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The Contemporary American Theatre Festival's 13th Season in Shepardstown

Ed Herendeen's dream gets bigger and better. Four new American plays were just seen at Shepherd College's Frank Center Stage and the Studio Theater. We remember back to 1991 when the smaller Studio Theater was not air‑conditioned. We remember, as well, the first three years when the Frank Center was half filled on a Saturday night. Last year plays were sold out, with waiting lists, and this year, the CATF is a fullblown bonanza.

Of the four new plays, two are being mounted in New York City this fall, Bright Ideas by Eric Coble; and Erin Cressida Wilson's Wilder. Whores by Lee Blessing received a world premiere in the Shepherdstown Festival.

Whores is directed by Ed Herendeen, on the big stage, and it is an esthetic dream. All set designs, and costumes are in a harmonic structure of red, white and black. The play presents a series of fantasies projected from the mind of a Central American general who is responsible for the killing of three nuns and a Catholic lay worker. This play, based on the transcripts of that trial, deals with the concept that sex equals violence equals murder. At least in the mind of General Raoul. So nuns become prostitutes. The devices used to lift up otherwise didactic historical material range from pornographic films, to courtroom rhetoric, to media coverage, to dance numbers and comedy acts. This is a lot to handle for four women and one male actor, yet they do it brilliantly. Lee Blessing is a poet as well as a playwright. He writes like an angel but this play is too long by half. I can understand not wanting to throw away one speech because each one is designed as well as spoken, and is never boring. However, there are redundant scenes which say the same things as wonderful as they are. One audience member suggested taking the last ten minutes of act two and adding it to act one. I think that would be a good play, but I would miss the visual elegance in the two-hour extravaganza.

Bright Ideas takes the worst part of American society and holds it up before us for all to see: the self aggrandizing competitive parents who will even murder to get a child into the "best" nursery school. They will then climb higher, even more outrageously, stopping at nothing for the child's "development." It is a black comedy and comedy it is, first and foremost. Funny throughout, the play moves athletically to its horrific peak. Another remark overheard in my row, "I am too European for this." But this is for American audiences, and it can be seen at the Manhattan Class Company in NYC, during their 2003‑2004 ''season.

The Last Schwartz is a masterwork. A family gathering is the convention; the dysfunctional family is the premise, but if we ever want a lesson in how characters make situation, this is a lesson in playwriting. This is an exquisite piece of comedy that never falters. When the hooks under the surface come bubbling to the top, a flood of human frailties and idiosyncrasies take over decimating a Jewish ritual for the dead. Of course, NYC actor Lee Sellars is a winner anytime he comes on stage. In this play he is matched by five performers equal in energy and precision. Especially noted is Colleen Sexton, who has everything an actor needs to further a writer's dream. I questioned the closing image of the play, poetic and surreal, yet not well enough rooted in the reality of the script. But it is a tiny whisper of complaint when the real shout is that This Is A Show To Love.

Reviewers were asked not to cover the musical Wilder because of its run in New York. I think, however, I am allowed to say this much: I am so happy with a writer who takes risks. She gives us reason to go on. And I hear this play is HOT in NYC at this very moment.

The Festival is an exemplar in the theater world for its lighting, audio and all the appurtenances that make a play shine. New York doesn't do it better, and Ed Herendeen has made a permanent contribution to American theater.

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