Summer Season: Contemporary American Theater Festival

Summer Season: Contemporary American Theater Festival

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World premiere productions dominate the 2015 edition of this venerable West Virginia theater festival, located not far from DC’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

Marinoff Theater.
Shepherd University's Marinoff Theater at night. (Photo courtesy of architects Holzman, Moss, Bottino)

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., April 5, 2015 – When it comes to presenting brand new or nearly-new theatrical productions to the extended D.C. Metropolitan area, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in (relatively) nearby Shepherdstown, W.Va., is right up there with the District’s renowned Arena Stage.

Read also: Incoming: Performing arts Summer Season announcements

This year’s four-week summer season gets underway on July 10 with five productions running in repertory in performing arts facilities on the campus of Shepherd University, which is on the Potomac River bluffs that separate Shepherdstown from Maryland on the other side. These facilities include the older Frank Center stage and two additional performance venues—the impressive new Marinoff Theater and a smaller, all-purpose space—inside the second of the eventual three-building Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA) complex nearby.

Here’s a brief synopsis of what’s on tap this summer in Shepherdstown:

World Builders, by Johnna Adams

Artwork for "World Builders."This world premiere production is described on CATF’s website as “a love story.” But if that’s the case, it’s not one that most of us might be familiar with. Our two central characters, Max and Whitney, are schizophrenics and spend most of their time living in imaginary places that don’t resemble ours. It turns out that they’re also patients of an institution that’s conducting clinical trials of a promising new drug that might help bring them back to Planet Earth, a cure that might make them “normal.” Just like the rest of us.

Max and Whitney take part in the clinical trials and, as the experimental drug takes place, they begin to fall in love. Problem is, is their newfound love really real? Or is it happening in the fantasy worlds that both of them may be leaving behind?

Playwright Johnna Adams’ work has been featured before at CATF. Her play “Gidion’s Knot,” performed here in 2012, received a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association Citation the following year. Flux Theatre Ensemble (New York) produced her play Sans Merci in 2013, and it was nominated for a New York Innovative Theatre Award for best play.

World Builders will be staged in Studio 112, Center for Contemporary Arts I, 92 West Campus Drive.

Running time: 90 minutes

Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan

Artwork for "Everything You Touch."Characterized as a “dark comedy” by CATF, this play takes a look at the not-always-glamorous world of high fashion. The action focuses on the life and times of Victor, described in CATF’s online synopsis of this play as “a ruthless 1970s fashion designer and a devotee of the ‘beauty-is-pain’ aesthetic.”

We also meet Esme, his gorgeous significant other who, like many significant others, also serves as Victor’s “muse.” Unfortunately, like many a muse, Esme soon finds herself shunted aside by the apparently unexceptional Louella, a transplant from flyover country bearing a new idea for Victor that might help this touchy fashion artiste to make considerably more money without tarnishing his brand.

Making things a bit more complicated—as if a love triangle isn’t complicated enough—we also do a bit of time-traveling into the future to meet Jess, another fashionista both compelled and repelled by what it takes to make it in the biz. To find out how it all turns out, we’ll need to jump in Sheila Callaghan’s time machine and ride along with her fashionable characters.

Having already penned a number of plays, Callaghan was profiled by Marie Claire as one of “18 Successful Women Who Are Changing the World” and was also cited by Variety in 2010 as one of that magazine’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch.”

According to CATF, “‘Everything You Touch’ is an original work commissioned by True LoveProductions. World Premiere produced in Pasadena California April 2014 by The Theater@Boston Court with Rattlestick Playwright’s Theater.”

Everything You Touch will be presented at the Frank Center Theater, 260 University Drive. This one is designated as being “for mature audiences only,” due to language and partial nudity.

Running time: 120 minutes

On Clover Road, by Steven Dietz

Artwork for "On Clover Road."Unfolding in an abandoned motel in the middle of nowhere where a lonely mother hopes to be reunited with her runaway daughter, this thriller is a world premiere production. The unpleasant PI she’s hired to track her daughter down adds an element of fear to her waiting game, one that involves the audience as well. What’s really going on here? Since this is CATF, neither mom nor the audience can expect a standard happy ending to this one.

