SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia. We’re getting ready to head out to picturesque Shepherdstown, West Virginia in just a few hours. The reason: It’s time, once again, for the opening weekend of this year’s edition of the long-running and nationally renowned Contemporary American Theater Festival, aka CATF 2018.
Each Festival showcases and often premieres fully professional productions of the newest and almost newest American plays of the year. For that reason – save for those “almost newest” plays – nobody’s ever seen these dramas live and fully produced on stage. For the premieres in particular, it’s their first time out.
That means that, aside from the descriptive blurbs in CATF’s promotional material, every play is essentially a surprise.
This year’s CATF 2018 watchword recalls Grace Slick: Feed Your Head. (With new plays, we assume.)
In classical music, whenever audiences read about a “world premiere,” they frequently figure, “Ugh, it’s ugly, screechy atonal stuff. I’ll skip this concert.” Theater goers – many of them, at least – tend to have a different attitude. For them, a new play is an adventure. They may end up liking the play, hating it, or simply feeling indifferent. But new play fans are always willing to take a chance.
Fortunately, CATF long ago proved itself as a major festival – one now big enough to include 6 new American plays per season. That’s because the Festival’s founder and frequent director, Ed Herendeen, has established a solid track record of seeking out the best stuff.
Do the new plays, like the ones set to open at CATF 2018, always hit the mark? No. But most of them either hit the bull’s-eye or get pretty close to it, which is remarkably consistent for any festival.
Here’s a list of this year’s plays and brief descriptions, largely derived from that CATF 2018 advance program. That’s because we haven’t seen any of these plays, so we have to take the Festival’s word for the accuracy of their synopses.
But we’ll be there all opening weekend, and promise to deliver six reviews here on CDN’s website over the next week. In other words, we’ll vote for the plays after we’ve seen what’s in them.
“The Cake,” a play by Bekah Brunstetter
CATF notes that the playwright is a “writer for the NBC hit This is Us. According to the notes,Della, presumably our lead character, owns and operates a bakery in North Carolina. She’s thrilled to get a wedding cake order from her best friend’s daughter. And oh, yeah, we forgot… Della is a Christian. Now we know where this one is headed. The big question is who folds first, Della or the happy pair of brides who’ve chosen the Bible Belt for reciting their vows. CATF knows which buttons to hit each year. But oddly, this theme has become even more complex and timely given that recent mirror image controversy down in Lexington, Virginia. So what is political correctness, anyway? Could be an interesting evening.
“MEMORIES of a Forgotten Man,” a world premiere play by D.W. Gregory
Says the program, “A SOVIET JOURNALIST WITH THE GIFT OF TOTAL RECALL. A PSYCHOLOGIST SEEKING TO REHABILITATE HERSELF. A GOVERNMENT CENSOR WITH A SECRET PAST.”
The Russians are coming! Again! This play, however, has nothing to do with President Trump, or at least we don’t think it does.
The description continues:
“Over two decades their fates become entwined as victims and collaborators in Stalin’s campaign to rewrite public memory. Long before fake news was a trending topic, it was called propaganda. And in the Soviet Union, circa 1938, it was the grease that kept Stalin’s machinery of terror in motion.”
This proves a timely observation, given the increasingly Stalinist approach endorsed by at least one political party right her in the U.S.A. It’s a topic well worth exploring in the explosive environment of our own 2018 political situation
“Thirst,” a world premiere play by C.A. Johnson
We learn that our lead characters, Samira and Greta, lead “a peaceful life.” If so, as we well know, if that peaceful life doesn’t get disrupted, then a play can’t exist. And we soon learn all about that disruptive factor: Water. Or its deliberate absence for certain individuals who remain out of sorts with the friendly local “political leader,” aka “Well-Man.” We are promised that issues of race and war will make their appearances in this dystopian drama.
The House on the Hill, a world premiere play by Amy E. Witting
A pair of cousins named Alex and Frankie have not spoken to one another “in seventeen years.” The burning question: “After more than a decade of trauma, silence, and unease, can a new baby help their shattered family heal at last?” The definitive answer: Maybe. We’re promised “a shocking and suspenseful story of two women, coming together to face their shared tragedy and an uncertain future.” Having seen many plays with similar plots over the years, we might be hard pressed to imagine what hidden secrets get revealed. But that won’t keep dedicated theatergoers from trying to guess in advance.
“Berta, Berta,” a play by Angelica Chéri
“After committing an unforgivable crime and doomed to surrender his freedom, Leroy is granted one final wish: a chance to make amends with his long lost lover, Berta.” Chéri’s play is “set in the 1920s,” and its title recalls an old prison song. Very personal dramas like this can get quite emotionally intense, so that’s something we should expect. As to where this story will go, we’ll be heading for the theater to find out.
“A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan,” a world premiere play by Michael Weller.
The program blurb reads: “HISTORY FORGETS EVERYTHING. LIKE ALZHEIMER’S, BUT ALZHEIMER’S IS QUICKER.”
Given the drearily predictable left proclivities of today’s artistic community, I simply can’t imagine any play that will depict Ronald Reagan in a positive light, particularly given that telling blurb above. But we’ll just have to wait and see. Who knows? Maybe there’s a surprise here for some random sort-of-libertarian critics that might show up. And surprises are good.
That’s it for our wrap up preview of this year’s CATF. We’ll begin to find out tonight if our comments and guesses pan out this coming weekend. Once we’ve gathered our thoughts, we’ll share them with you.
—Headline graphic: Cover image from this year’s CATF 2018 program.
Schedule of plays and getting to CATF 2018
For complete information on CATF 2018, which will run all the listed plays in repertory at three Shepherd University theaters through July 29 (Mondays are dark), click on the link to get to the CATF web site.
Depending on your route, Shepherdstown is not too far away from DC and environs, some 1.5 to 2 hours distant. Or less if you live in Loudoun County.
Maybe we’ll see you there this weekend.
—Note: This preview was revised from an earlier version to reflect more recent information.