WASHINGTON, August 12, 2019 — Time for a quick CATF 2019 Recap. Looking back on the latest summer season of the long-running Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, one thing stands out. CATF 2019 offered its audiences one outstanding extravaganza of intriguingly new and nearly-new plays.
In short, the CATF 2019 box score gives us two plays that fell a bit short of the mark and four plays that proved outstanding, each in its own unique way. That would give the series a roughly .667 batting average if theater seasons were Major League Baseball.
Better yet, even the pair of problem plays were in many ways much better than average.
With only one exception, CATF 2019’s selections primarily focused on the lives, adventures and misadventures of average Americans living mostly between the coasts. The significant exception to the rule, Deborah Brevoort’s timely My Lord, What a Night, was an historical drama that reclaimed a significant but largely forgotten event that helped to slowly turn the tide in America’s reluctant embrace of civil rights for all.
Having reflected on this successful season, which wrapped up at the tail end of July, here are my final thoughts on the plays. I.e., my CATF 2019 Recap.
Category: Needs work.
This category of our CATF 2019 Recap includes a pair of plays that strive to make some big and important statements, but get waylaid on their journeys.
A Welcome Guest. (A Psychotic Fairy Tale). By Michael Weller.
Probably the most ambitious undertaking of this year’s CATF, Weller’s new play reached for all the right socio-political buttons but only pressed some of them. In my earlier review, I noted the fact that while the playwright was attempting to set the play in a surrealist situation, it looked a little more like Dada to me.
Welcome Guest embraces a central, futuristic, dystopian focus centered on a (probably) Deporable portmanteau family living like street people under a capricious and autocratic government. The latter unilaterally decides to give an apparently deranged whack job a piece of the family’s pitiful slice of place. In turn, he slowly but relentlessly begins to encroach on all of the space. In the process, he becomes more “sane” and even more diabolical.
Weller is actually exploring the parameters of a 21stcentury that’s subordinated itself to its elitist, intellectual betters who, in turn, are very likely under the control of a new and more sinister class of industrial and post-industrial robber barons. His surrealist-Dadaist plot line exemplifies the dramatic result. But utter confusion, however, is what the audience got.
Quite a few people exited the theater during this play’s opening night halftime break. They weren’t very happy about what they’d seen, and weren’t afraid to complain, often in great detail, right down to their colorful metaphors. It’s too bad, and always sad, particularly on opening night. Mainly because Weller is actually onto something here. But for whatever the reason, what that something is got lost in what we saw on stage.
My Lord, What a Night. By Deborah Brevoort.
My comment above and my earlier review pretty much sum up my attitude on this play. Although I’ve categorized it here, along with Welcome Guest, as “Needs Work,” this play needs far less work than Guest.
The main problem with this drama, as it often is in contemporary historical plays and movie biopics, lies in its often stilted, self-important dialogue. I have no idea as to whether at least some of this dialogue is derived from actual historical documents. But throughout the play, the characters tend to speak almost as if they’re snapping verbal selfies, self-consciously defining themselves for their eventual guaranteed place in history.
Don’t get me wrong. The situations in this play are very strongly rooted in history, and Brevoort has done her homework. But perhaps her powerful attraction to her play’s central characters – Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein – caused her to paint them both as secular saints and not the complex human beings they actually were.
This, plus a single, anti-Trump line the playwright claims was not intended as such, are what cause problems for this otherwise snazzy and welcome meditation on a bizarre yet inspiring moment in late Depression Era US history. The line in question suddenly breaks the mood the playwright has carefully set. But that’s just a one-off in the end. It’s the often stiff language that tends to make the play seem longer than it is.
Happily, a little more informality in speech, less self-importance among the characters, and a simple snip of the offending line could transform this play into a popular and constructive choice for producers searching for an instructive meditation on America’s evolving racial history. One that promotes healing rather than hatred.
Category: Brain Food
Next in our CATF 2019 Recap, we check out a pair of one-act plays that went deep and emerged as powerful successes.
Antonio’s Song. (I Was Dreaming of a Son). By Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez.
Antonio’s Song breaks the mold for autobiographical one-man shows. One reason: the solo actor in this CATF production is also one-half of the playwriting team that created it. He also happens to be the play’s protagonist.
In that role, he reminisces – in speech, poetry, song and dance – on his own uncertain, often tragic, but ultimately successful journey up from poverty and failure.
Antonio surmounts all obstacles to achieve academic and artistic success. But he regards guiding a successful and loving family as even more important. And that’s what gives this deeply personal play such an unusual and endearing twist.
Suarez’ expressive performance is verbally and visually intense. His dialogue – with the help of his collaborator – is believably genuine and on target, tracking closely with this one-act play’s central themes. And this play’s overwhelming authenticity can win even the most skeptical audience member over.
The centrality of family and the necessity of a caring father, particularly in the raising of a young son, proved a welcome surprise. We live in a time in American history when the value of fathers, husbands and men in general is continuously questioned, mocked, dismissed and targeted for hatred. But Antonio has learned the hard way what the absence of a real father really means. And despite the odds, he vows to prevail. This is real nobility, real virtue, not the hollow virtue-signaling we see among politicians and among the media.
Antonio’s Song acknowledges the difficulty of being a man in 21st century America. But the play’s story arc, based on Antonio’s real-life experience, also affirms the value of positive thinking and hard work in the drive toward success. And it serves as well as an important success model for America’s latest arrivals.
