26th Contemporary American Theater Festival starts this week

26th Contemporary American Theater Festival starts this week

CATF, an increasingly prominent summer theater festival near Washington, D.C. launches its summer slate of new and nearly-new American plays this weekend.

Entrance to Shepherd University's Contemporary Arts complex, home to CATF.
Entrance to Shepherd University's Contemporary Arts complex, home to CATF. (Via Wikipedia)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 4, 2016 – We’ve been reviewing plays at the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) for some 15 years now, and we can tell you this: CATF’s yearly roster of brand new and nearly-new American plays is always a surprise, which is something you might expect when you attend five dramas that pretty much no one has ever seen before.

Like any performing arts festival that features only new material, your mileage may vary. We’ve seen some plays we’ve absolutely loved, some that have tempted us to yell “Send me rewrite!” and, alas, a select few that we’ve actively hated.

Yet this is part of the fun of getting a ringside seat to watch what’s happening today in the world of American drama. Not every new play can be a winner, of course, but you generally know a special play right away when you see it, as the theatrical magic we all crave actually unfolds before our eyes.

CATF: List of 2016 plays.
CATF: List of 2016 plays.

Each year’s roster of playwrights runs the gamut, from the unknown to the relatively known to some really big theatrical names. Better yet, all plays are equity productions starring veteran actors, some of whom we’ve all seen on TV or on stage in DC, New York and elsewhere.

Over the years, each selection of new CATF plays—now five per season—tends to run the gamut, ranging from comedy to tragedy, to sci-fi speculation and allegory to the outright political.

But over the increasingly long life of this festival, CATF’s godfather, Ed Herendeen—who usually directs one or two of each year’s plays as well—has developed an uncanny knack for finding dramas that will have patrons actively laughing, arguing or debating their relative merits well into the night.

Happily, that’s something that’s easily accomplished in this small, Georgetown-like college town where a surprising number of excellent restaurants and watering holes overflow with animated theater-goers from breakfast to closing time.

The 26th annual CATF launches this weekend in three venues on the campus of Shepherd University, including the wonderful and still nearly-new Marinoff Theater located in the university’s impressive and still growing performing arts complex just across the Potomac River from Maryland.

We’ll be traveling to Shepherdstown Friday to catch all five premier performances over the weekend and, starting Monday, we’ll offer you our views on all of them.

The following offers a brief synopsis of what’s on tap at this year’s festival, which, as always, runs in rep for roughly a month following opening weekend. Since we haven’t seen any of the plays ourselves, of course, we’ll be relying to a great extent here on the synopses we’ve received from CATF’s always helpful and gracious PR team.

After our five descriptive sketches, we’ll conclude with info and links you’ll find useful if you decide to attend. Hint to drama fans who’ve never attended this festival—it’s a delightful and provocative way to spend a few summer days away from the city, so consider taking a chance. You might end up being another CATF regular.

I’ll follow each description/synopsis with my own purely speculative comments as a way of indicating what I might be looking for in each play.

CATF’s new plays for 2016:

“pen/man/ship.” A new play by Christina Anderson. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien. Marinoff Theater.

Described as “A Maritime Quest for Truth,” Anderson’s new play charts the shipboard journey of a father and “his troubled son, a rebellious young woman, and a skeptical crew”— skeptical, we suppose, because dad is leading this expedition to Africa without providing anyone with much in the way of detail.

CATF’s release explains that while the expedition is out on “the open sea, an unexpected detour resurrects family secrets and reveals true intentions, fundamentally changing the course of the journey—and their lives… a telling parable about violence, betrayal, faith, and freedom….”

Comment: Sounds intriguing and potentially very appealing to this reviewer who once, back in the day, worked as a merchant mariner himself. The way things are going these days in the world, I’ve often been tempted to sign up and head back out on a merchant ship and leave the whole mess behind for parts unknown. Sea voyages work that way sometimes. This weekend, we’ll see how Ms. Anderson’s vision works out.

“Not Medea.” A “rolling world premiere” play by Allison Gregory. Directed by Courtney Sale. Studio 112.

CATF describes this one as “an explosive take on love and motherhood.” We’ve learned from experience that this description might be literally true!

