SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 9, 2014 – The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) launches its 24th season Friday, July 11, featuring five new American plays, including three world premieres. This year’s featured playwrights include Christina Anderson, Charles Fuller (1982 Pulitzer Prize winner for Drama), Thomas Gibbons, Bruce Graham, and Chisa Hutchinson.
Running this year through August 3, 2014 on the Shepherd University campus in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, this increasingly popular and important festival is an easy drive from most points in the DC Metro area.
CATF has expanded its outreach and events over the years and the 2014 Season is no exception. Besides the Festival’s featured plays, other related events include free lectures, stage readings, discussions, classes, evening salons, and an art exhibit. Ticket holders can also purchase tickets to lunches with artists and breakfast with the Theater Festival’s founder, Ed Herendeen.
According to Mr. Herendeen, “The 2014 repertory features a panorama of the American landscape. We have invited five writers that represent the exciting state of contemporary playwriting in America. These plays, all written within the last year or two, range from the intimate and personal, to the political and national, to the ethical and moral questions awaiting us in the near future.”
We’ve attended this Festival for years and keep coming back because it’s a performing arts event that always keeps a finger on the contemporary pulse. The political tendency of the playwrights is to operate left-of-center in a political context. But that said, there are always enough surprises that you need to at least temporarily check your personal prejudices at the door and pay attention to what’s going on.
In general, a good four-fifths of each year’s plays, while not always masterpieces, will never put your intellect to sleep, a tribute to Ed Herendeen’s uncanny ability to choose new plays that track with our current times, beliefs and morals.
What follows is a list of this year’s new plays and brief descriptions, excerpted from this season’s official press release. We follow with our own brief observations in italics.
“The Ashes Under Gait City” by Christina Anderson.
A World Premiere, originally commissioned by Portland Playhouse.
When a devastating fire burned Gait City to the ground, the community decided to rebuild. An enduring and noble gesture, but with one crucial oversight: They forgot the black people. A popular Internet guru, Simone The Believer, launches a campaign amongst her followers to encourage black Americans to migrate to this town, and reclaim their roots. Inspired by the 19th century exclusionary laws, this play delves into ownership, identity, and the power of belief. It dramatically captures the influence of cult behavior, through technology’s lens, while tackling the continued and complicated nature of race in our contemporary world.
Comment: Given the current, out of control border situation in the U.S., this play could prove to be an interesting and timely statement and exposition in a wholly unexpected context.
“One Night” by Charles Fuller
Commissioned and first produced (2013) by Cherry Lane Theatre (NYC), Angelina Fiordellisi, Artistic Director, in a co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (NYC).
Down on their luck, two Iraq war veterans mysteriously arrive at a seedy motel, looking for a place to hide and start over. They are burdened with secrets from their time in the “sandbox” and desperate to make sense of life in the here and now. As the trauma of the past blends unflinchingly into the present, this one night finds a soldier simmering in her patriotic duty for justice and freedom—her own. Raging against the searing subject of sexual abuse in the armed services, this suspenseful and provocative play asks: “Why am I a hero if I die, and a nuisance if I live?”
Contains graphic language. For mature audiences only.
Comment: In an odd way, the subject matter of this play is similar to the Washington National Opera’s recent world-premiere one-act opera, “An American Soldier” by Huang Ruo, that premiered just a month ago at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theatre. Based on a recent incident in Afghanistan, the opera tells the story of a young Chinese American recruit who was apparently driven to commit suicide due to ruthless, ethnicity-based hazing on the part of his commanding officer and (perhaps) others. The real-life case was ambiguous. The opera was not, crossing the line between balance and propaganda. This play may prove an interesting contrast.
“Uncanny Valley” by Thomas Gibbons
A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in affiliation with InterAct Theatre Company and San Diego Repertory Theatre.
