Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 4

Michael Weller’s self-described work of “surreal slapstick” is the most challenging play of the festival, and ultimately the most rewarding, the one that gets under your skin. “Challenging” in the sense that some theatergoers don’t know what to make of it (as I consoled a seatmate) as well as in the technical sense. There are preposterous overnight transformations of the five characters’ living quarters, a remote-controlled bulldozer, and a series of silly headgear worn by the generator of all this surreal slapstick, one Mr. Shimeus (Wade McCollum). Shimeus spends most of the play wearing a tiny umbrella on his head.

But to back up a bit. McMoley (no-nonsense Lou Sumrall) and his family of Shananana, Frizzby, and Zazu, a Christian rock and roll band, are living in an abandoned factory at a time in the future when civilization has nearly collapsed and cities are vaporized by accidental/intentional detonations of “weapons dumps.” Strong-armed by the local housing authority, they are required to make space for Mr. Shimeus. When we first meet him, he is an abject puddle of a man, having lost his family, property, and livelihood, bringing nothing with him but some peculiar food customs. But not for long.

Shimeus immediately establishes a border between his side of the factory floor and McMoley’s side. His command of English improves by the hour, like an infernal version of Larry Shue’s Charlie Baker; there’s something of Edward Gorey’s spheniscid doubtful guest in Shimeus. His command of technology verges on the magical. Whatever he is, his power increases daily, pushing his boundary deeper into McMoley’s turf.

McCollum’s Shimeus is a verbal shape-shifter, keening, roaring, muttering in some tongue to offstage family members who somehow have materialized—stumbling in his English at one moment then hyperarticulating the next.

Is the rise of Shimeus a parable of the westward expansion of Europeans in America? Or a parody of the Jewish relocation into Palestine (Shimeus always sets an extra place at table for missing guests)? Or a recounting of the arrival of Latter Day Saints in Utah (there is a subplot with a mysterious bundle that bears a strong resemblance to Joseph Smith’s golden plates)? Or a recap of the Cold War and the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction?

A Brechtian coda doesn’t answer the question, dismisses it altogether. But the conflict remains.

Michael Weller, in an interview for the program book, says,

… the level of discourse on my social media newsfeeds about politics is psychotic. Things have become so crazed that the attempt to actually speak quietly in the middle of it to try and unravel what’s going on isn’t nearly as strong, at least to me, as trying to yell over it more stupidly than the discourse itself. By screaming that loud and that irrationally, could you make people think, for a moment, “That’s actually what we sound like?” I gave myself permission to take that route and that’s how the play resulted.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 3

Deborah Brevoort’s drama, inspired by the historical connection between Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein, is uplifting but ultimately a little teachy. The hidden star of this production is Larry Paulsen as the vinegary, steely Abraham Flexner, founder of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. Paulsen/Flexner patiently endures a moment when it appears that he needs to have Jim Crow explained to him.

A unsettling two-hander by Joseph Dougherty concerns Chester Bailey, an ironworker (working in a WWII shipyard) who has suffered a harrowing industrial accident, and Philip Cotton, the psychiatrist charged with restoring Chester to some degree of mental health. Chester, played with goofy naïveté by Ephraim Birney, has developed a sort of hysterical seeing that tells him his physical disability is not so severe. Like Dysart with Alan Strang, the peppery Dr. Cotton (John Leonard Thompson as a last-minute fill-in at this performance) makes his peace with an outcome in which “there is no kindness.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Chester Bailey, by Joseph Dougherty, directed by Ron Lagomarsino

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 2

In Greg Kalleres’s deceptively simple drama, Victoria (Julia Coffey) and John (Chris Thorn) are a successful couple in Indianapolis, living a carefully constructed narrative of how they came to be. Sometimes that narrative papers over a flaw—a memento of an Africa trip that is/was less than perfect—and sometimes it depends on a shared mirthless joke about shopping at Pottery Barn. The delicate balance of their lives is at risk of toppling when, driving home from the theater on a rainy night, Victoria hits something in the road and drives on without stopping.

What did they smash with their car? A deer? A suicidal stray dog? A person? Sometimes what you think you see is wrong, and some reflection brings clarity.

The arrival of their friend Lynn (Megan Bartle), pursued by the man who she is trying to break up with, Alex (Tom Coiner), has a paradoxically stabilizing effect. Lynn seems to enter relationships for the dubious pleasure of ending them, as illustrated by the story of her first date with Alex, in which she asks him to role-play becoming a ex.

John and Victoria return in their minds to the traffic accident, and stitch together their common version. As he says, “it doesn’t matter what story you choose to believe, as long as you both believe in the same story.”

There’s a fine side story about recommending a book to someone (Gravity’s Rainbow in this case) that you yourself haven’t read. It resonates with an anecdote told by classmate Johnnie in an acting workshop many years ago.

Contemporary American Theater Festival 2019: 1

Ellen Fairey’s sharp comedy is set in a North Side Chicago apartment, the setting of, yes, a support group organized by Brian (the earnest Chris Thorn). There is inter-generational friction and laughs (Brian, a young-looking 51, is the “oldest guy working at the Apple Store”), and some serious exploration of today’s re-sorting of gender roles. Brian’s friend Roger (blustery Scott Aiello), an ironworker with a case of the yips, and who’s likely to solve a problem using a baseball bat, experiences at least two happy reversals. A wig worthy of Robert Plant’s shaggiest years (and the color of a pair of oxblood loafers) gets plenty of play. And all of the men, no matter where they lie on the various spectra against which people are measured, have a nice bonding moment over “Dirty Harry” movies.