In this case, we’re likely looking at what we might call a “problem comedy.” CATF describes it this way:

“A working mother escapes to the sanctuary of the theater and encounters a play she desperately doesn’t want to watch, so she hijacks the show—and the audience—leading them through her own very personal story. A synthesis of myth/magic/real world, NOT MEDEA is a funny and fierce slap-down about love, lust, motherhood, and forgiveness. And something else entirely.”

Comment: Hmm. It’s that “something else entirely” part that’s got me edgy. Plus the title. The real Medea wasn’t exactly a Gold Star Mom.

In recent years, CATF has been presenting one of its plays in “Studio 112,” which is essentially a high-ceilinged classroom in the performing arts complex that’s outfitted with seats and theatrical trappings for each year’s festival.

While that may not sound promising, the plays produced in this space have ranged from the out-of-the-ordinary to the extraordinary and often prove “best of breed” in each festival. It’s all potluck, of course, but I’ll be expecting to find something I don’t expect in this one. It looks a bit like theater of the absurd on one level, but you never know. If the buzz builds for this one after opening weekend, it will be tough to get tickets.

“The Wedding Gift.” A world premiere play by Chisa Hutchinson. Directed by May Adrales. Frank Center Stage.

Let’s let CATF tell us a bit about this one, which is being billed as “a stunning spectacle of comedy and drama.”

“Doug is an average guy with an average life. Until, that is, he finds himself at a wedding, not as a guest…but as a gift. Surrounded by those that speak a language he’s never heard, Doug realizes he’s little more than a pet. And when the bride grows dangerously fond of him, the prospect of returning home becomes even more remote.”

Comment: A Mr. Spock eyebrow raise. CATF goes on to explain that Ms. Hutchinson’s “provocative and uproariously funny new play asks: What does it mean to be the only ‘outsider’ in a community? How does it feel to be the ‘other?’”

Will this be funny-funny? Guilty funny? Micro-aggressive nervous funny? You never know. Contemporary plays with an allegorical element can tend to tell, not show. The best ones avoid preaching and explaining. On a personal note, as America’s only libertarian performing arts critic, I’ve been an “outsider” for some 30 years now and have kind of enjoyed it. It should be interesting to see how Doug deals with his newfound and unaccustomed status as a novelty in this situation.

“20th Century Blues.” A world premiere play by Susan Miller. Directed by Ed Herendeen. Frank Center Stage.

Described as a comedy that involves an “evocative exploration of time,” the CATF press release tells us that this play follows “four women [who] bond and become one another’s timetable of history. Through the vagaries of love, careers, children, lost causes and tragedy, the women reunite once a year for a photo shoot, chronicling their changing (and aging) selves. But, when these private photographs have the potential to become part of a public exhibit, mutiny erupts and relationships are tested.”

Comment: Given the ubiquitous presence of Twitter, Facebook and the overall disruption of our once-accustomed privacy, this play seems to be revolving around an interesting premise. Namely, that if you’ve shared deeply personal stuff with close friends over time, would you be prepared to suddenly “open the kimono” to the world’s prying eyes? That might not quite be what Ms. Miller is actually exploring, but her play might be a fine opportunity to explore what’s been happening to privacy and intimacy in the 21st century.

“The Second Girl.” A new play by Ronan Noone. Directed by Ed Herendeen. Marinoff Theater.

“The Second Girl” is described as “a lyrical, wrenching, and caustically funny play” set roughly in the 1912 timeframe in a family’s summer home. “Noone’s characters—two Irish immigrant servant girls and a chauffeur—struggle with denial, personal responsibility, and failure, while searching for love, belonging, and a sense of what it really means to call some place ‘home.’”

Comment: Advance material hints that the spirit of Eugene O’Neill might be somehow hovering in the background of this one, which sounds like it could be funny but volatile. The material’s “Irishness” also indicates we might be in for a lot of talk, albeit interesting, witty and sometimes acidic talk. Irish native Ronan Noone currently lives and teaches in the U.S. Given his background nationality and the synopsis of this play, I’d observe that contemporary Irish drama long ago dispensed with Yeats’ Celtic Twilight. Even modern Irish comedies today can prove to be a rough and gritty ride while still remaining quite hilarious, at least at times. We should probably expect the unexpected with this one.

Details for CATF 2016:

When: As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 officially opens this Friday and wraps on July 31, 2016. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.

Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while tickets may still be available for opening weekend performances, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article.

If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.

Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.

Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.

If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.

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