SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 14, 2019 — A few seasons ago, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) moved its more intimate and experimental dramas out of a small black-box space in the middle of Shepherd University’s growing campus. They moved these plays to a new venue called Studio 112. It’s a modestly sized, all-purpose room in one of the new buildings housing the university’s increasingly substantial arts complex. Since that move, for some reason, CATF productions staged in Studio 112 have consistently mounted the most innovative and intellectually intriguing productions each season. And this year’s offerings – Antonio’s Song and Chester Bailey – strongly continue in this tradition.
Both these intimate, compact Studio 112 productions boast complex, well-realized characters battling with (and against) intensely powerful human emotions.
Antonio’s Song, subtitled I Was Dreaming of a Son, is a collaborative effort of Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez. Based on key episodes of Suarez’ life, this intensely personal, autobiographical one act, one-man tour-de-force is seasoned with touches of poetry, music and dance art, ultimately offering a cautiously hopeful outlook on life.
Antonio’s Song: Life and fatherhood as a work of art
Antonio’s Song operates on essentially two levels. The first and most obvious follows Antonio’s life from his tough, love-starved and sometimes brutal childhood through his tempestuous adolescence. Devoid of much, if any, meaningful parental nurturing and guidance, he somehow manages to right his trajectory by following his natural inclinations into the worlds of academia and the performing arts.
Mostly unfolding in a linear fashion, this story line occasionally relies on flashbacks and epiphanies to help both Antonio – and the audience – fill in some of the blanks and connect the dots.
Antonio as “mental traveller”
But on a second level, Antonio, like so many of us, finds himself in the role of what Blake called a “mental traveller.” And in his travels, he grapples with a very real human problem that it’s increasingly fashionable to disdain – particularly in radical feminist circles: the problem of fatherhood. Or the contemporary lack thereof.
Antonio loves his young son, seemingly more than life itself. And, like all good fathers, he wants the best for his son, grounded in the kind of caring upbringing that Antonio never had. But the modern disconnect between biological and actual fatherhood hits Antonio like a lightning bolt when, in a moment of anger and frustration, he strikes out at his terrified son, much as his own parents – particularly his distant yet highly critical and bitter mother – would have struck out at Antonio himself.
Drawing back in horror and remorse, Antonio once again re-examines his life trajectory, the better to learn what he never learned from his own parents. Namely, the lessons of love, nurturing and parental guidance, elements he’d sorely lacked in his own life. In poetry, dance and occasional song, he explores the both the gift and the perils of fatherhood and vows to improve on the model he inherited.
A gripping and challenging 90 minutes
The ninety or so minutes of Antonio’s Song fly by with astonishing speed. Such introspective, one-person shows have a tendency to become tedious and self-important. But this one-man drama steps out of itself and into the teeming chaos of humanity in a modern world where simple family love and basic humanity seem incomprehensibly out-of-fashion.
It matters little whether audience members come from the inner city themselves or from other diverse walks of life. They’re still drawn in to the problems many share with Antonio. And so, they identify strongly with him, enabling them to follow his journey with uncommon empathy and understanding. And perhaps understand themselves a little better as well.
Credit where credit is due
Antonio Suarez’ energetic and multi-faceted performance is more than enough to transform what could have been a static, narcissistic closet drama into a riveting, contemporary experience. A hat tip as well to his collaborator Dael Oleandersmith. Clearly, she was instrumental in helping to shape and focus Antonio’s story and parallel inner journey.
The production is deftly directed by Mark Clements. He takes great care in blending this work’s considerable number of virtual scenes into a seamless whole. John Ambrosone’s deft lighting design and Jared Mezzocchi’s vivid, almost kaleidoscopic stage projections of urban landscape accent the story line almost in the way the orchestral undercurrent anchors and gives inner meaning to an operatic aria.
This is a simultaneously edgy yet beautiful production. And it’s a classic example of the magic that almost routinely unfolds in Studio 112.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
– Headline image: Antonio Edwards Suarez in Dael Orlandesrsmith and Antonio Edward Suarez’s Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a son. Photo credit: Seth Freeman, courtesy CATF.
Getting tickets and getting there:
Check out our CATF 2019 preview here. We’ll have lots more on each play as the week progresses. Meanwhile, if you have interest in exploring and/or attending what CATF 2019 has to offer, our best advice? Head straight for the festival’s website, CATF online: www.CATF.org. Purchase tickets or full ticket packages right on the site. Or call the CATF box office at 800.999.CATF (2283).
Additionally, this site also lists dining a wide array of dining options. These are considerable, given the small size of this town. Additional information includes places to stay in and around Shepherdstown, located in the Eastern Panhandle of Wild, Wonderful West Virginia. Whether you’re a D.C. area local or coming in from out of town, check out directions for getting there.