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Contemporary American Theater Festival Launches its 16th Season of New American Plays in Sherpherdstown, West Virginia

by Grace Cavalieri

CATF Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen presents four new American plays in repertory through July 30. The new full-length plays are 90-minutes long, without intermission. This could be the best season for Herendeen with four world premieres, new works born in West Virginia becoming a permanent record for America's theater.

MR.MARMALADE by Noah Haidle is the best play to be seen on any stage in any city at this time.  Playwright Haidle knows the writer's secret, that everything we know happened before the age of five. It is in the kitchen and the playroom that we will feel everything a human being can feel:  love violence, rejection, betrayal, wishes, lies and dreams. Haidle puts them all together for four-year-old Lucy whose loneliness creates an imaginary friend. Mr. Marmalade is a "suit", a busy guy who has "45 minutes on Thursday " for their next meeting and whose briefcase holds cocaine. Before we get too self righteous as an audience, let's remember the writer shows the child as a mirror of what is seen in us, and on TV. Not a pretty picture. Lucy is afraid her friend is cheating on her and of course Mr. M cannot be seen by the recalcitrant babysitter and harried mother. Nor can they see Mr. Bradley, the imaginary friend's personal assistant. Into Lucy's life comes five-year-old Larry, who can see everything. He wants to find happiness, for they are a match, she's neglected, he's physically abused and suicidal. What horrors childhood produces can be hilarious on stage, but only through the eyes of a gifted writer. Lucy wants to play house, and deserves better than the decadent Mr. Marmalade. There is domestic violence in their world and Thank Heavens Mr. M goes to rehab, coming back with a magical fantasy evening complete with "La Vie en Rose." When the promise of happiness dissolves, Lucy pretends to kill their pretend child from her pretend pregnancy, getting catsup all over her mother's best slip. "I hate being alone" is the play's theme. The real playmate entering Lucy's life creates the most stunning scene in the play, but this too ends in marital discord. Thankfully there is resolution and Lucy steps into reality to play with Larry. Dodgeball! What else is possible for the future of such as these? On the way out of the theater one woman remarked that she was disturbed, watching a grown man kiss a four-year-old  child, She said the people who needed to see this play are not the ones who would attend. I do not agree. We all need to see this play because I think in 16 years of CATF, this is one of Herendeen's best choices and best productions. The combination of actors in MR MARMALADE is the most harmonious acting ensemble of all the plays.

Richard Dresser writes about our national identity and its pathetic lunges toward personal status. AUGUSTA digs the dagger into America's business balloon. In Dresser's magnificent region of humor we meet a paranoid boss in charge of day workers, two women who are dependent on housecleaning and minimum wage for survival. Dresser makes the most of fascism in the workplace. The theatrical spiral shows how power, however shallow, controls the powerless. Nothing new in that, but one pundit has said that tragedy is just failed comedy, and this comedy does not fail. "It's not wrong unless you get caught" is one of the morals of low level corporate America, obviously patterned after high level corporate America. We are given characters who transfer energy with each line, the suppressed and oppressed, brilliant actors, these housecleaners and their harasser. The boss' self-delusions and manipulations make us laugh uncomfortably. The audience is faced with the fact that not only power corrupts but poverty does too. The artist tells us that the only way we can attach value to this is to find the rhetoric that enables ideas.

JAZZLAND by Keith Glover is a commissioned play. It is also an act of courage. How does a writer write about a subject he loves, and deconstruct an artform, only to construct it again so that others can enter. This play is about what music means, specifically what jazz means. The playwright uses words/poetry/language to stand in for the notes of music. There is much that is alike about poetry and jazz. Poetry takes words and sets them on edge, jettisons traditional line-of-sight thinking. Jazz uses the edge of sound to create invisible bridges. They are both about intuitively trusting the audience to cross the bridge. Glover's verbiage is deeply felt but creates a problem. Words come from cognitive thought and depend on action above the neck. Music goes right to the heart. This creates trouble for the play but Glover is as brave as a jazz musician. He gets us inside his love for music through our brains. We start with a dark stage in Jazzland where musicians talk into microphones to the audience. The play is about the murder of a famous saxophonist, killed by his wife, and the question is "why". It is focussed by the son, an up and coming jazz figure, recovering from a car accident. He is trying to regain memory of music, and the ability to find what is true in his art.  Glover is good at making his work unfold through segments that make a whole. The  writer is a musician and the structure of the play is like a jazz riff. What emerges is the fact that music and plays are art that must communicate meaning.

The important question in SEX, DEATH, AND THE BEACH BABY by Kim Merrill is "What is it really about"? It's a wonderful work of imagination looking for a premise. In this case, form overcomes content with excellent actors and, let me say up front, I liked it. I enjoyed it. I admired the fluid lines. It was like sending up fireworks on a clear bright night. If there's a moon at the center, all the better. Here is sparkle, quick and bright, but no moon. This may be because the psychological changes were just too fast, even though they got our laugh, or maybe it was because mocking new age philosophy makes us wish the characters really believed it - or believed anything. Yeats said 'the center does not hold'.  This is true here. Attitudes are best if understood as traditional before going off otherwise, and this was not set up. But if I had it to do, I'd see it again. Why? I like the way the writer thinks about loss and the way she tackles the theme that loss is all we have and is always waiting. The play is of a young girl orphaned on a beach as an infant, growing up to have an affair with her adopted father. She returns in scene one to her home to understand why he died in the ocean trying to save her. The transformation of her imagination takes the form of a person of the past. Her emotional projection is a colonial soldier who haunts her and loves her. When she discovers the truth in the swimming death, she can leave the empty soldier's jacket on the sand.

Having just returned from my Spring stint in New York, I came back with the realization that New York has more of two things than any other place, garbage and excitement. After this weekend in Sheperdstown, I am refreshed, inspired, emboldened to say, CATF has the excitement. At Shepherd University. 304-876-3473 or 800-999-CATF. www.catf.org

Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces "The Poet and the Poem" , entering its 30th year on public radio, now from the Library of Congress via NPR.


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