Contemporary American Theater Festival 2010

This year’s festival, the twentieth, offers two plays that take fresh perspectives on the past decade’s hostilities; a two-character drama; and a musical contrivance that almost defies description. Despite what one character says of the conflict in Iraq and its aftermath—”It’s your mess, nothing to do with me”—Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Lidless makes it clear that all of us own this mess. When Alice (the super-flexible Eva Kaminsky), an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay and now out of the service running a flower shop fifteen years in the future, is confronted by Bashir (the doleful Barzin Akhavan), one of the prisoners on whom she performed extraordinary interrogation techniques, her repressed memories of that time come roaring back. The effects on Alice’s family take a tragic turn, leaving one of them literally breathless, but in the end a semblance of integration is achieved. Cowhig is a powerful storyteller with images: the passage in which Bashir crushes the blooms of a bouquet of yellow roses is stunning, while the climactic quintet rings with intensity. Certain plot developments (the question of daughter Rhiannon’s parentage, specifically) don’t seem to be fully anticipated, but a curtain speech suggests that this good work is still under development.

Akhavan returns as Yashin Shalid, a curator of antiquities in Mosul anxious that his museum’s treasures be protected from the imminent United States invasion, in Inana, by Michele Lowe. This is a slightly more comic role for him, as Yashin has just arrived in London bemused by his new wife Shali (Zabryna Guevara) who is exceptionally reluctant to begin the celebration of their wedding night. Michael Goodfriend shows some nice range in a couple of ensemble roles. While the story has a good misdirection to keep us guessing, it’s ultimately unsatisfying because Yashin’s success at saving the trove seems inevitable.

Kaminsky is joined by Helen-Jean Arthur in Jennifer Haley’s Breadcrumbs. Arthur plays Alida, a reclusive and crabbed writer, now an aging woman in the middle of her slide into dementia; she is accosted by needy, free-wheeling Beth, who tries to help Alida write her last story. The play is missing something: these two characters need someone else to bounce off them, so it came as no surprise to read Haley’s playwright’s note that they were lifted from a draft five-person play.

Lee Sellars’ and Max Baker’s concert with scenes, The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show, widely anticipated, disappoints. There’s certainly a lot to look at here: the four-piece band (sardonic indie rockers Eelwax Jesus) is set up center-right, while most of stage left belongs to a group home of residents who watch the band on TV, sing and dance along, and generally try to break through the glass of the screen. Then there is an 50s-era office set upstage (in front of the exposed back wall of the Frank Center theater), a scruffy man’s apartment, a woman ironing handkerchiefs (the tireless Margot White), and two large projection screens. At intermission, the screens offer a diverting montage of cheesy drive-in movie snack bar promotions and countdown clocks, and in the second act we see a fascinating old-school animation of basic plane geometry concepts—so engrossing that it upstages the live action. Alas, pacing in the book scenes (except for the “banter” between the band and the TV host, Kurt Zischke as the pneumatic Mr. Shine) is slow. And there just isn’t any there to tie this slightly surrealistic production together.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
  • Lidless, by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Inana, by Michele Lowe , directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Breadcrumbs, by Jennifer Haley, directed by Laura Kepley
  • The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show, book and lyrics by Max Baker, music by Lee Sellars, directed by Max Baker