Contemporary American Theatre Festival: 19th Season – Four New American Plays
Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Ed Herendeen's leadership as Founder and Producing Director is now in its second decade. 14 World Premieres have been produced with 7 new commissions. There are Lectures, Readings, Dialogues, and other art events (music, visual arts) integrated into the annual 4-week theater bonanza.
Thief River by Lee Blessing is an examination of homosexuality, following characters through three generations. It is one of the best pieces of writing on the subject I've seen for stage. The play is episodic, using monologues, fast-forwarding and reversing time. It takes audience concentration, especially as some of the actors play multiple roles. This nonlinear approach — as dangerous as it is — deepens and reorders the themes that compel us to look at the honesty of our lives. The playwright keeps his characters in trouble every moment and that's the secret of why the play succeeds. To allow more lyricism would be to kill the conflicts. Blessing's strength is showing intention, emotion and consequence within the geography of a real and dangerous world.
Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard, the most lionized of the playwrights, is the author of 44 plays .TheLate Henry Moss uses techniques similar to Thief River. This comparison demonstrates how seasoned a writer Shepard is. He plays with time, and space, using interior landscapes, and taking great risks Yet we feel we are in the hands of someone with total control of the material. We never wonder for a moment what's going on. Transitions are perfectly structured; and we are in safe hands. Shepard is known for terse dialogue, and unlatched tensions. Characters in Moss do not disappoint us: oppression, violence, maniacal control, anger, exasperation. Words are menacing and humorous, non-sequiturs, twisting logic. On one side of the high wire act is the genius of repetitive dialogue. A fraction to the left it becomes tedious. The play should be edited but who's going to cut Sam Shepard? This story of a dead father and his feuding sons is high octane every minute. Shepard's talk, trying to "get to the heart of things," is always in the service of truth.
Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water is a world premiere. Thankfully it boasts some of the most brilliant acting in an already stellar festival of actors. Wright is a "relationship" writer so we know his work is going to make us laugh where it hurts most. Two couples are ripped apart by divorce with one half of each team trying to match up their jagged dreams to make a fit. Poetry, theology, philosophy, ethics, vulgarity and hilarity all play parts in breaking their hearts and ours. Hope rises, somehow, in the form of the newborn baby. But, Wright tackles the real deal --our wanting perhaps more love than we can use in this practical world — our obsessive longings — the wish for love and some relief of it. Wright's play last year The Pavilion has audiences still talking about standing in line in case a ticket shows up. That play is now being performed throughout the United States. This is one of the great kudos for Ed Herendeen, giving these plays a start so they can go on forever.
Commissioned by CATF is the single female author in the group, Catherine Filloux, a returning Festival playwright. Silence of God is a fictional account of Cambodia, Pot Pol, and the Khmer Rouge, imagined through the eyes of a journalist at the end of the Pot Pol leadership. The lighting and set initially establish a reverence and awe for the material of a history too rude to be imagined. The play is ultimately about prayer and death, with a momentary flare of love at its center. Silence of God is an example of the difficulties of reportorial theater. You can almost see the writer's attempts to avoid being didactic; and, yet we are always aware of the need to tell the story straight up. Dream sequences, short segments and quick scene changes do not make for emotional involvement on the part of the audience. The show is basically a series of tableaus. One of the lines in the play speaks about "putting the spirit down on paper" and much of the play's symbolism revolves around this significant act. It is the way human beings make an indentation in the universe. Filloux does this.
The Contemporary Theater Festival in Shepherdstown compares very favorably with other professional theaters in the USA. The directing and acting often exceed the best of them. I believe that what we feel, after seeing these four plays, is a sense of gratitude for CATF's passion and commitment.