AISLE SAY West Virginia (by way of Florida)

Contemporary American Theatre Festival 2013

5 New Plays at Shepherd University
Marinoff Theater and Frank Center Stage
CATF Founded, Produced, & Directed by Ed Herendeen
Asso. Directors: Peggy McKowen & James McNeel
P.O. Box 429, Shepherdstown, WV; 800-999-CATF
July 3 to July 28, 2013

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Modern Terrorism,
Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them

by Jon Kern

Directed by Ed Herendeen

As stereotypical Muslim terrorist leader Rahim fits cute Royce Johnson’s Qalalaase with an underwear bomb, the best moment in Jon Kern’s tasteless play occurs. The young suicide-bomber-to-be complains about the pain inflicted by wires being strapped to his testicles.  Oh, the irony! But why is he willing to make the ultimate sacrifice? Other than for Allah, who knows? And in the course of two and a half hours, who cares? Because of various bunglings, the suicide keeps being delayed. Except for that bothering Rahim (deadpan, charisma-less Omar Maskati) and his challenging  accomplice Yalda  (Mahira Kakkar playing on one-note, anger  over drones having killed her husband),   all that interests is if the bomb will ever go off and where. Even a shipment of needed new supplies gets misdirected, bringing  with them to the terrorists’ sparse digs a neighbor  who erroneously received them, Jerome . (Kohler McKenzie tries hard not to appear trapped in that stupid personna.) Not realizing Yalda’s many attempts to kill him (at one point spreading paper towels all around and on him to catch potential blood), the stoner agrees to join whatever plan’s afoot. Does he get the chance? Oh, the suspense!—if anyone is following the plots and the romances and the desires for fame of one type or another. Of  final, atypical interest is why the play seems to refer (by subtitle and the lead and female terrorists) to Dr. Strangelove  yet in only a single moment works satirically.  Director Ed Herendeen  has the actors seriously engaged  in this both silly and dangerous play, but it’s doubtful any audience members will learn to love the characters. Oh, the waste!

 A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World
by Liz Duffy Adams
A World Premiere

Directed by Kent Nicholson

With a title and some inspiration taken from a 1692 Cotton Mather sermon and use of Mary Beth Norton’s research detailing  the Salem Witchcraft Crisis of  the same year, Liz Duffy Adams opens her play there. It’s a take-off on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” ten years after the trials and the disappearance of Abigail Williams, leader of the girls whose accusations led to hanging  those they identified as witches who possessed them. Susannah Hoffman’s pretty, reflective Abigail appears at a tavern run by former follower Mercy Lewis (Cassie Beck, tough in looks, temperament, manners). Abigail has wandered and ended in a good position in Boston that’s led to a move to London on the morrow. But her doubts about what she and Mercy actually saw earlier, about the very existence of witches, combined with pangs of conscience, need to be expelled  or at least explained. So she’s seeking Mercy’s opinion, if not more. But Mercy is hard-hearted, especially evidenced in her treatment of indentured servant Rebekkah (Becky Byers, eerie and uptight), who can spellbind with a devilish story. Abigail is about to be ensnared in the same kind of power she once sought by accusations of witchery.

Puritanical, Mather-like Reverend Peck (Joey Collins, tempestuous when not callous), eager to judge, is backed by the ignorant drunk Judah (Rod Brogan, earning ever more contempt) into tying up Abigail  and conducting—absent qualifications—a  trial.  The derivative drama now turns into “The Lady’s Not for Burning”  without Christopher Fry’s gift of dialogue but with a champion for Abigail who promises a devilish turn of events. Despite John Fox’s intriguing  thrust into the action as Gerardo Rodriguez, of mixed race but predominantly native American, his advantage turns out to be a flash.  He and Abigail end up on the tavern roof, from which they can’t even stop Judah from ravishing  the gal he wants to wed as a way to make her consent! There’s a lot more STUFF about fears of the forest at night and the minister’s unholy determinations and Mercy showing she’s misnamed  along with Abigail wondering still about what caused the accusers to do such terrible things a decade earlier.  Of course, there’s meaning in all for today.  Kent Nicholson has directed the proceedings as if from the book Abigail and Gerardo rescue, that is—like part of a diary or a courtroom transcript rendered via oral interpretation.  All the tech work  appropriately casts darkness on every character and scene. I spoke to an audience member who’d never seen or read “The Crucible” and felt lost from the first scene, while her companion who knew Miller’s and Fry’s work, like me, thought Adams’ play a let-down, stalled on a rooftop.


Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah
Written and Directed by Mark St. Germain

A World Premiere

In the titled West Hollywood complex apartment Scott Fitzgerald tries to complete a film script while wife Zelda is in a Nashville hospital and Miss Montaigne (cool, competent Angela Pierce), hired by MGM to keep him away from liquor, eggs him on.  Unexpectedly, Ernest Hemingway bursts in, with liquor in hand and jealousy in his heart though his novels have been selling very well and Scott has been feeding short stories to magazines to make ends meet.  With as many facts about the two entering their evening of what amounts to sparring, playwright St. Germain says he’s tried to explore the “process of writing and creating, and the toll it takes on both these writers.”  But there’s precious little creating—except  of antagonism—going  on.  The story is essentially one of Fitzgerald the protagonist trying to finish the script and keep on the wagon with Hemingway as antagonist. He pretends to admire Scott but backhandedly accuses him of things that Hem himself  is known to have done and wanted to be, while supplying a skewed childhood and other excuses for his behavior.  People interested in either or both of the writers should find the play more engrossing  than those who simply want to see a biographical play with the structure and fascination of fiction.  Both will find interesting verisimilitude in Joey Collins as Scott and Rod Brogan  particularly as Hem even to the point of looking much like him. A lack of authenticity in some details—a Ronson cigarette lighter  and some books of a different period than 1937 and Scott not having his notorious red hair—is curious. So is is the lack of any feeling that the 4th of July is really being celebrated  just outside the apartment or that Dorothy Parker and Tallulah Bankhead can be seen there. Angela Pierce, though, brings in a heightened sense of the real world as the studio secretary-reader-nursemaid. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the play has a life on academic stages.  It could certainly lend itself to class, library, and book club  discussions.

Heartless
by Sam Shepard

Directed by Ed Herendeen

Sally has a heart (behind the gash fronting the body of Margot White, in constant wonderment) that’s not her own and yet is.  She’s between two worlds, into which has come Michael Cullen’s clearly displaced  and formerly married professor Roscoe. He’s more motherly by far than Kathleen Butler’s acid Mable is to Sally and Lucy.  Plain Lucy (Cassie Beck, perhaps too hard) makes more of a nurse than Susannah Hoffman’s spacy Liz. All of the women seem to have things wrong with them and none of them can be trusted to tell or even know the truth.  Cervantes scholar Roscoe trying to figure them out is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. One thing is obvious: Mable thinks him too old and unfit for daughter Sally. The only one she admires is the mute nurse whom she considers loyal, steadfast but that may be as much an illusion as Mable’s claim  she’s a forgiving  mother.  Butler brings out the witch in her yet is the most fascinating  character in the play. She’s more alive while dying than the others living.  Maybe because Sally says she desires to but doesn’t assert herself enough in relation to life. At least not positively. Liz gradually assumes more control as she wants out of her situation and begins asserting herself. Lucy is ironically the most physically and mentally whole of the women and yet the least alive. There’s a lot of symbolic packing and unpacking of a suitcase that gives the actors something to do besides declaim. The set tries to make sense of a somewhat puzzling house layout and its relationship to water. After an hour and forty-five minutes, whether the women want life or not seems no longer  to compel much interest other than theirs.

H2O
by Jane Martin
A World Premiere

Directed by Jon Jory

Staunch evangelical  Christian Deborah  believes  her devotion to religion  blends with her devotion to acting, the use of her God-given talent. She goes to audition for a career  breakthrough as Ophelia to the Hamlet of chaotic movie personality Jake but actually saves him from his attempted suicide. Following up, she tries to motivate him to live with purpose.  That’s what he’d sought, guided  by Shakespeare, in playing Hamlet: structure, belief, care such as Deborah has found in her Biblical faith. “H2O” has them interacting in a series of poignant scenes, swiftly but surely and truthfully presented. Diane Mair is luminous reflecting Deborah’s faith, dignified while determined to help Jake without compromising her principles. It’s not that she isn’t attracted to him sexually but that sex isn’t an end in itself for someone with passion beyond that.  Jake hints of a background and feelings through life even  more complicated than what he tells of explicitly, without mincing words. Little by little Alex Podulke exposes Jake’s real reasons for undertaking the role of Shakespeare’s complicated hero and why he tries to seek mutual understanding with Deborah.  In this layered, striking drama of two people seeking to be true to themselves and something greater, actors Mair and Podulke  captivate. Director Jon Jory’s presentational style never veers from the theatrical at its best yet manages to be no less realistic than a documentary film. The small  Frank Center Stage  suits the intimacy of the action perfectly in David M. Barber’s flexibly designed stage under John Ambrosone’s changing  lights and the enhancement  provided by Christina Smith’s sound plan. Not to be taken for granted, the huge array of Margaret A. McKowen’s costumes was characterizing , most often deftly changed  while one of the wearers spoke to the audience or as parts of scenery set new times and places onstage.  This play and production were the highlight  of the Contemporary American Theater Festival 2013 in Shepherdstown, WVA.  Memorable. Magnificent.

CATF Celebrates West Virginia  Songs and Songwriters

The plays abovementioned were central to the 2013 Annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association, hosted by CATF. A special musical performance for ATCA attendees was held at the long, narrow, one-floor Opera House, a  former (starting 1915) cinema, in Shepherdstown. Introduced by Joseph Eaves, a musician known as “Ban-Joe” for obvious reasons, the show concentrated first on the music of Hazel Dickens, a Bluegrass, feminist writer and performer. She was shown on film and her  was then shown off by three young women singing her songs for the first time. Also spotlighted was Bill Withers, who wrote abundant music for movies and TV. A selection, beginning with his early hit “Ain’t No Sunshine When I’m Gone,” was played by a 4 man band.

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