Contemporary American Theater Festival is back with new plays



SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Theater festivals just like the one on this funky Appalachian school city have been within the binge-watching sport lengthy earlier than Netflix had streamed a single title. It’s been the mission of the Contemporary American Theater Festival since 1991: providing a multi-production repair to playgoers who crave theater served scorching from the artistic kitchen.

Through the years, the summer season menu has expanded — from two new performs to 4 to the present six — a smorgasbord that over as little as two days compels you to sprint from one playhouse to a different on the campus of Shepherd College, the competition’s residence. Though some choices are at all times higher than others, the truest take a look at of a theater lover’s devotion is ordering up the total six programs. The binge, in different phrases, is all.

I binged on the opening weekend, July 8-10, the primary skilled stay theater in Shepherdstown in three summers. (The choices run by July.) It was a reassuringly acquainted return to a competition — stuffed with the same old surprises and disappointments — that has lengthy favored performs that provocatively probe the fissures in American politics and tradition.

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With the continuation of formidable festivals- similar to Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays unsure, the Modern American Theater Pageant turns into much more treasured. Its emphasis on subjects driving wedges in American life makes it an particularly compelling endeavor. Racism and the ache and struggling it engenders undergird a number of works on this 12 months’s roster, together with essentially the most achieved: Terence Anthony’s “The Home of the Negro Insane,” set in 1935 in an Oklahoma “hospital” for Black individuals detained on scurrilous grounds, and Kevin Artigue’s “Sheepdog,” the account of the taking pictures of an unarmed Black man in Cleveland, by a White police officer romantically concerned with a Black officer.

The others — all world premieres — latch onto thorny points with various levels of success. Even when some come throughout as considerably embryonic, it’s instructive to collate what weighs heavy on the minds of theater writers. Caridad Svich’s “Ushuaia Blue,” as an example, vegetation two American researchers on the sting of Antarctica and the entrance strains of worldwide local weather change; “Babel,” by Jacqueline Goldfinger, sends us into the long run, to an American society of dwindling assets and state-mandated eugenics. Victor Lesniewski posits in “The Fifth Area” a nationwide disaster triggered by lax governmental cybersecurity. And in “Whitelisted,” Chisa Hutchinson turns a Black ghost unfastened on the brownstone of a gentrifying White arriviste.

You stroll into every of the competition’s three areas with the best of hopes, and typically, you allow with that sensation rewarded. The slate of performs was initially chosen for the summer season of 2020 by the competition’s founder, Ed Herendeen, who retired earlier this 12 months and was succeeded as producing creative director by his longtime affiliate, Peggy McKowen. The truth that the themes maintain up so potently after two years of pandemic shutdowns speaks to the unlucky resilience of those thorny topics.

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The work that left the strongest impression was the one that almost all vividly invokes a shameful American previous. In “The Home of the Negro Insane,” astutely directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce, a stoic mountain of an inmate, performed to perfection by Jefferson A. Russell, works as coffin maker in an asylum for Black individuals (primarily based on an precise psychological hospital in Taft, Okla.). Within the tight confines of a black-box house, set designer Claire Deliso conjures the crude workshop wherein Russell’s Attius is insulted, bullied and oddly courted by an alcoholic White overseer, embodied with persuasive creepiness by Christopher Halladay.

The presence of August Wilson, creator of interval performs similar to “The Piano Lesson,” could be felt within the rhythms of Anthony’s story. (It occurs that earlier than his demise in 2005, Wilson contemplated his own play about coffin makers.) That sense is confirmed within the wealthy portraits of Attius and the opposite inmates — Effie and Madeline, portrayed by the superb CG and Lenique Vincent — who’ve been dedicated to this merciless establishment for something however their very own good. As a plot unfolds across the alternative confronting Attius — opening up his battered coronary heart and aiding a toddler in dire straits — Anthony deftly explores the highly effective emotionality behind the character’s masks of resigned distress. (We additionally suspect all alongside that by play’s finish, that accomplished coffin onstage is not going to go unfilled.)

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“Sheepdog” fast-forwards us to distressed American present occasions, as an interracial love affair unravels between Cleveland cops (the terrific Sarah Ellen Stephens and Doug Harris). Harris’s Ryan is gutted by his personal actions, as a White police officer who has fatally shot a Black man throughout a site visitors cease. However sympathy eludes his romantic associate, Stephens’s Amina, after she discovers that the proof doesn’t match Ryan’s model of the incident.

Artigue, the playwright, plausibly invokes the blue wall that at the beginning discourages Amina from doubting Ryan’s account. Stephens, in director Melissa Crespo’s taut staging, is completely convincing because the drama’s ethical linchpin, ultimately seeing that Ryan’s racism is an unendurable reflex. At 90 minutes, the play proves an absorbing sit.

Ninety minutes can be what Lesniewski allots for “The Fifth Area,” nevertheless it’s simply not sufficient time to execute the dramatist’s intricate state of affairs. The play is a our on-line world thriller with some nifty twists, all of which tumble out on the competition’s Frank Middle, its largest theater, in expositional shorthand; it performs as if it’s a remedy for a six-part collection on Hulu. Troy (Dylan Kammerer) is a renegade former IT professional for the Nationwide Safety Company, who goals to show the infiltration holes within the nation’s laptop networks.

Brevity is usually, however not at all times, a advantage. A play wants to seek out the right quantity of respiratory room. A cybergeek (Alexandra Palting), an NSA operative (Kathryn Tkel) and a shadowy determine who seems on park benches (Aby Moongamackel) all determine within the proceedings. However by the point they (with director Kareem Fahmy’s steerage) plant their ft within the story, we’re hopping on to the subsequent narrative pivot. The colourful visible graphics by Max Wallace are useful, and the actors appear well-acquainted with a narrative meant to maintain us guessing. Nonetheless, all of the technical language and a play-ending system that’s inadequately labored out imply that much more authorial elucidation is so as.

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“Babel” and “Whitelisted” really feel underdeveloped and one-dimensional. Neither is within the form of form to completely maintain an viewers — although Carlo Alban is entertaining as an inordinately affected person installer of safety techniques within the uneven “Whitelisted.” He agrees for some motive to remain in a single day on the couch of Rebecca (Kate MacCluggage), an disagreeable designer of high-end dollhouses who evinces not an oz. of sympathy for the gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn she’s purchased into. If anybody deserves to be stricken by vengeful spirits, it appears, she does.

Svich, the creator of “Ushuaia Blue,” has a bit extra success, courtesy of the lyricism wherein she envelops her story of the disaster befalling a scientist, Jordan (John Keabler), and videographer, Sara (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), on a visit to Antarctica. The ravages of local weather change will likely be a subject different dramatists are going to grapple with within the coming years. Right here, Svich, with assistance from director Jessi D. Hill, provides us a style of the bodily toll and the conflict of cultural views that environmental upheaval can engender.

On Jesse Dreikosen’s set within the Marinoff Theater, bedecked with glowing glaciers and furnishings embedded in ice, Sara navigates the frozen panorama to document interviews with an Indigenous resident (Amelia Rico) of an island off the southernmost coast of Argentina. Rico’s Pepa just isn’t as alarmed because the Individuals are in regards to the ecological havoc to return. Possibly, she says, humankind will merely disappear and the polar area might be coated in forests. It’s a contrarian longer view of the cycle of life that Svich is illuminating — the kind that theater can examine, because it ponders a hazardous future not simply virtually, but additionally in poetically philosophical phrases.

Modern American Theater Pageant Via July 31 at Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W.Va. catf.org.

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