, great acoustics and a first rate sound system.
Now that we’ve managed to see each of this year’s five plays, we’ll be posting detailed reviews here on each one of them. While we ready our reviews, here’s a brief synopsis of the dramas we’ve seen, ranked by this critic—well, not from best to worst, since this season is an uncommonly good one—but from most- to least-intriguing and impactful, at least from one writer’s point of view.
Jane Martin’s “H2O” is a world premiere production actually commissioned by CATF with support from additional donors. After seeing this brief, shattering production, we’d have to say that both CATF and its additional contributors got their money’s worth at least thrice over. Seriously. This is one of the best plays we’ve seen in years, made all the more impressive because we underestimated its power and impact. Early reviews and word-of-mouth are spreading the news, and tickets will be scarce for this one.
Jon Kern’s dark comedy, “Modern Terrorism.” Talk about provocative. Here’s a humorous, two-act take whose anti-heroes are a tiny band of numskull Middle East terrorists who reluctantly add a clueless American into their plot to blow up the Empire State Building. Think terrorism isn’t funny? Particularly in light of the Boston Marathon bombings, not to mention 9/11? We went in with that attitude, but the playwright’s peculiar, demented point of view won us over in short order. There are lots of laughs but also some unpleasant surprises in this bizarre drama. But it will hold your interest for sure, although things do bog down a bit in the second act before getting back on track and rushing headlong into the grand finale.
“Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah” by Mark St. Germain. As a former scholar specializing in 1930s American lit, this writer was prepared to be a bit skeptical of this production. It’s a one-act drama based on a meeting that may or may not have occurred between novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway when Fitzgerald was ensconced at the Garden of Allah, a famous Hollywood apartment hotel that, in its time, housed stars and wannabes alike.
The two authors were mostly cautious friends, but Hemingway, whose cruel streak was well-known, seemed to take particular delight in tearing the troubled Fitzgerald down. Mark St. Germain gets all the tics and foibles just right in this very literary drama. We expected to be a bit bored, but were drawn into the intellectual battle in spite of ourselves—an often bitter joust made even more interesting by the presence of a third character, a Miss Montaigne, who’s a lot more than the typist she initially appears to be.
We regard this production as a “tie” with “Modern Terrorism” only because some audiences have little patience for the self-obsession of writers who appear as characters in a play. “Scott and Hem” is actually trim, taut and tightly constructed, and Fitz and Hem here are the real deal.
“Heartless,” by Sam Shepard. This play got off to an unfortunate start when one of the key players took a spill, broke her arm, and was unable to go on, at least for the early part of the run. This resulted in the cancellation of the final dress rehearsal as another actress was recruited and stepped into the part, playbook in hand. But the show went on and, fortuitously, we were only able to catch this one just this Wednesday afternoon, by which time the new player had the script down cold, needing it only for a complicated Act II soliloquy.
As for the drama itself, it premiered in 2012 in New York to moderately positive reviews. The play is an unusual one for Shepard. Most of his plays concern the physical and psychological battles waged among deranged male members of the human species. In the current play, however, Shepard dares to take on the rarified turf of damaged females. The attempt is an uncertain one, however, although always the master playwright, Shepard still gives us some interesting and occasionally daring material to consider.
Liz Duffy Adams’ “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World,” another world premiere production, is probably the least user-friendly play of the current CATF season. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its moments. But it’s one of those dramas that falls flat because it talks too much about too little. Its premise is an interesting one—the meeting, roughly a decade after the fact, of the two young women at the core of the Salem witch trials, a tale retold by Arthur Miller in “The Crucible” and re-imagined here under different circumstances. Unfortunately, Ms. Adams’ response to this prickly meeting is essentially a re-hash of the original with a smaller scope, whose aim, apparently, is to prove that we never learn from our past mistakes. But that’s a lesson we picked up on “Seinfeld.”
That’s it for our recap. Full reviews will be coming your way as soon as we think we can defend them.
In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by any of the above possibilities, most particularly if you live in the DC Metro area, why don’t you consider heading off for Shepherdstown this weekend? It’s 90-ish minutes away, depending on where you’re coming from, it’s a generally pleasant drive, and the town alone is worth a visit. Wrap in a play or three, and you just might become addicted to this always-interesting annual drama fest just as we did years ago.
For tickets and information (including directions), visit the CATF website here.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
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