SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. If it’s July, it must be time for CATF 2019. It’s hard to believe. But Ed Herendeen, the Founder and Producing Director of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) – located in this picturesque colonial-era town on the Potomac River – first arrived here in 1991. He joined the faculty of Shepherd University and immediately set to work creating a modest annual theater festival. Uniquely, he devoted the new festival to showcasing new and nearly new American plays. Now, nearly 30 years later, this once nearly unknown theater fest, still staged right here every July, has grown into a major American theater event.
Like its most recent predecessors, CATF 2019 offers a full slate of 6 new and often risky contemporary plays that run the gamut of emotions. Even better, the festival has grown to such a size that Shepherd University, CATF’s home base, has added two new performing arts buildings – one housing a large theater-in-the-round to help support its growth.
CATF has long attracted large audiences of theater-lovers from the metro DC area – roughly a 2 hour drive from Shepherdstown, depending on where you live. But, according to a recent CATF 2019 release, it’s now attracting patrons annually from a total of 38 states and the District and from Canada and Europe as well.
Why do they come? Well, it’s new theater, something you don’t always get a chance to see on the ground level. As with new music, new musicals and new operas, some new works become hits. Some are okay and might even become popular in America’s amazingly active community theater scene. And others, alas, will disappear forever, like the music of composers writing in Beethoven’s time.
Discovering the new and different in live American theater
But that’s the fun of getting in on the ground floor. It’s potluck entertainment. It’s not like seeing Hamlet for the 20th time. You’re never quite sure whether you’ll like what you see. But you often discovermore excitement and originality in this kind of drama than audiences find at their umpteenth performance of Cyrano.
While a festival like this can be hit-or-miss, Ed Herendeen has had an enviable track record over the years of presiding over far more hits than misses. And that’s why festival fans keep coming back for more every year.
This year’s festival, as usual, runs the gamut, perhaps even more than usual. 2019 The half-dozen new plays on the CATF 2019 bill of fare, performed in repertory here through July 28, 2019, embrace comedy, tragedy and, well, weirdness. Each year’s program tends toward some kind of theme, and the theme this year seems to focus on the American social construct, ranging from the personal, to family and friends and extending into the political arena.
Bottom line: CATF 2019, opened this past weekend, and we attended all six plays. We’ll be posting our reviews of this year’s offerings throughout the course of this week. But for starters, if we’ve piqued your interest in this year’s festival, here are brief rundowns on what you’ll find on stage this month in Shepherdstown, listed in no particular order. Our synopses incorporate useful bits from CATF’s website descriptions.
My Lord, What a Night
By Deborah Brevoort. World Premiere performance directed by Ed Herendeen.
To some, the plot of this socio-political / musical drama may seem strange, but the 2-part story is essentially true.
“In 1937, after performing a sold-out concert in Princeton, NJ, internationally renowned singer Marian Anderson was refused a room at the whites-only Nassau Inn.” Seeing she had nowhere else to go, Albert Einstein, now a member of the Princeton U faculty, graciously invited her to stay in his home, “beginning an intimate friendship between two icons that lasts a lifetime.”
In a way, this event foreshadowed a more famous one. Namely, Anderson’s electrifying 1939 concert held at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. after she was refused performance space in DAR Constitution Hall. Each of the play’s two acts is devoted to these events.
This CATF 2019 World Premiere performance of Brevoort’s play is being “produced at the Contemporary American Theater Festival as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. Other partnering theaters are Orlando Shakespeare Theater and Florida Studio Theatre.”
By Greg Kalleres. World Premiere performance directed By Shelley Butler.
“John and Victoria just had a hit and run with a deer. Or wait, was it a dog? Yes, it was definitely a dog. Right? Or, what if… As the perfect couple that’s always on the same page, they must now agree on exactly what happened in order to move on. But, when unexpected guests arrive, John and Victoria suddenly can’t seem to remember things the same way. Now they must decide what’s worse: a horrible truth or the terror of experiencing that truth alone.”
But making things worse, of course, their visitors bring their own personal issues into the mix. Mostly a comedy, but sometimes disconcerting, this play keeps you guessing until the end.
