WASHINGTON, July 10, 2017 – We’ve just returned home from an intense theater weekend, having attended all 6 plays in this year’s “Summer of 6” edition of the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF).
Held each summer on the campus of Shepherd University in picturesque Shepherdstown, West Virginia, this long-running annual event has grown this year from offering 5 new plays to 6 – a rather impressive feat given state and Federal cutbacks in support for the performing arts.
With founder and longtime producing director Ed Herendeen at the helm, CATF has been and still is devoted exclusively to presenting brand new and almost new American plays from a wide variety of American playwrights ranging from theater veterans like Sam Shepard and David Mamet to a variety of younger playwrights either just breaking into professional theater productions or developing reputations as the new playwrights of tomorrow.
As we’ve done for approximately 17 years (we actually forget what year we actually started, somewhere around 1999-2001) – beginning with the Washington Times and more recently with Communities Digital News (CDN) – we’ll be reviewing all six plays over the next few days.
The good news about CATF 2017: All 6 plays are good in our opinion, although some are better than others, although, as usual, your own opinion may vary.
As in opera, where the psychological undercurrent of the on-stage action runs deeply and often persistently throughout the orchestral score, each CATF season tends to have an underlying theme as well. This season’s theme would appear to be “family,” however one defines that term in 2017.
Here are brief synopses of each play:
The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess
This two-person play is a bit like two trains running. That is, two trains running right at each other. “The Niceties” pits reluctant, proper, old-style Boomer-era feminist professor Janine against her deceptively polite student Zoe. When grades, academic issues and career advice start getting in the way of Zoe’s Millennial, #BlackLivesMatter-style activism, Zoe’s pressure-reducing valve blows in spectacular fashion and anything goes.
Welcome to Fear City, by Kara Lee Corthron (world premiere)
This seriously in-your-face production may be rooted at least in part in HBO’s equally in-your-face Baltimore-based cops and crime in the ‘hood series “The Wire,” which electrified cable-TV viewers in the early aughties. Those not familiar with this series may have to work a bit to get down with this play’s inner city dialect and brutal directness as they follow – often quite indirectly – the efforts of a young, sensitive black man to join in the developing musical-poetic undercurrent that eventually burst forth as “hip-hop.” The action and emotion is tough, but hilarity also breaks through in this immersive theatrical experience, set in the Bronx in the summer of 1977.
Wild Horses, by Allison Gregory (world premiere)
This one-woman extravaganza – which seems at times more like a three-ring circus given its ingenious stage setting – involves the wild and crazy misadventures of three young women, their weird friends and their even-weirder associates. Back in the days of Holden Caulfield, any number of novels and plays were all about young men coming of age. This one’s about three young women coming of age, all of whom make Holden look like a rank amateur. Funny, sad and provocative, this one is getting much of the buzz at this year’s festival.
Byhalia, Mississippi, by Evan Linder
One of a two plays this year that focus not only on family but the notion of “forgiveness” as well, this one starts out as a light comedy devoted to the hopes, fears and irrelevancies that ripple through any young, relatively newlywed couple expecting their first baby. But things begin to wax more serious for Jim and Laurel Parker when Laurel’s hypercritical mom shows up to “help.” Matters deteriorate further when Jim – and their small southern town – notice that Jim and Laurel’s newborn doesn’t exactly look like either of them, leading to a genuine Southern-fried marital mess.
Everything is Wonderful, by Chelsea Marcantel (world premiere)
As we all know, everything is not always wonderful, at least not in this life. That said, in Chelsea Marcantel’s more-or-less pastoral meditation – which, somewhat like “Byhalia, Mississippi,” also focuses on family and forgiveness – we get a ringside seat on the inner workings of an Amish family that’s forced, more harshly than usual, to deal with a tragic family loss caused by an outsider. But that same family also has to deal with a different kind of family loss that’s caused, at least indirectly, by their firmly held traditional and religious beliefs that once-again collide with 21st century mores. “Everything is Wonderful” is the mantra of this family’s paterfamilias. But does he really believe this himself?
We Will Not Be Silent, by David Meyers (world premiere)
While this somber, well-written play is an emotional downer, it’s also a psychological thriller based on the tragic experiences of Sophie Scholl (1921-1943), the eponymous, real-life German college student who became a leader in an anti-Nazi group known as “The White Rose.” Vowing to overthrow Adolf Hitler, Sophie and her largely youthful associates are, of course, betrayed, discovered and put on show-trial before the Nazis dispatch them all. This essentially two-person play immerses Sophie and her (possibly reluctant) interrogator in an intense political and philosophical chess game whose outcome is sadly predictable for anyone familiar with the Nazi regime. But what lingers long after the final curtain are the wickedly interlocking moral dilemmas.
We don’t do spoilers, so that’s it for now. But return to CDN throughout the week to read our reviews to see what we really think.
In the meantime, if you’re a fan of new American dramas and in particular, if you live in the metro D.C. area – which is a 90-minute to 2-hour drive (more or less) from Shepherdstown, W.Va. – we’ll reprint the go-to information we offered in our CATF preview article earlier this year. If you want to break your standard performing arts routine, CATF is one of the best ways to do it.
Tickets for CATF’s 27th season are still on sale, although some dates for some plays start getting scarce as the reviews both here and elsewhere begin to roll out. According to a CATF news release:
“Ticket prices range from $35 to $65, with discounts for students, seniors, active and retired military members, West Virginia residents, and for Sunday evening performances. Package discounts are also available. The Festival takes place July 7th through 30th, with matinee and evening performances Tuesday through Sunday.
“Rep4 Packages include performances in the venerable Frank Center and Shepherd University’s sparkling, almost band-new Marinoff Theater. Flex5 Packages allow patrons to see any five out of six shows at the Festival and Rep6 Packages offer patrons a ticket into all six productions.”
Theater Locations: All three performance spaces are located conveniently close to one another on the campus of Shepherd University. They include the large, still nearly brand-new, configurable Marinoff Theater (CCA Building 2, 62 W Campus Dr) and Studio 112 (CCA Building 1, 92 W Campus Dr); and the more traditional Frank Center Stage, located on a hill just a bit further back from the first two at 260 University Drive. The University appears to be putting the finishing touches on a brand new dormitory-dining complex in the space between these venues, but the site didn’t cause any traffic issues this past weekend.
To order tickets to Contemporary American Theater Festival, and for additional information, visit CATF online at www.catf.org or call the Box Office at 1-800-999-CATF (2283). Box Office hours are Monday through Friday from noon to 5 p.m. Single tickets range from $35 to $65. Packages range from $120 to $305. In this reviewer’s opinion, the price is right.
Getting there: For locals, access to Shepherdstown, West Virginia is relatively easy if you avoid the area’s various rush hours. Located in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, this venue is roughly a 1½ to 2-hour drive from the metro D.C. area. It’s located in Jefferson County, which is adjacent to Virginia’s Loudoun County and just across the Potomac from Maryland’s Antietam National Battlefield Park. Out-of-towners will likely want to fly in to Dulles Airport and rent a car for the short but picturesque drive out to Shepherdstown.
Lodging, dining, etc. Lodging, fine dining and casual dining are all available in and around Shepherdstown, but during the festival, reservations are highly recommended. Consult www.catf.org for suggestions.