Chester Bailey. By Joseph Dougherty.
This quiet, understated one-act play, set in the historical near-past, offers a slice of the unexplored life in which optimism and pure imagination arise to ultimately conquer personal and permanent disaster.
Set near the end of the Second World War, this drama’s eponymous central character is a young man who manages to evade military service, though not of his own volition. Instead of getting drafted and shipped overseas, he ends up with a decent, paying job in a munitions factory. But that’s courtesy of his meddling parents. They don’t want to see him go abroad and get killed like so many of their neighbors’ – and America’s – sons.
Ironically, Chester soon is horribly mangled in an explosive industrial accident. He ends up in arguably worse physical shape than many of his generation who returned from the battlefield. The remainder of the play is devoted to the interplay between Chester and his conflicted therapist, Dr. Cotton. And that’s where things get interesting.
Having lost his sight and both hands among other serious injuries, Chester persistently hallucinates a normal life. For this, the system rewards him by keeping him warehoused forever in an apparently government-sponsored, post-war psychiatric facility where he eventually comes under Dr. Cotton’s care.
The interplay between these characters – the supposed but melancholy realist, Dr. Cotton and the unsophisticated fabulist, Chester Bailey – unfolds like an extended reverie. We see how two disparate characters both rely on the value of their imaginations to make life seem better. This thoughtful, tragic, yet redemptive little play left our audience arguing and thinking (in a good way) long after departing from the theater.
Category: Humor, Satire and Contemporary Craziness
CATF has an uncanny knack for exploring contemporary socio-political topics, often ones that proves quite sensitive. Our CATF 2019 Recap confirms that tradition was alive and well in the season just ended. But, given how touchy and serious our current situation in this country actually is, CATF confronted the issue with a pair of whacky, funny, yet surprisingly thoughtful approaches to the dilemmas of life and love. And the real world that both often manage to evade.
Support Group for Men. By Ellen Fairey.
I’m not sure how much Ellen Fairey enjoys hanging around All-American males. But, in Support Group for Men, we quickly learn she totally understands them, where they’re coming from, and where they’re trying to go next, given that everyone in the universe is supposed to hate them.
Although written by and even directed by women, this drama adroitly and accurately portrays a group of moderately aging guys who are completely confused about their role in contemporary America. Or worse, they wonder, do they even have one? So they get together once a week in a ritual that’s part faux-Indian, part Rotarian and part guy-to-guy group therapy.
In the process, they win a few, lose a few, and cuss out some thugs gathered in front of a local bar a couple floors down from their apartment. Finally, these manly men find themselves invaded, first by a terrified transvestite / cross-dresser / inconclusive young guy, then later by a pair of curious cops. What could go wrong?
What a delight it is these days to see a witty, incisive, moderately satirical and downright funny play that has some fun with classic (if confused) American manliness, idiotic socio-political memes, and the constant reality that what you see isn’t always what you get.
As noted in my earlier review, Support Group for Men relies, for the most part, on carefully developed characters, not sitcom one-liners for its humor. If contemporary equity theaters don’t pick this one up, it could become a reliable smash hit in community theaters across the country. For years. In the meantime, it’s one of our top picks in this CATF 2019 Recap.
Wrecked. By Greg Kalleres.
If I didn’t make this clear in my review, along with Support Group for Men, Greg Kalleres’ Wrecked is one of the best plays I’ve seen anywhere in recent memory. Effortlessly funny like Support Group, it’s also a lot more complicated. It blends together insightful levels of character, complexity, intelligence and social satire. All brilliantly combine to kick this play up a few notches in the hierarchy of comedy.
Even better, elements of fear and terror creep into the story line in tiny but incessant bits. So at times, we begin to wonder: Should we really regard this play as a comedy?
Kalleres keeps his audience guessing as to what’s really going on with Victoria and John. We quickly find out this allegedly perfect couple wallows in self-delusion. They nervously wonder if they hit a dog with their car when returning from an evening at community theater. But if so, why didn’t they turn back and check? An additional pair of characters, including one old friend, later join them at the house. Through them, we learn someone’s car hit a kid out on the road. Subsequently, paranoia creeps in, making personal interactions more brittle.
We discover yet again that appearances aren’t always true. We learn that hopeless characters aren’t always hopeless. And we also discover that that apparently perfect lives often conceal ritual conformity and fear.
The intellectual content of the play remains consistently high. And only at the play’s conclusion do we figure out if we’re seeing comedy, tragedy or both. You have to always pay attention to the action. Time passes quickly and enjoyably, as long as you enjoy the occasional panic attack.
Wrecked is a smart, literate, challenging play that turns out to be far more than what it seems. It’s think theater and laugh theater all wrapped up in a whodunit format. And it’s one of my top picks in this CATF 2019 Recap.
Well that’s it for our belated CATF 2019 recap. Frankly, I had to think this one through for awhile. And that’s a tribute to this year’s wildly eclectic selections.
Bottom line: This was one of the more notable CATF seasons in recent memory. Congrats to all involved on the CATF 2019 team. You already have us looking forward to CATF 2020.
— Headline image: Main location for the annual Contemporary American Theater Festival.
Shepherd University’s Marinoff Theater at night. (Photo courtesy of architects Holzman, Moss, Bottino)