Having been produced at CATF in 1996 (“The Nina Variations”) and again in 2008 (“Yankee Tavern”) Steven Dietz has seen his plays staged in New York, Japan and around the world, including regional theaters in the U.S. His play “Last of the Boys” was nominated for a Pulitzer.

On Clover Road will unfold at the Frank Center Theater, 260 University Drive.

Running time: 120 minutes

We are Pussy Riot, by Barbara Hammond

If reports are to be believed, the Russian people simply adore their current president-for-life and savior of the Ukraine, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. But performing artists? Maybe not so much. At least the ones who choose to dissent from the path being taken by Russia’s ruling thug-ocracy. Now that we’ve set the table, let’s let CATF’s PR staff take things over from here:

Artwork for "We Are Pussy Riot."“In February 2012, five young women walked into the Church of Christ the Savior in the center of Moscow and offered up a punk prayer to the Mother of God—‘Virgin Mary, Chase Putin Away!’ The young activists, who call themselves Pussy Riot, played and shouted for exactly 48 seconds before being dragged out of the church by security guards and sent home. That night they uploaded a video of their performance to YouTube, and within hours became enemies of both Church and State. The girls were arrested, tried, and sent to labor camps for hooliganism and inciting religious hatred. But unlike dissidents from Soviet times, the Western media machine took hold of the story and turned Pussy Riot into the greatest piece of performance art in Russian history. This is their story.”

We’re not quite sure where Barbara Hammond has chosen to conclude her version of this surreal real life story. Last time we checked, under pressure from numerous groups and individuals in the West, the members of Pussy Riot had been released from jail by Soviet Russian authorities, but have been assaulted at least twice by shadowy groups of thugs whose identities remain a mystery, at least to the Russian press. Today, citizens in Western countries continue to support members of the band, while, allegedly, the Russian people don’t think that much of them. By comparison, maybe artistic freedom in the U.S. isn’t so bad after all.

At any rate, we’d hazard a guess that Barbara Hammond’s world premiere play is likely to unfold as a cautionary tale demonstrating that individual freedom is not only hard to get but also even harder to keep.

According to CATF, “Ms. Hammond is a New Dramatists resident playwright (Class of 2018) and currently under commission from both the Royal Court Theatre and the Contemporary American Theater Festival.”

We are Pussy Riot will be staged at the Marinoff Theater, Center for Contemporary Arts II, 62 West Campus Drive.

Note: As one might glean from the title of this play, this drama contains graphic language and is recommended for mature audiences only.

Running time: 100 minutes

The Full Catastrophe, by Michael Weller

Artwork for "The Full Catastrophe"This world premiere comedy involves the misadventures of a respected but obscure linguist named Dr. Jeremy Cook. As we might expect in today’s post-Great Recession economy, Dr. Cook, given his area of expertise, seems to be permanently in a personal slough of despond, trying to make it through life without money and without a real job.

But salvation may be at hand when he’s offered funding for a social experiment requiring him to live with a married couple as their “relationship counselor.” It’s problem enough that the hapless Dr. Cook doesn’t exactly have his own life in order. Making matters worse, he’s dropping into a marriage that’s already well-ensconced in the dysfunctional realm.

Clearly, no good can come of this arrangement. On the other hand, this disaster-waiting-to-happen will likely generate its fair share of laughs for the audience.

Michael Weller has already written a number of successful plays, as well as doing screenwriting duties for films including “Hair,” “Ragtime” and “Lost Angels.” He’s also written the book for the musical “Dr. Zhivago.” Based on Russian writer Boris Pasternak’s epic novel, the new musical is now in previews on Broadway at the Broadway Theatre.

The Full Catastrophe is being mounted at the Marinoff Theater, Center for Contemporary Arts/II, 62 West Campus Drive.

Running time: 90 minutes

The 2015 edition of the Contemporary American Theater Festival begins on July 10 and concludes on Aug. 2. For complete information and directions and to purchase tickets to this summer’s festival, visit CATF’s website here.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17