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Contemporary American Theater Festival Launches its 17th Season of New American Plays at Shepherd University in Sherpherdstown, West Virginia

by Grace Cavalieri

Ed Herendeen founded CATF in 1991. As Producing Director, Herendeen shoulders the vision, management, maintenance, fundraising and energy hydraulics for one of this country's most significant enterprises. He has not yet buckled under as we can see by this year's offerings.

The season's four plays in repertory are: "1001" by Jason Grote; "My Name is Rachel Corrie" edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner; "Lonesome Hollow" by Lee Blessing; and "The Pursuit of Happiness" by Richard Dresser. These plays combine a respect for the political moment, an appetite for argument, a search for America's identity and a wish for comprehension. What we see is that expression is all we have on this earth and Herendeen knows how to find its memory. Pepper this with a love of technical wizardry on stage, and the powerful implications of popular culture, and CATF outclasses any other theater experience in the country.

In " 1001," after paring down the linguistic and visual fireworks, we find Alan, a Jewish guy, (Jonathan C. Kaplan) linked to Dahna, (Zabryna Guevara) from Kuwait. This is Manhattan but depends on a theatrical hologram of medieval Persia and the legend of Scheherazade. Grote's imagination unleashed gives the audience a roller coaster ride of story telling, explosives, caricature, and fantasy untethered to reality, but for Alan and Dahna. We thank playwright Grotes' Mother for never saying, "Don't make a spectacle of yourself." He does. This show is complete with a rock group doing the " Bin Laden Monster Rock." But the subject is serious. The play says life continues as long as the story continues; we die only when we run out of stories. "I am the writers I have read," says one character. We are all trapped in one narrative, one story crossing realities, time, culture. We come and go but the story goes on. This play is a hit with its comic book wit, made dazzlingly visual.

"My Name Is Rachel Corrie," is in a theater flanked by police. Obviously there is a statement being made. There is an advertisement in the last pages of the program, paid by an organization for Israel, to balance audience opinion. The play is from the actual memoirs of Rachel, decidedly from one point of view, that of Lebanon. This is where she worked and died. Should she have called it Honolulu? No.There is uncompromised honesty in this show, edited from Corrie's own journals. If there are unaffectionate references to slaughter, or dismay at brutality, we can attribute that to the conduct of most countries now embroiled in conflict. Rachel Corrie spoke from hers. This is a one-woman show that never sags, a monologue of one hour, and more, which depends on expansion, contraction of mood and tone. Actor Anne Marie Nest plays it like a maestro, a tour de force for an actor, weaving exposition and descriptive language with only the audience as counterpoint. The verbal environment creates a universe and shows how a writer can show oppression with language that is not oppressive. Art as information. This play is the reality of war through character. This actor never pushes beyond her emotional envelope or power would seep out. We can learn more from this play about conflict in Lebanon than from newspapers. And knowing this is a letter from the dead affects, more than ever, the living.

In "Lonesome Hollow" we are in a colony of pedophiles, a leper colony of sorts. The play begins with an "offender" building a labyrinth. The playwright uses this as metaphor for contemplation, redemption, and no exit to speak of. Actually no redemption is available either. It is only torture and protracted sadism for inmates of this penal colony. One official states 'It is for us to say when Hell begins and when Hell is over.' Hell is never over here. The Feds mandate private contractors. The therapist is a despot who asks for trust. Staff is a totalitarian regime, tricking inmates with Faustian temptations. A jailer seduces her prisoner, creating a net of more exquisite pain. One prisoner is punished for drawing picture by having a hand paralyzed -- then both hands. The play asks: Who has the power to say what is art and what is pornography? What is crime? What is punishment? These themes create a suspense that terrorizes the audience. One rationale of the authorities is to 'think like the prey.' But the difference is, they can get away. There is no surcease from sorrow, no relief from anguish here. Artists are considered dangerous because 'they think they're normal.'  It takes courage to write such a play. Lee Blessing is a brilliant writer. The trouble is, it is all too believable. The work could benefit from shorter scenes. Yet we would still ask, "Where is the redemption?"  Maybe only at the end, when the losers are reduced to common rubble of hopelessness, with the camaraderie found in that.

If thought is what stretches us, laughter is what saves us. Dresser's  "The Pursuit of Happiness" is the second in a trilogy of plays puncturing the America dream. Upward mobility! Where there's nothing once you get up there. A nuclear family comes apart when the young daughter (Jodi played by Carter Niles) refuses to go to college. This brings out the dysfunction of a life based on winners and losers living a barren corporate existence, so it can all be better later. The milk sours when Jodi will not seek achievement. The fun is gone for middle-aged parents who wonder 'when did decadence turn into nostalgia.' Dad (Frank Deal) doesn't know where his friends went. Mom (Andrea Cirie) sleeps with the Director of Admissions (Lou Sumrall) to get daughter accepted in college. All have lost the thrill to being alive because the thrill is in the chase and the chase comes to a dead stop. Now what happens. Since Father has been working to finance his daughter's higher education, if she's not going to college, he doesn't have to work. Mom is lost because all the circumstances have changed. Somehow this all translates hilariously. The obligations of our middle class suddenly are without commandments and the notion of irresponsibility takes on new sheen. To have been wrong about where everything is headed is a great opportunity for a new direction, a life without perfect judgement. Jodi gravitates lovingly toward the nerd in her dad's office (Sheffield Chastain.) This brightspirited comedy clarifies some of the muddled considerations we are born into, opening everyone into the great potential of uncertainty. Dresser seems to say convictions about success are illusions that end in disillusion. The play stumbles along to land on its feet, although the happy ending is not really earned by the preceding events. Is it a soufflé? Maybe but deliciously funny and laughter nourishes the soul.

I have been with theater all over the USA in 2007 and no better actors are working than you will find in Shepherdstown this season. Set design and technical accomplishments make us proud that this art endeavor is emblematic of American Theater. Plays, discussions, readings and more through July 29. 304-876-3473, 800-999-catf, www.catf.org.

Grace Cavalieri is a playwright and a poet. She produces/hosts "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" for public radio.

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