Contemporary American Theater Festival, 2007

wooden building-mounted signThis year’s festival in Shepherdstown engages with the world in a big way—questioning the American Dream, taking two different trips to Gaza, and challenging current trends in criminal justice and social policy. Certain parties felt sufficiently threatened by certain of the material as to withdraw support, and worse. Advocacy groups taking out program ads to present their side of the story, and police in the lobby! Exciting stuff.

Jason Grote‘s 1001 is an enchanting theatrical palimpsest of Tales from the Arabian Nights and Scheherazade, ethnic New Yorkers in the aftermath of 9/11, the centuries-old clash of East and West in the Holy Land, and a little bit of Alfred Hitchcock and the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The play’s various Borgesian stories interlock and overlap one another, so that following a particular narrative thread becomes as difficult as following the decorative ceramic tracery on a Persian mosque, and a couple of them simply leave us hanging with no satisfying conclusion. Something like Life, which (as one character aphoristically has it) “is suffering: to be released from it a kindness.”

The piece is deftly executed by an ensemble cast of six, plus two supernumeraries. The multi-flexible Ariel Shafir’s eyebrow-rolling schtick as The One-Eyed Arab is noteworthy, as is Reshma Shetty’s skillful juggling of multiple voices, among them a London-educated girl of the Emirates and a lisping princess in a Vertigo sendup.

Intriguing design elements include sparkly costume decorations made from fragments of compact disks; everything is unified by the reappearance of silks and banners of Della Robbia blue.

Lee Blessing premieres a dystopian parable, set sometime in the near future, about current society’s twin tendencies toward constant monitoring of deviant behavior, and toward devolution of government prerogatives to private, corporate interests. The Lonesome Hollow of the play’s title is a minimum-security enclave where sexual deviants are incarcerated indefinitely; both predators and lesser offenders (like pornographers) are shunned by a country grown markedly theocratic, encapsulated by an archipelago of numberless similar facilities, each one less pleasant than the one before. Sharing themes with The Handmaid’s Tale and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the play’s warning is that things are likely to get worse, and then get worse again.

Lou Sumrall does good work as Nye, a hard-bitten predator of young boys; paradoxically, his character provides much of the play’s humor, while his chemical and electrical emasculation by the staff at Lonesome Hollow provides much of the pathos. He is matched by Frank Deal as Glover, a supercilious senior staffer at the site. Deal’s commitment to the demands of the role is compelling, playing as he does a subcontracting pseudo-head shrinker with a streak of sadism. The John Proctor of this tale is Tuck, played by Sheffield Chastain, a photographer-artist of the David Hamilton or Larry Clark stripe; his self-imposed occupational therapy is to build a meditation labyrinth of bricks set into the lawn.

The rings of security that surround the prison echo the ringed pattern of bricks in Tuck’s labyrinth. Ultimately, the degree to which they provide a barrier is equally illusory. As Glover points out that one need not follow the bricks to reach the center of the labyrinth, just so he also notes that the system of Lonesome Hollows does not provide a solution. “Even now we don’t feel safe,” he says. Oddly, perhaps this is the only note of hope that Blessing’s play offers.

Robert Klingelhoefer’s off-kilter set, panelled in fragrant cedar, greets us as we enter the Frank Center auditorium for Richard Dresser’s darkish comedy, The Pursuit of Happiness. Part of a trilogy of plays on the titular theme that Dresser is developing, Pursuit looks in on Annie and Neil, grasping but surviving professional-class parents who are faced with the prospect that their own child, Jodi, will not or cannot go to college. Jodi (Carter Niles), resists the pressure from her parents to recapitulate their own struggles for happiness, and at least for a time, doesn’t buy into the idea of happiness at all. She suspects, in a college application essay that goes astray, “If you see someone walking down the street smiling, don’t you assume that they’re insane?”

Andrea Cirie stands out as the driven, overwound Annie, a woman who will do anything to get her daughter into her alma mater. And Sheffield Chastain also shines as Tucker, Neil’s nebbishy office mate. His put-upon head-cock is a winner. The narrative seems to drag a bit getting us to the first-act closer, but otherwise there are good moments for all the cast to enjoy. Scene changes are framed by music from the Beatles, especially the gloomier bits of Abbey Road, under Sharath Patel’s design.

“Everyone must feel safe,” read Rachel Corrie on the wall of her grade-school classroom, and she took it as a motto for her life. Corrie went on to practice this thought to the fullest: as a young woman she travelled to Israel-occupied Gaza to serve as an anti-violence activist, or to use the more polemical term, a human shield. She met her untimely death in an incident with an Israeli bulldozer in 2003. Her journals and other papers have been assembled by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner into the 85-minute monologue My Name Is Rachel Corrie, a piece mastered by CATF veteran Anne Marie Nest. In the first half of the play, largely taking place in Corrie’s home in Olympia, Wash., during her college years, Nest works the confines of the Studio Theater (configured arena-style), flirting with the audience and often making direct eye contact. Corrie at this point in her life is a bit of a post-modern tree-hugger, albeit one who admits her imperfect grasp of the geopolitical situation.

The impassioned speechifying and tears are reserved for the closing moments of the second half, set in Gaza during the last two months of Corrie’s life. The heaviest moments (perhaps too heavy) are spoken on tape, in which a fellow activist gives his account of Corrie’s death. The passages of the play where Nest is called on to speak the words of others in her life—her mother, an ex-boyfriend—are less effective.

Perhaps we’re left with the feeling that Corrie’s life and death was the stuff of theater, that no one could be this intense. But in a coda, we see a 10-year-old Corrie captured on video, speaking before a school assembly against poverty and violence with the eloquence and assuredness of any adult.

Far from sermonizing, the monologue is an inspiring, challenging work. Of her own death, Rickman and Viner have selected a set-piece from Corrie’s writings that suggest she is stoic, perhaps even mystical, about her passing. The passage from life to death, she writes, is “just a shrug.”

In a program interview, Lee Blessing says,

What’s great about CATF is that they’re absolutely unafraid of subject matter. They seek out plays that challenge us as a society…. This play is not meant to move to completion of what to do. My hope is that it will trouble people and make them want to discuss the issues. I want them to feel that the play has credibility, that there is something troublingly believable about it.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • 1001, by Jason Grote, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Lonesome Hollow, by Lee Blessing, directed by Hal Brooks
  • The Pursuit of Happiness, by Richard Dresser, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • My Name Is Rachel Corrie, from the writings of Rachel Corrie, edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner, directed by Ed Herendeen
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