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Contemporary American Theatre Festival: 20th Season – Five New American Plays

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Contemporary American Theater Festival launches its 20th season at Shepherd University. Ed Herendeen, Founder and Producing Director, has produced 85 new plays, 33 world premieres and commissioned 8 new plays. CATF is still going strong. Five plays are currently being performed through July, 2010.

Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

“White People” by J.T. Rogers, directed by Ed Herendeen, is described as “a brutally honest exploration of race and language…” That it is. Three white Americans from different walks of life, in different locations, braid dramatic monologues. These disclose both unconscious and conscious racial bigotry and fear. Each character is, in a way, both perpetrator and victim of hate and habit. We have Mara Lynn from North Carolina (played sensitively by Margot White.)”We were here first,” she rails against the ‘abuses’ and ‘privileges’ of other races in positions of superiority or power. Through the lens of personal tragedy and hopelessness, Mara Lynn only finds exuberance by pointing to what’s wrong with the “new people” in America; her misery saved by humor. As her story unravels, violence against women makes her a sympathetic character, but adds only to her armor – a life lived without vision. Since Mara Lynn does not know who her life belongs to, it will always be taken over by a menacing force.

The always wonderful Lee Sellars plays a New York City professor (Alan.) This character comes the closest to finding a balance of truth within anger. (His wife’s pregnancy is compromised because of a mugging.) He wrestles with the complexities of respect for his black students and prejudice for their cultural idioms, dress and language.”There is fear for a reason.” Alan wonders if the past oppressors of society didn’t ultimately do more good than harm. At least they forged progress. His dilemma is from ideas stirred by intelligence but he leans toward conviction of a dominant culture and its legacy.

Kurt Zischke plays a masterful role portraying the third character (Martin.) Martin is self righteous and pompous. Success means conformity and it is an absolute. He lives by an unflagging belief in his culture, his language, and a fear of change. He does not recognize nor conceal his contempt for others, using Reason to prop up beliefs.  He insists his higher order of life has nothing to do with race but rather keeps the trust of decency. We notice some incursions cracking his well made world. The higher purpose of superiority comes tumbling down when his teenage son is accused of rape, and brutally beating a black couple. Martin’s battle shock unfortunately does not make room in the script for insight. Zischke’s terrific portrayal could have handled that.

Playwright J.T. Rogers tackles a subject that hurts as it heals. The writing is robust but not really hopeful. Audiences aren’t always entitled to redemption- that isn’t likely to succeed – but it’s possible that a flash of self doubt on the part of the characters would strengthen an already strong piece.

We do have such moments with Alan, the professor. His point of view is a kind of superiority in itself that works well. Each of the characters gains such momentum that we leave the theater in the contrail of their thoughts.

“Inana,” is directed by Ed Herendeen.  Michele Lowe has written a well made thing. It’s a pleasure to watch a play go beyond what is expected. The opening scene takes place in 2003 in London. This is right before the American invasion of Iraq. An Iraqi museum curator arrives in London to seek safety for himself, his bride and his treasured artifacts. At once a mystery story and one of political intrigue, Lowe offers a balanced work. The brutalities of Suddam Hussein are uncovered, and yet the menace of an invasion is seen as a real treat. It is touching throughout to see the valiant tries of Iraqis to save ancient books and cultural artifacts. It is an act of heroism to protect ones heritage and no other writer has approached it in this way. What is worth saving? This is the cry. The story is about preserving antiquity: Antiquity is a story told to the outer world of the record of human conduct. What is this worth? And in whose eyes?

From a background of social sorrows is Yasin Shalid (Barzin Akhavan) curator from Iraq who arrives to (perhaps) obtain a job in the British Museum. He is in pursuit of the missing statue, Inana, goddess of war. As the plot sorts itself out, we find that his bride, Shali Shalid (Zabryna Guevara)is part of the plot in saving the lost art via a defiant success and forgery.
In one scene a shopkeeper has his fingernails pulled out, and his nose broken. Finally, his store is burned down for displaying books condemned by Saddam’s regime. Other themes in the play are female literacy, female independence, and the torture of women (including amputations.) Heroes of resistance emerge from this oppression and censorship, including the bookstore owner who manages to smuggle a few thousand of his 50,000 books to safety in Tehran.

Through spiritual desperation, there is an essential goodness that’s achieved with the characters and their actions. The persistence of what is fatal in our world may be always with us but there is something promised beyond this. My one criticism is about the too-quick- psychological - turns of the married couple to end the play. Although the emotions are unreliable, it is all so fine to watch, we issue a license to pretend. The entire production is made better by the stage sets with tableaus of cultural icons, statues, emerging from light behind scrim.

“The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Show” is directed by Max Baker. Book and lyrics by Max Baker. Music by Lee Sellars. Playwright Max Baker and musician Lee Sellars bring their band “Eelwax Jesus” to the stage with Sellars’ hard, clean rock music. Baker who wrote the book has seen way too much Frederico Fellini, and for this we are glad.

