We often think of 21 as the age of adulthood, and this year the Contemporary American Theater Festival has turned 21. In the years since it was conceived and brought into the world by Ed Herendeen, under the auspices of Shepherd University, the CATF has not only brought new plays, professional actors and visionary directors to Shepherdstown, it has given our small community an international focus in the Theater World.
CATF has brought us world premieres, commissioned works and plays by both the famous and the unknown. Very few, if any, have ever let us down… and this season is no exception.
This year’s plays include:
The Insurgents, a World Premiere of a Commissioned Play by Lucy Thurber
Race, by David Mamet
We Are Here, by Tracy Thorne
From Prague, World Premiere by Kyle Bradstreet
There are also extra, 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 (warning a number of shows are Sold Out already, so call soon), 304-876-3473 or 800-999-CATF.
Ages of the Moon, by Sam Shepard, Directed by Ed Herendeen
In this long one-act, two men in their 60s, Ames (Anderson Matthews) and Byron (John Ottavino), sit on Ames’ front porch and discuss their 50-year friendship while waiting for a 5:00 AM eclipse of the moon. Yet, as they discuss their lives, we discover two different personalities, one prone to agitation and anger and the other composed and calm.
Both of them are aware that each is older than the last time they were together and both are losing their memories.
Both have lost the women in their lives… in fact they are together because Ames has called Byron for support because his wife has apparently walked off. We find out later that Byron’s wife, Lacey, has died (something he never told Ames about before… which gets the angrier one upset.)
As the eclipse progresses, they go through arguments, some hand to hand wrangling and what appears to be a near heart attack, ending up as two tired friends who realize they are all each other has as they watch the moon disappear in shadow.
And the question you ask, finally, are these two sides of the same person?
The Insurgents, a World Premiere of a Commissioned Play by Lucy Thurber, Directed by Lear Debessonet
In a small, working class kitchen in western Massachusetts, Sally (Cassie Beck) has returned home from one of her several excursions around the country… something she has been doing for six years. She has been seeking answers to problems that the world seems to have inflicted on her… losing a college scholarship, questioning her identity as daughter to a laid off father and sister to an anti-intellectual brother.
As she questions her life she ponders revolt against society, influenced by the books she immerses herself in about the great insurgents of a previous age (John Brown, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman)… and one of recent vintage (Timothy McVeigh.). All of them believed in using violence, if necessary. All believed they were called… whether by God or conscience… to carry out their actions.
The question is, now that you have learned how uneven the playing field is, how do you stand up to the things that are tearing you down? How it is not the fault of your lower class family, since you and they were cheated from birth, that you read the books, on revolution and try to do something about the situation. How do you remain part of your family knowing they will never understand and will be truly alienated?
Be aware, there is a certain amount of audience participation in this work… from the direct discourse at the opening, to the singing, with lyrics supplied in the program, at the end. Don’t worry, you’ll enjoy it.
Race, by David Mamet, Directed by Ed Herendeen
Into a law firm run by an Afro-American partner (Guieseppe Jones) and a white partner (Kurt Zischke), with a young, black legal aide ( Crystal A. Dickinson), comes a wealthy white man (Anderson Matthews) accused of raping a black chambermaid. He seeks representation before going to court, having been turned down by another firm. The greater part of the play is concerned with whether or not the partners will represent him, and, when there is no longer any choice, how they will structure the case to get him off.
At the same time it explores the power structure of race and how it becomes, as Mamet says, “a play about lies… Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth.” The tension of racial relations and office politics are combined with the weight of attitude, class and money to make surprise twists and turns for the audience.
If you have seen similar Mamet plays…Oleana comes to mind… then you will recognize an aspect of the author’s style that can only be called audience manipulation. The technique requires powerful character performances, and this cast is spectacular.
BTW, many of the scheduled performances of Race started selling out early. Check with the Box Office to see what’s available.
