The contemporary American theater festival is back with new plays



SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Theater festivals like the one in this funky Appalachian college town were in the frenzy game long before Netflix aired a single title. This has been the mission of the Contemporary American Theater Festival since 1991: to provide a multi-production solution to theatergoers who crave theater served hot in the creative kitchen.

Over the years, the summer menu has expanded – from two new four-pieces to the current six – an assortment that, in as little as two days, has you rushing from venue to venue. another on the campus of Shepherd University, the home of the festival. While some offerings are always better than others, the true test of a theatergoer’s devotion is ordering the full six courses. The frenzy, in other words, is everything.

I loved the opening weekend, July 8-10, the first professional live theater in Shepherdstown in three summers. (Offers run through July.) It was a familiar and reassuring return to a festival — replete with the usual surprises and disappointments — that has long favored plays that provocatively probe the cracks in politics and society. American culture.

A theater festival in the bucolic countryside, but bubbling below

With the continuation of ambitious festivals like the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, the Festival of Contemporary American Theater becomes even more valuable. Its focus on topics that disrupt American life makes it a particularly compelling undertaking. Racism and the pain and suffering it engenders are the basis of several works on this year’s list, including the most accomplished: Terence Anthony’s “The House of the Negro Insane”, set in 1935 in a Oklahoma’s “hospital” for black people held on libelous charges, and Kevin Artigue’s “Sheepdog”, the account of the shooting of an unarmed black man in Cleveland, by a white police officer involved in a romantic relationship with a black officer.

The others – all world firsts – grapple with thorny issues with varying degrees of success. Even if some appear somewhat embryonic, it is instructive to bring together what weighs heavily on the minds of playwrights. Caridad Svich’s ‘Ushuaia Blue’, for example, places two American researchers on the edge of Antarctica and on the front lines of global climate change; “Babel,” by Jacqueline Goldfinger, sends us into the future, into an American society with dwindling resources and state-mandated eugenics. Victor Lesniewski posits in “The Fifth Domain” a national crisis triggered by lax government cybersecurity. And in “Whitelisted,” Chisa Hutchinson unleashes a black ghost on the brownstone of a gentrified white upstart.

You enter each of the festival’s three spaces with the highest of hopes, and sometimes you leave with that feeling rewarded. The line-up was originally selected for summer 2020 by festival founder Ed Herendeen, who retired earlier this year and was replaced as artistic director of production by his longtime associate, Peggy McKowen. That the themes are holding up so powerfully after two years of pandemic shutdowns speaks to the unfortunate resilience of these thorny subjects.

In a time of tumult of anger, theater can still show us the way forward

The work that left the strongest impression is the one that most vividly evokes a shameful American past. In “The House of the Negro Insane,” artfully directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, a stoic mountain of inmate, played to perfection by Jefferson A. Russell, works as a coffin maker in an asylum for blacks (based on a real mental hospital in Taft, Okla.). Within the narrow confines of a black box space, set designer Claire Deliso conjures up the raw studio in which Russell’s Attius is insulted, bullied and curiously wooed by an alcoholic white overseer, embodied with persuasive creepiness by Christopher Halladay.

The presence of August Wilson, author of period pieces such as “The Piano Lesson”, is felt in the rhythms of Anthony’s story. (As it happens, before his death in 2005, Wilson was considering his own play on coffin makers.) This meaning is confirmed in the rich portrayals of Attius and the other inmates – Effie and Madeline, performed by the excellent CG and Lenique Vincent – who were committed to this cruel institution for more than their own good. As a plot unfolds around the choice Attius faces – to open his battered heart and help a child in dire straits – Anthony deftly explores the powerful emotionality behind the character’s mask of resigned misery. (We’ve also suspected from the start that when the play ends, that finished coffin on stage won’t remain empty.)

With a perfect cast, Broadway has an “Into the Woods” for the ages

“Sheepdog” takes us fast forward to troubled American current affairs, as an interracial love affair unfolds between Cleveland police officers (the formidable Sarah Ellen Stephens and Doug Harris). Harris’ Ryan is gutted by his own actions, as a white police officer who fatally shot a black man during a traffic stop. But sympathy escapes his romantic partner, Amina de Stephens, after she discovers the evidence doesn’t match Ryan’s version of the incident.

Artigue, the playwright, plausibly invokes the blue wall which initially discourages Amina from doubting Ryan’s story. Stephens, in director Melissa Crespo’s tense staging, is utterly compelling as the drama’s moral linchpin, ultimately seeing Ryan’s racism as an unbearable reflex. At 90 minutes, the game turns out to be an absorbing base.

Ninety minutes is also what Lesniewski allots for “The Fifth Domain,” but that’s just not enough time to execute the playwright’s complex script. The play is a cyberspace thriller with a few clever twists, all of which take place at the festival’s Frank Center, its largest theater, in exposition shorthand; it plays like it’s a treatment for a six-part series on Hulu. Troy (Dylan Kammerer) is a renegade former computer expert for the National Security Agency, who aims to expose the infiltration holes in the nation’s computer networks.

Brevity is often, but not always, a virtue. A room must find the right amount of space to breathe. A cybergeek (Alexandra Palting), an NSA agent (Kathryn Tkel), and a shadowy figure who appears on park benches (Aby Moongamackel) all feature in the proceedings. But the moment they (with the guidance of director Kareem Fahmy) plant their feet in the story, we move on to the next narrative pivot. Max Wallace’s vibrant visuals are helpful, and the actors seem well versed in a story meant to keep us guessing. Still, all the technical language and an insufficiently elaborate endgame device means that a lot more authorial elucidation is in order.

A golden-age New York armory is a haven for forward-thinkers

“Babel” and “Whitelisted” sound underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Neither is able to fully hold an audience – although Carlo Alban is entertaining as an overly patient installer of security systems in the uneven ‘whitelist’. He for some reason agrees to spend the night on the couch of Rebecca (Kate MacCluggage), an obnoxious high-end dollhouse designer who doesn’t show an ounce of sympathy for the gentrified Brooklyn community she’s shopped in. If anyone deserves to be tormented by vengeful spirits, it seems she does.

Svich, the author of “Ushuaia Blue”, has a little more success, thanks to the lyricism in which she wraps her account of the crisis which strikes a scientist, Jordan (John Keabler), and the videographer, Sara (Kelley Rae O ‘Donnell), during a trip to Antarctica. The ravages of climate change will no doubt be a subject that other playwrights will grapple with in the years to come. Here, Svich, with the help of director Jessi D. Hill, gives us a taste of the physical toll and clash of cultural perspectives that environmental upheaval can bring.

On Jesse Dreikosen’s set at the Marinoff Theater, adorned with glowing glaciers and ice-encrusted furniture, Sara navigates the frozen landscape to record interviews with an indigenous resident (Amelia Rico) of an island off the south coast. from Argentina. Pepa de Rico is not as alarmed as Americans by the ecological devastation to come. Perhaps, she says, humanity will simply disappear and the polar region will be covered with forests. It is a longer contrarian view of the cycle of life that Svich illuminates – the kind that theater can study, as it ponders a dangerous future not only in practice, but also in poetically philosophical terms.

Contemporary American Theater Festival Through July 31 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.


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