SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. CATF 2019 – the Contemporary American Theater Festival’s current edition – has unveiled a kaleidoscope of plays that cluster around the theme of personal and social relationships. For obvious reasons, most of this year’s half-dozen confront contemporary issues, sometimes in bizarre ways. Speaking of bizarre, that’s probably the best way to characterize Michael Weller’s (somewhat) comic drama, A Welcome Guest, aptly subtitled A Psychotic Fairy Tale.
That subtitle clearly provides the audience with an important clue as to what they’re about to see. Weller’s entire two-act drama unfolds like a psychotic break that rotates among numerous strong personalities that don’t live in a world that resembles ours. Or do they?
What lies at the core of A Welcome Guest?
Welcome Guest was specifically commissioned for CATF. As “something completely different” among all the plays this season, it seems to cross the non-sequitur habits of Monty Python with the dystopian sensibility of Hunger Games. (But without the carnage.) On the whole, however, Michael Weller’s game plan here blends “surreal slapstick” with allegory and social criticism. Plot, as such, is secondary.
Set in the kind of threatening future or near-future of the human race in what’s left of Amerikkka, the play first introduces us to a cobbled together homeless, hippie-style family grouping. It’s led by a reformed drunk and now religious fanatic named McMoly (Lou Sumbrall).
McMoly’s mission is aided and abetted by his actual (or common-law) wife, an airy, Woodstocky sprite and religious balladeer who goes by the name of Shananana (Kate Udall).
The Holy McMoly clan
The couple more or less supports a pair of loosely-related kids, son Frizzby (Reece Santos) and daughter Zazu (Sarah Sun Park). For those familiar with the short-lived but hilarious British comedy series Father Ted, Frizzby’s personality possesses the airy disconnectedness of Ardal O’Hanlon’s breezily clueless Father Dougal.
As for Zazu, she’s out there like the rest of the family. But she’s also practical enough to grab onto actual employment outside the family for actual cash and eventually demonstrates more common sense than the rest of the clan.
We eventually figure out the family is camped out on a floor or part of a floor of some long-ago abandoned industrial building. They live in genteel squalor. And, in authentic street person fashion, keep most of their worldly possessions squished into a grocery cart.
The Oligarchs and the Deep State?
Of course, simply observing a day in the life of a weird family is something we’ve seen in TV sitcoms for generations. To make a play, we need one or more complications. Subsequently, they soon arrive in the personages of Lucius (Michael Rogers) and Shimeus (Wade McCollum).
Lucius is the shady representative of what appears to be the equivalent of a city and/or state government that operates pretty much like a police state. Shimeus, however, begins as a pathetic, sniveling, brainless ciphers. But this is only a ruse. He slowly morphs into a sinister Deep State Kingpin in search of world conquest. Or at least a few eye-popping investments in cheap real estate.
Lucius has been instructed by his superiors to force the McMoly family to give some of their already-allotted urban campground “temporarily” to Shimeus, as the state can find nowhere else to put him.
As the play progresses, Shimeus morphs and shifts personalities like an alien shape-shifter. Worse, as he becomes more aggressive, he uses orange construction cones to expand his no-go personal space at the expense of the family. Things deteriorate inexorably, leading to the play’s cataclysmic climax. More or less. You have to be there.
Multiple layers of allegories
Welcome Guest operates as a loose, multi-level allegory that touches upon the many fast-decaying customers and layers of contemporary life – most of which are unpleasant.
Some of the allusions: Israel vs. the Palestinians, with Shimeus, presumably, representing a territory-grabbing Israel; the State vs. the Deplorables, as embodied by the government lackey Lucius vs. the family; filthy rich, faux-socialist globalists / industrialists vs. Western governments, capitalism and average everyday people (Shimeus vs. Lucius vs. the family); and secular quasi-religious dogmatics vs. (presumably) Christian fanatics (Shimeus vs. the family).
Or maybe we could lump the whole batch of allusions together and call it CNN vs. Fox.
Do we, like the characters in this play, live in a never-ending Jerry Springer re-run?