We Are Here, by Tracy Thorne , Directed by Lucie Tiberghien
In this remarkable play, two generations of upper middle class interracial marriages are on the verge of falling apart over the untimely death of Eli (Barrington Walters, Jr.), the young son of Billie (Crystal A. Dickinson) and Hal (Cary Donaldson). In the midst of their sorrow Billie somehow speaks to and hears Eli as they discuss ordinary things… Is it a dream? A hallucination?
Hal, her parents…Vera (Tamara Tunie) and Everett (Kurt Zischke)… and her sister Shawn (Stacey Sergeant), with whom she has a stormy relationship, all want her to stop talking to the air. Yet it is the thing that is keeping her sane in the face of misery. During the course of the play, Eli becomes visible and speaks with each of the others in the family… each with a different view of who he was and their relationship with him.
One of the most beautiful concepts in We Are Here is how the family communicates by music, carrying out a weekly song night. The songs show who they are in a clear and creative way… I was especially taken with Vera’s intense version of “Fever” which she sings in a vision of putting baby Eli to sleep.
The grief over of the child, the lift of the music and the closeness of a truly functional family is what finally brings them together to deal with the trial of life.
From Prague, World Premiere by Kyle Bradstreet, Directed by Ed Herendeen
For me, this is the best play of the season. Told in alternating monologues as the audience sits in a crumbling church, we learn of the breakup of a family over the sexual transgression of the father, Samuel (John Lescault). After sleeping with one of his students (Julianna Zinkel) and being discovered by his middle son Charles (Andy Bean), he flees to Prague where he apparently has committed suicide leaping off the Charles Bridge at the site of the Great Crucifix.
The interrelationships of the three characters are revealed throughout the monologues as they move from Prague to the funeral of Samuel’s wife, Patricia, back in the States. These are complex interactions which keeps the audience in a framework of investigation as the lives of the three characters go back and forth in time.
Prague is a haunting city made even more so by the wonderful set. Snow is falling as the audience enters and, to some extent, walks through it as they enter. It sets you up for the experience of a family torn apart by lies and self-destruction.
- Summer Stages (nytimes.com)
- Mamet’s critique of ‘the Left’ seems largely tied to the past (boston.com)
“For 20 years, in the oldest town in West Virginia, new plays have had a home and a loyal audience. The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University is a dream for the writers of those plays.”
On Saturday my wife and I were at the invited dress rehearsal of Kyle Bradstreet’s From Prague, one of the five plays I’m doing reviews for at WSHC. I won’t comment on it now (I do my reviews on Friday and they will be scattered through WSHC broadcasts at 89.7 FM… plus they will be reproduced on this blog and I’ll discuss them on next week’s Podcast), but I will say that it was one of the most amazing theatre experiences I have had in recent memory. This is a world premiere, so you are not likely to have seen it anywhere else… so go over to CATF and get tickets NOW.
This afternoon, John Case and I are going to the invited dress rehearsal of Sam Shephard’s Ages of the Moon and tonight Elly and I will be seeing David Mamet‘s Race at CATF. Then I’ll have two more plays to see tomorrow and Thursday so I can put my reviews together on Friday.
We are so fortunate in Shepherdstown to have the CATF. This is its 21st Season, and, as Elly and I have said many times, CATF is one of the things that attracted us to Shepherdstown as a place to live. To see excellent,
professional Equity actors in new plays by both new and well-known American playwrights directed by supremely talented people like the Festival’s founder, Ed Herendeen, is an experience that defies accurate description.
More to come.
- Summer Stages (nytimes.com)
- In which the 63-year-old David Mamet approximates the intellectual condition of a 25-year-old Demi Moore (somecamerunning.typepad.com)
- David Mamet launches tirade against ‘antisemitism’ of British writers (guardian.co.uk)
The biggest hit of his career was in “Major League” in 1989 where he played Lou Brown, the flinty but paternalistic manager of the Cleveland Indians, who roar back from last place with a roster of misfits and improbably win the pennant.
Gammon was known in the 1970s for performing in Sam Shepard plays, while at the same time he was doing featured parts in a number of television serials. Shepard’s comment on Gannon was:
“This was a guy who could act circles around most other actors and he never pretended to be other than a working kind of actor.”
Gannon was 70 years old.