Antonio’s Song / I Was Dreaming Of A Son
By Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez.World Premiere one-man drama directed by Mark Clements.Movement Direction and Choreography by Alexandra Beller.
Here’s how the CATF 2019 site describes this one.
“A poetic journey of a dancer/artist/father questioning the balance of his passions — art, culture family. A story that questions/challenges the legacy of stereotypes: of manhood/race/fatherhood. This solo/movement drama explores the sins of our fathers and mothers — as well as the gifts that our parents bestow upon us. How do we own the responsibility — TO RECOGNIZE? TO BE AWARE? Antonio Edwards Suarez, a breathtaking performer shares the legacy with pain, promise, and hope.”
Our early take: Normally, this kind of “solo / movement drama” is not our cup of reviewing tea. But this one broke the mold. And in a most unexpected way. Unlike so many jaded critics, we’ve generally been delighted when our initial negative expectations are proven wrong. You have to respect productions that do that.
A Welcome Guest: A Psychotic Fairy Tale
By Michael Weller. World Premiere drama, directed By Ed Herendeen.
Definitely the weirdest drama in this year’s festival, and in many ways, a disconcerting metaphor for our current times. We meet an almost intentionally down-and-out family of itinerant musical Christian missionaries – more or less – that’s holed up in what seems to be a decaying, long abandoned factory. With the formal approval of the local government, or so it seems. But then, the government insists that the family provide some of their space to another apparently homeless individual who, it appears, also seems to be entirely off his rocker.
But then the weirdness starts as this new “guest” gradually usurps more and more of the family’s virtual homestead, apparently with the complicity of the government.
What we end up with is a strange multi-level satire, with one of those layers focused on today’s real-life battle between the elites and, dare we say it, The Deplorables.
By Joseph Dougherty. Directed By Ron Lagomarsino.
“Chester Bailey’s imagination is a matter of life and death — it’s the one thing sustaining him as he recovers from a crippling assault. Set in a Long Island hospital in 1945, Chester denies the extent of his injuries as Dr. Phillip Cotton struggles to heal his unusual patient. Joseph Dougherty skillfully examines the enduring power of the human mind when it is faced with seemingly insurmountable horror.”
Initial observation. This play, like Antonio’s Song, is staged in the new arts center’s “Room 112.” That’s the all-purpose space that CATF turns into a sort of black box theater space every year. Recent tradition devotes this space to smaller plays that, in many ways, unfold on the edge of reality. A case in point was Uncanny Valley, a play presented years ago that pioneered some necessary artistic introspection on where artificial intelligence (AI) might be taking us. Too fast.
Meaning that we often discover that “Room 112” plays have a strange way of generating the most buzz during each year’s festival. This play is likely one of them. “Think Theater” is almost a cliché at CATF. Except when you see plays in “Room 112.” Twilight Zone, anyone?
Support Group For Men
By Ellen Fairey. Directed By Courtney Sale.
“Every Thursday is Guys’ Night for a group of pals who gather to vent about stalled careers, dashed romances, and other middle-aged struggles. When an unexpected visitor crashes the party, their notions of what it means to be a man in America get rudely inverted. A hilarious exploration of what happens when society’s new normal, doesn’t seem so normal anymore. Ellen Fairey compassionately dissects the ever-changing role of gender in today’s culture. In so doing, she proves that understanding is sometimes found in the least likely of places.”
Our mini-take: As with Antonio, we prepared for a terrible triggering experience. After all, isn’t a female playwright penning a play about an unsecure group of everyday 2019 guys guilty of cultural appropriation? Isn’t that politically incorrect? Doesn’t this somehow violate Title IX? Hmmm?
Fortunately, in this comic dissection of what it takes to survive as a modern dude in America, Ellen Fairey clearly recorded extraordinarily insightful notes on what makes real American guys tick. The result? A pleasant – and very funny – surprise. Another fine example of how CATF 2019 can turn negative expectations upside down.
Getting tickets and getting there:
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.
– Headline image: Shepherd University’s Marinoff Theater at night. One of the venues for this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, aka CATF 2019. (Photo courtesy of architects Holzman, Moss, Bottino)