CATF’s 20th Season in Shepherdstown – Bill’s Reviews

For the twentieth time since it was conceived by Ed Herendeen, the Contemporary American Theater Festival has opened, bringing with it five new plays (two world premieres) by American playwrights. Bringing audiences from up and down the East Coast, the mid-west, and even from the Pacific states, the CATF does full productions in repertory in three different theaters on the Shepherd University campus. Performances continue on Wednesdays to Sundays from now through August 1st.

This year’s plays include:
Breadcrumbs, a World Premiere by Jennifer Haley
Inana, by Michele Lowe
Lidless, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig
The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show, a World Premiere with book and lyrics by Max Baker and music by Lee Sellers
and
White People, by J. T. Rodgers

There are also extra, and mostly free events, lectures and readings scheduled throughout the Festival. Listings are available at the website, www.catf.org.
Tickets are available now at the Box Office (304-876-3473 or 800-999-CATF).

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Breadcrumbs by Jennifer Haley, Directed by Laura Kepley

Alida is a reclusive writer of fiction diagnosed with dementia, slowly losing her memories. She comes to rely on troubled young woman, Beth, to help complete her final book. The two women wrestle over the nature of language, loneliness, and being, while slipping in and out of Alida’s fading memories.

The story being written is Alida’s own, something she does not want to share or publish, but desperately wants to remember. Beth is Alida’s intellectual opposite, but is committed to helping her, doing research for her, and, as the play progresses, becoming nurse and mother to the older woman.

Helen-Jean Arthur is utterly believable as Alida, convincingly progressing in her mental degeneration. Combined with Eva Kaminsky’s excellent performance as Beth, these two actors bring author Jennifer Haley’s poetic play to us with wry humor, compassion and empathy.

This is a CATF World Premiere, performed at the Studio Theater.
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Inana by Michele Lowe, Directed by Ed Herendeen

Yasin and Shali are an arranged Iraqi couple on their wedding night in London. Yasin is an art curator dedicated to saving ancient artifacts from the cradle of civilization. Shali starts the play sequestered in the bathroom, while Yasin coaxes her to emerge.

The title of the play is taken from a 3,000-year-old, one-armed statue called Inana, an ancient Sumerian goddess, thought to be the greatest statue in Iraq. Yasin feels the need to protect it both from the American Invasion, but also from the destructive rule of Saddam Hussein.

Questions arise as they get to know each other: Why did Yasin marry Shali when he so clearly wanted to remain single? Why has Shali lied to him about her age? What is in the red suitcase that he won’t let her pick up? Why does she refuse to remove her coat?

Barzin Akhavan as Yasin and Zabrina Guevara as Shali give wonderful performances and Ed Herendeen’s staging effectively brings Michele Lowe’s play to a final resolution that can only be called joyful.

The play is presented in the Frank Center.

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Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, Directed by Ed Herendeen

What if something that happened 15 years ago comes back into your life today?

Lidless is the story of a former Guantanamo Bay interrogator who, after years of physically and psychologically torturing detainees, goes home and attempts to forget her violent past. When a former detainee shows up and demands half her liver as compensation for the physical and psychological wounds inflicted during their interrogations, she’s forced to deal with her history… and a family who suddenly feels they don’t know her.

A highly physical, theatrical and emotional charged show, Lidless takes a small group of characters… the former interrogator, her husband, their 15-year old daughter, her physician friend who served in Guantanamo with her 15 years ago, and the former detainee…and effectively entangles their relationships as it explores the results of guilt and omission.

The play, set in a future where the Guantanamo prison is no more, asks if the price of our national political amnesia will be paid by our next generation–the daughters and sons who were never there? The answer makes Lidless a play for our time.

Exceptional performances by Eva Kaminsky, Barzin Akhavan and Reema Zayman highlight the production in the smaller Studio Theater.

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The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show, a World Premiere with book and lyrics by Max Baker and music by Lee Sellers, directed by Max Baker, musical direction by Lee Sellers.

Is it a musical? Is it a rock concert? Is it a descendent of sixties happenings? Is it an opportunity to win a new electric toaster?

Those are the questions you might ask yourself when trying to explain this eclectic production at The Frank Center.

Eelwax Jesus is an underground rock band created by Baker and Sellers around ten years ago (Sellers writes the music, Baker the words) and they have played in various New York clubs. In this show Baker has wrapped their songs with a plot set twenty or thirty years in the future when monkey pox and other diseases keep people from going outside without gas masks. Since they are trapped indoors, they await the Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show, headlined by Mr. Shine (played by Kurt Zischke, who does a dance piece I can’t talk about on college radio).

We get to join them, and a woman who spends most of the production ironing handkerchiefs somewhere in the 1950s, for an evening of music, video projections, and one or two surprises.

You may not understand it, but you won’t be bored. And the music is terrific. I especially liked a song called “Tricky Tricky” which was accompanied by videos animating old Eadweard Muybridge photos.

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White People, by J. T. Rodgers, directed by Ed Herendeen

Three monologues in search of a culture?

J. T. Rogers’ play shuffles between long and wordy monologues by three archetypical Caucasian characters: a New York College Professor, a St. Louis Insurance Executive and a former cheerleader and mother of a disabled child in North Carolina. Each has what seems to be an archetypal view of non-white people that becomes more revealing of specific occurrences that have changed their world and their futures.

Racism is everywhere here, sometimes in a very subtle manner and sometimes in very strong language. None of these characters would, of course, consider themselves racist as they describe the hip-hop language of an African-American student, the clothes worn to work by lower level employees, or the dot on an Indian Doctor’s forehead. But with all three we see the grip they have on their national culture weakening. Their birthright has disappeared.

The three actors, Kurt Zischke as the executive, Lee Sellers as the professor and Margot White as the former cheerleader are able to hold their characterizations together as we hear their thoughts in fragments. The fragments build to a distinctive and somewhat disturbing ending which keeps your attention. Ed Herendeen’s direction has focused on the characters and their direct relationship with the audience, which pays off quite well.

This play is in a very small space in the new Contemporary Arts Center and seating is limited. Make reservations now.
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About btchakir

Retired Theatre Producer, Graphic Designer, Usability Tester and General Troubleshooter with a keen interest in Politics and The Stage. Currently heard on WSHC, 89.7 FM (on line at www.897wshc.org) and occasionally dabbling in Community Theatre.

Posted on July 12, 2010, in Art, Arts, editorial, event, Music, Opinion, Press, radio, Theatre and Art, Word from Bill and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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