SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va. July 17, 2014 – Set in a run-down motel room somewhere in the U.S., Charles Fuller’s nearly-new play, “One Night” was commissioned and first produced by New York’s Cherry Lane Theatre in 2013. It’s one of five brand new to nearly-new plays being staged at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival, now underway at Shepherd University.
As the drama begins, we meet Horace (Jason Babinsky) and Alicia (Kaliswa Brewster) an odd pair of shattered U.S. vets who’ve served in the most recent War in Iraq. Claiming they’re a married couple, Horace has convinced the motel’s sketchy proprietor, Meny (Willie C. Carpenter), to rent them a room for the night, as they’ve become refugees from the burned-down shelter where they’d been staying previously.
As the play’s “one night” unfolds, however, things get complicated indeed. Jumpy, freaked-out Alicia is barely stable, subject to horrific, nearly non-stop hallucinations resulting from her gang rape by fellow soldiers in the combat zone.
Her attack, her injuries and her concerns following the incident were systematically deep-sixed by the military bureaucracy, further shattering her life. And now she finds herself under the self-appointed care of a jumpy former military colleague whose own stability is clearly suspect.
Making matters worse, the couple’s “refuge,” despite the assurances of their not-so-genial host, appears to be a thinly-disguised house of ill-repute, not exactly a comfort zone for a rape victim.
The set up leads us to expect the expected: yet another dreary anti-war diatribe trashing the U.S. and its Armed Forces, a meme fashionable in the written and performing arts since at least the 1960s.
But what we get is something entirely different: a noisy, whirlwind, virtually stream-of-consciousness hallucination of mental and physical war, brutality and amorality that gets lost in a confusing maze of parallel plot threads, including an embedded mystery mystery story revolving around Alicia’s never-discovered third rapist.
In short, “One Night” is a play that loses its way amidst the towering anger and outrage of the playwright.
Between Alicia’s vivid flashbacks and the dicey behavior of both Horace and Meny—both of whom seem to have ulterior motives where Alicia is concerned—we’re never quite sure who’s on first in this play. To some extent, this may be the playwright’s intention, forcing us to experience for ourselves the horrors of reliving the brutality of war again and again due to mental or physical distress.
That said, however, it’s hard to draw a beat on the intent here. And whatever the intended message—War is hell?—it gets lost inside a confusing structure. Aside from pure outrage, we’re never really sure in the end what this play is really meant to tell us.
Adding to the confusion, there have been problems with the acoustics of both plays currently running at Shepherd University’s Frank Center this season—the other being Bruce Graham’s “North of the Boulevard.”
Something in the construction of both sets is burying significant amounts of dialogue in both plays, a peculiar problem, since we’ve never experienced this in the Frank Center in other productions over the years. But the problem is particularly baffling in “One Night,” as the set for this play is a fairly simple box of a motel room that should help radiate the dialogue forward in the manner of a band shell.
Making matters worse, dialogue is sometimes delivered in too frantic a pace, making hearing some of the words even harder. Perhaps if the cast slowed things up just a bit and spoke a bit louder, this problem could likely be overcome over the next few performances.
In spite of the weakness of this script, the efforts of director Ed Herendeen and the play’s cast help make this a reasonably decent evening of theater in spite of it all.
At the top of the list is the performance of Kaliswa Brewster as Alicia. “One Night” is, above all, Alicia’s play. She has loads of dialogue, runs through every emotion in the book, and is involved in plenty of rough, physical action as well. Ms. Brewster gives Alicia her all, delivering a passionate, over-the-top performance that has you cheering for her even if you’re not quite sure who this hysterical, shattered woman really is.
As Horace, Jason Babinsky creates Alicia’s touchy, squirrelly counterpart whose motives are suspect and whose actions at times seem to make little sense when contrasted to his alleged rescue mission.
Similarly, Willie C. Carpenter, as Meny, also draws suspicion as he emphasizes the supposedly high moral tone of his establishment more than one too-many times.
With the exception of Brit Whittle’s unfortunately realistic, by-the-books Major (he plays other characters, too), the rest of the cast is pressed into duty playing a variety of genuinely shadowy and shady characters who shuffle in and out of Alicia’s horrific visions unbidden, ghosts of a past that has turned into a perpetually painful muddle in Alicia’s mind.
In the end, though, in spite of a major effort by the cast and crew, “One Night” still largely comes across as an angry and fairly incoherent mess by a successful, award-winning playwright.
In a way, it’s a little bit like Kurt Vonnegut’s once-popular anti-war novel, “Slaughterhouse Five.” After all the elaborate Sturm und Drang involving the Second World War and the bombing of Dresden, the novelist seemed to be concluding, “What the hell can you say about a war?” That’s an understandable notion, but hardly a compelling one.
Rating: * (1 out of 5 stars)
Note: Play contains rough language, violence, and strobe light effects.
“One Night” by Charles Fuller, will be performed in repertory through August 3, 2014 at CATF. Consult the information below for festival particulars and links.
Tickets, Times, and Places: The following info is taken from CATF press material:
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.