The relationship between the creator and the created unfolds in the phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley where Claire, a neuroscientist, works with Julian, an artificial being, on becoming human. Drawing on current research and the not-so-distant future, this spellbinding and deeply satisfying new play travels to the ethical heart of humankind’s bid to outrace mortality. How far are we willing to go to forget, while insisting on never being forgotten?
Comment: Shades of “Blade Runner” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation’s” Data! The classic sci-fi film, starring Harrison Ford, was based on Philip K. Dick’s provocatively titled novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” And that inventive title just might tie in with the subject matter of this new play. If mankind doesn’t figure out a way to wipe itself out first, we could be perched on the edge of a time when it might very well be possible to “outrace mortality.” Looks like this play is headed in that direction, and it might evoke a long night of endless and interesting philosophical and moral arguments.
“North of the Boulevard” by Bruce Graham
Business is falling apart, and so are the walls in this crumbling auto-repair shop on the wrong side of the Boulevard. Three childhood friends and one crusty old man sift through the merits of their floundering lives while confronting the vanishing middle-class around them. But just when the last road to prosperity seems at its dead-end, a questionable opportunity unfolds before them: Are they corrupt enough to escape the corruption that’s ruining their neighborhood? This blistering, working-class comedy aims for the gut and takes no prisoners.
Contains explicit language. For mature audiences only.
Comment: Whatever your politics are these days—and they are increasingly polarized—it’s becoming a truth universally acknowledged that the American middle class is on a slow boat to extinction, assaulted from a variety of sides for a variety of reasons. If this play gets past the politics and to the essence of the issue, it could be a winner. Whatever the case, it merits a plus for choosing to deal with the lives of people who still make a living with their hands.
“Dead and Breathing” by Chisa Hutchinson
Carolyn is a cranky old broad who just wants to die already! She’s gone through almost as many nurses as she has treatments, but just can’t seem to kick the bucket. With her new—profane but God-fearing—hospice caregiver all up in her “lady parts,” she sets about convincing Veronika to help her to just get it over with. Full of surprises, this hilarious exploration into mortality and morality tests the boundaries of faith and forgiveness, prejudice and pridefulness, when the stakes are nothing short of life… and death.
Contains strong language and nudity. For mature audiences only.
Comment: Like the two preceding plays, this one explores another timely topic, this time, not the possibility of immortality but the probability of mortality itself and just when—and how—human life should end. It’s a controversial topic but a profound one, particularly for those who’ve had to make a decision for a loved one as to when to pull the plug. Even religious tenets can fail to discover the answers at a time like this, but it looks like this play is going to give it a try.
Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is derived from CATF’s Release:
Matinee and evening performances are held Wednesday – Sunday throughout the Festival at a variety of times and venues. Single ticket prices to the 2014 repertory are $59. Four-show and five-show subscription discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $100-$240. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 & under, and West Virginia residents.
Performance tickets can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open off-season Monday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by calling 800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting www.catf.org/boxoffice.
For the official schedule, visit http://catf.org/schedule/
Complete season information – including playwright bios, promotional images and headshots, schedule, past production photos, videos, and ticketing – is available at www.catf.org. Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Getting there: It all depends on where you life. Marylanders and DC denizens will likely head out to Shepherdstown via the Beltway, I-270, I-70 plus a few turns on local roads in the general vicinity of Hagerstown before crossing the Potomac. All plays will be staged at venues not far from the bridge crossing.
Virginia residents will likely head out via the Dulles Toll Road/Greenway to the VA-7 Leesburg bypass and then to VA-WV-9 to the Shepherdstown turnoff. But other routes may also work.
Check the CATF web site for further details, or program your GPS for the theater location you need. Or visit CATF’s “Getting There” info at http://catf.org/map-a-directions/.
Dining and lodging: If you plan on getting the ticket package for the entire Festival, call now and check the CATF general website above for dining and lodging suggestions. NOTE: Shepherdstown has a surprising number of first-rate restaurants, but they tend to get jammed during the Festival. Reservations are HIGHLY suggested.