If you were dropped into “life” and had to stretch it out for say 70-80 years, what would you experience? For sure, a wish for diversion and entertainment; certainly incredible boredom; and lots of waiting around, interrupted by brief bursts of happiness. Also, you would find anxiety and fear of the future. And then there is confusion about why we are doing all this. That is all on stage with the idea that entertainment is generated from without when motivation cannot be found anywhere within. Also, as people hover around the microwave we are told that all motion in human invention is not progress

The characters on stage are always viewers of an ongoing show which is displayed on giant screens…and punctuated by the songs of Sellars and his strong musicians. Just when we get too nihilistic, music interrupts and thrills us for a moment. Onlookers on stage mostly stay seated but each has a piece to say, or sing, about life without meaning. The EMCEE of this multidimensional game show is the terrific “Mr. Shine (Kurt Zischke.) He fills the stage with humor, parody, and kinetic energy. Someone in the audience actually wins a toaster!
One woman in a 50’s dress, in a 1950’s kitchen, side stage, irons cloths, one after the other, ironing and stacking, repetition interrupted by a brief enigmatic phone call.

These people are all in isolation from the swine flu, i.e. plague, that keeps them sedentary in a common living space. One theme:” You consume life and it consumes you.” The TV screens on stage are characters too, continuously running visuals, the background of our discontent, scene after scene of flat unimaginative buildings, cookie cutter utilitarianism, cells in which we live and work; then animals, the industrial age, archetype, prototypes, stereotypes, And even a stripper thrown In for good measure.
When ennui is interrupted by show biz, it appears ridiculous. Our jovial EMCEE, Mr. Shine at one point plays a gynecologist, presenting a dancing vagina. (Because he can, of course.)He later shines as a Bavarian weatherman. The authors of Eelwax must be saying we love to be jarred from thinking about death by such antics, and they are right. These are perfect distractions we’d return to the theater to see again. What IS Eelwax Jesus about? Existentialism with music, and it is its own masterwork. Naysaying is betrayed by originality and zany creativity. There is even a girl in a First Holy Communion dress joining the curtain call. Don’t say we didn’t get a dose of Hope.

“Breadcrumbs” is a World Premiere directed by Laura Kepley. Jennifer Haley wrote a poignant piece about dementia, loss, and momentary connections. It begins with a reciting of isolated words - the ones that make up thought, cognition, art - and ends with words in isolation. A young woman, Beth (Eva Kaminsky) enters the life of a woman writer who has onset dementia. Helen-Jean Arthur plays “Alida.”
Beth becomes caregiver. The play shifts back and forth in time where Beth becomes Alida’s mother, and the old woman becomes the child. A troubled past is disclosed through recalling a story which is being made into memoir. Our major observation is that dependence equals hostility, Our conclusion is that conflict is better than loneliness.The challenge is always how does one write about Confusion, without being Confusing? There are many nice touches throughout especially when we find that a story once told to another no longer has a use for words. This is a fine notion. The problem I had was in the transitions from caregiver to mother, and woman to child.  Nurse or Mother always has authority, and a sick person is child-like anyway. Overheard after, some in the audience got lost on these invisible bridges. But with imagination at play, no harm is done. There is a lovely image at the end when Alida enters the door of light toward her final wordless destination.

“Lidless,” directed by Ed Herendeen is written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig.  This is a play about inhumanity and humanity. It’s a work of enormous sadness and great courage. Fencing wire, hung from the rafters, sets the tone. This is a cage - a prison in Guantanamo Bay. Time 2004. The play moves between a day in prison and fifteen years later in Minnesota. In the beginning, a prisoner, Bashir (Barzin Akhavan) is being interrogated by a female guard, Alice (Eva Kaminsky.)She has the cruel job of getting information by any means necessary, and if that’s not wrong enough, she chooses an extreme measure to break resistance. This is where women use sex to break the will and divert prisoners from their prayers. Along with threats to the prisoners’ families, female guards violated personal boundaries, molesting male bodies. This was officially called “Invasion of Space by a Female.”

Fifteen years after such an incident Bashir finds Alice in her wholesome world in Minnesota. He bursts into her life and slowly shatters its domesticity. Alice’s marriage is now at stake and Bashir brings back unwanted memories. He contracted Hepatitis in Guantanamo and wants a liver transplant from Alice. It is enough to know that the jailor and the jailed have an alliance of sorts and detainees know much about the interrogators. Rhiannon (Reema Zaman,) Alice’s fourteen-year- old daughter struggles to make sense of her mother’s past, especially as she perceives Bashir to be reasonable and true. Bashir was ‘a good man’ until Alice ‘damned his soul.’ “Your wife raped me,” he shouts to husband Lucas (Michael Goodfriend.) and now we know who the daughter belongs to and so does the daughter. Rhiannon suffocates partly by accident, partly by intention; and it is her liver that saves Bashir’s life. What has been shattered cannot be put together because Bashir feels he cannot return home. Alice’s self-justification is gone and so is her daughter. Bashir and Alice are caught in a parallel existence.

This sounds like melodrama but it is not. There may be a scene beyond emotional probability but its serves to raise expectations that are more than satisfied. The actors each bring vibrancy to an already vibrant script. This is great writing, poetic and profound.

If you love startling Theater, run, drive, hurry to Shepherdstown. There are lectures, seminars, and many additional events, along with these plays, through AUGUST 1. 304-876-3473 www.catf.org.

Grace Cavalieri is a writer and critic. She produces “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio.
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