Continuing CATF’s tradition of ambitious solo pieces, Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez collaborate on an autobiographical piece performed by Suarez. Antonio of the play is a young man out of Bushwick with multiple ethnic heritages. A moment of violently reprimanding his son sparks a reverie of Antonio’s roots in Brooklyn, his fractious and abusive relationship with his mother, and (eventually) the story of how he trained as a dancer. The piece is episodic to the point of choppiness, and Antonio’s trip to Russia as an exchange student rather abruptly ends the piece. Jared Mezzocchi continues his excellent work for the festival in projections design.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Support Group for Men, by Ellen Fairey, directed by Courtney Sale
  • Antonio’s Song/I was dreaming of a son, by Dael Orlandersmith and Antonio Edwards Suarez, directed by Mark Clements

Mason and Bailey: 1

scouting 1scouting 2Scouting Rachel Carson Conservation Park for a nature walk. I think we’ll spend a good amount of time in the meadow, so long as something is still happening in September (persimmons ripening, maybe?). And then maybe a quick jaunt through the woods to Hawlings River.

I spent too much time trying to figure out and photographing the Red-spotted Purple (Limenitis arthemis ssp. astynanax) that I submitted to iNaturalist. At the pond, most of the Green Frogs (Lithobates clamitans) hopped in the water but one guy seemed to think he was invisible.

At the park: 104

From my final weekly report from Huntley Meadows Park:

A somewhat perplexing end to the season.

On 16 June, Kat and Chris reported that warm eggs remained in box #1. The odd thing is that we never did record hatch information for this box, which had eggs as early as 9 March. We observed a Hooded Merganser flush from the box on 7 April, and a Wood Duck on 9 June.

Also on the 16th, a bird remained in box #6; if she was incubating eggs, we didn’t get a count.

On 30 June, I checked box #68. There was evidence of a hatch, but not quite the residue of 8 hatched eggs that I would have expected. Possibly a partial predation?

All told, we fledged ducklings from 9 boxes. I will work up the count details and report them in a subsequent message.

Butterflies at Little Bennett Regional Park

on the lookoutTom Stock led a walk to several meadow-y and glade-y spots in Little Bennett Regional Park, most of them along Clarksburg Road. Sunny day, not beastly hot, a breeze from time to time.

I got some good looks at butterflies that I have seen before (some of them only once or twice), like Horace’s Duskywing (Erynnis horatius) and Variegated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia) and Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus). No pics for the three lifers that I saw on the trip: Northern Broken-Dash (Wallengrenia egeremet), Dun Skipper (Euphyes vestris), and American Snout (Libytheana carinenta).

Describe the Night

There are eight characters (seven players) in Rajiv Joseph’s Describe the Night, and nearly as many definitions of “truth” are espoused in the course of the evening. Is truth the accurate and complete description of a scene? Or only “what happens” and nothing of “what does not happen”? Or what someone in power declares to be true?

Can a sufficiently inventive writer (Isaac Babel, in this case, played by the earnest Jonathan David Martin) summon an imaginary blood-infused delicacy into existence? In Joseph’s world, yes he can.

Joseph skillfully weaves together a fantasia from the stories of the historical Babel, the Stalin-era Nikolai Yezhov (the “vanishing commissar”) (company member Tim Getman, showing all sorts of colors), and the Smolensk air disaster of 2010, a crash still smoldering with doubts and alternative explanations. There are deaths foretold that come to pass, a rise to power likewise predicted, and personal timelines interlinked with Atkinsonian levels of coincidence.

Under John Vreeke’s direction, there’s an additional level to the truth-telling, one of bearing witness. Maria (Kate Eastwood Norris) and Feliks (Justin Weaks), two people caught up in the carnage of 2010, also sit at the edge of the playing area to observe the scenes set in 1989 and 1940. If Maria and Justin didn’t see it, did it really happen?

Another plot thread follows the unexpected rise of Vova (the very skilled Danny Gavigan), from scrawny Stasi agent to a position of much greater, deadly power.

But let us not forget the playfulness of the young Isaac of 1920, inventor of subversive gangster ducks.

  • Describe the Night, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

At the park: 103

muddy and greenmystery in box 5From my report on last Sunday’s monitoring work:


Our birds continue to surprise. We observed evidence of hatch in 5 boxes, plus another box that (#3) was either hatched or predated. We found a new clutch in box #68; a bird in box #6, which has already hatched out; and birds still incubating in boxes #1 and #10. So we will do one more work day next Sunday, 9 June. This will be a quicker spot-check day, where we only check boxes where we believe there is still activity. But if you’ve got the morning free, please join us.

Both Kat and I took tumbles into the mud.

Kat reports milkweed (Asclepias sp.) in the woods near box #13/#80.

A songbird, otherwise unidentified, has moved into box #5. No eggs or adult seen; the side entrance to the nest is a little unusual.

Rock Creek project: 2

Today’s walk went off pretty darn well. Pulling into the parking lot, I feared that there would not be sufficient spaces for my guests, but the second lot at the Nature Center was quite open.

As people were arriving, I was watching a House Finch in a treetop when Tracie called out, “hey, isn’t that a turkey?” Later, I happened to mention our Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) sighting to the interpreter in the Nature Center, and she was impressed. She said that she hadn’t seen one in the park in her 2+ years there.

Several of the wildflowers that I had scouted along the stream bank had gone by. We had one little remnant patch of Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). But on the whole, a success. I got to introduce the group to a couple of my favorites, and the Bearcorn (Conopholis americana) patch along Ross Drive was well received (it was vigorously flowering two weeks ago).

My time management was good; we got around in 2:00. We were paced by Cosmo the dog. Alas, I did miss the turnout for Fort De Russy on the way back.

bridge stopNear the Fort De Russy site is a patch of what I’m pretty sure is Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala). (Both it and M. macrophylla are on the park’s species checklist.)