Refreshingly, Michael Weller’s weird world actually resembles our own. Life and lives seem cheap today. And because of this, we live in a time and place where yelling and screaming and the hurling of vile epithets substitutes for intelligent debate and rational discussion. Politics and social mores have been transformed into a never-ending 24/7 episode of the Jerry Springer Show.
And above all, we live in a world where “democratically elected” leaders completely ignore the wishes of their constituents once they win an election. It’s probably not the world anyone wanted. But by the time it transpires, it’s often too late to do anything about it.
Michael Weller’s multi-story vision in Welcome Guest is intended to help us laugh at the play’s ridiculously over-the-top, fanatical characters while seeing their connection to our own times, our own society and our own completely out-of-touch governments. It’s a thoughtful message that needs to be heard and discussed.
Better yet, Weller proves equally hard on the political left as well as the political right. That’s refreshing. And rather daring these days. But any thoughtful person should acknowledge that both political extremes have become caricatures of themselves. It’s about time an American playwright had the guts to point this out. And Weller has done it.
The chaotic downside of Welcome Guest
Unfortunately for theatergoers, the multiple allegorical and satirical layers of this play soon become hysterical, confusing and at times exasperating. As the play progresses, you really wonder where it’s going. And you also begin to wonder if you really care what happens to its largely two-dimensional characters.
In many ways, that’s at least part of the playwright’s point. But his approach makes his characters so un-human that it’s hard for the audience to connect with any of them. Things become less funny than they should be.
Maybe all the satirical layers succeed in crowding out the humanity in this play. In the play’s opening performance, there were a few good laughs, primarily in Act I. But the play and the opening night audience just never seemed to connect.
For what appeared to be the first time since CATF’s controversial staging several years ago of Rachel Corrie, a fair number of theatergoers walked out of the production at intermission, with a number of them muttering unpleasant comments about what they’d just seen.
Perhaps the problem here – or one of them – is that Welcome Guest comes across less as the surrealistic comedy the playwright intended and more as Dadaist performance art.
The Cast and Crew
As always, CATF hired a first-rate cast that did their best to put Michael Weller’s vision across.
Wade McCollum’s malevolently unpredictable Shimeus stole the show, at times hilariously idiotic, at other times cold, vicious and dictatorial. It was a great performance.
As the two McMoley kids, Reece Santos and Sarah Sun Park also shone brightly, Santos primarily in Act I with his sheer, Jim Carrey-like brainlessness, and Park primarily in Act II with her out-of-the-blue and powerful confrontation of Shimeus.
The production itself, dark yet flashy, was ably helmed by director – and series founder – Ed Herendeen, who strove to impose order on the proceedings and largely succeeded.
Technical stuff? Jesse Dreikosen’s spare but genuinely dystopian scenic design enhanced this production’s atmospherics quite considerably enhanced. Tony Galaska’s inspired lighting design, which, at times, seemed almost to become another character in the play, also sharpened each scene considerably.
A hat-tip as well to Peggy McKowen’s eclectic costume designs, particularly apparent in the hippesque attire of Weller’s strange family of religious Deplorables.
The essence of Welcome Guest is its skewering of modern political and moral idiocy. Both serve as an impediments to a happy and productive society. But additional serious yet darkly comic moral truth lurks in Michael Weller’s script. Moral truth that still needs to emerge. Hopefully, the CATF team can unearth some of what’s lacking during the play’s remaining run.
Otherwise, a judicious rewrite of the script might set Welcome Guest back on the road to success.
Rating: ** (Two out of four stars)
Getting tickets and getting there:
Our advice: Head straight for the festival’s website, CATF online: www.CATF.org. All the info you need for this year’s festival is there. Purchase tickets or full ticket packages right on the site. Or call the CATF box office at 800.999.CATF (2283).
For an introductory synopsis on all the plays in this year’s CATF, follow this link to our overview.
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:Welcome to the Holy McMoly family in Michael Weller’s new play, A Welcome Guest.”
(Courtesy CATF 2019.)