Contemporary American Theater Festival 2011

been here a whilePlays at this year’s CATF are dominated by grim themes of black-white race relations, with the concomitant issues of money, power, and social class. In four out of the five shows (none of them conventional musicals), someone at one time or another will break into song, and at least in one case, we in the audience are encouraged to join in.

The strongest production this year is Sam Shepard’s masterful new piece from 2009, the two-hander Ages of the Moon. On the front porch of a country cottage in Kentucky, two old friends sitting begin the play with a comic passage of Lum and Abner-style non sequitur; they run a series of emotional changes through silly bickering and a slapstick fight into the sharing of grievous loss, experiencing a kind of “functional pain.” The wakeup moment mid-act recalls duck hunting and a ceiling fan—don’t ask. Let’s just say that Sean McArdle earns his program credit. Festival veteran Anderson Matthews (Ames) is well matched with John Ottavino (Byron), each of them showing a range of autumnal colors of the heart. D .M. Woods’ subtle changes of light are stunning.

The play by the festival’s other heavy-hitter playwright, Race by David Mamet, is less successful. Mamet’s signature dialectic of interruption and contradiction is at work in this tight 75-minute script, but perhaps—perhaps—the script is too tight. Clues (props, costume changes) to the unfolding chronology of the piece’s three scenes are lacking; it’s only once we get home that we work out that the play has taken place over several days, at a minimum. And we’re left wondering why super-rich Charles Strickland has retained such an under-resourced law firm, one that apparently consists of two partners and an associate, with nary a Della Street nor Gertie in evidence to screen telephone calls. (Thanks to my Official Theater Companion for helping me work this out.)

Crystal A. Dickinson, the associate Susan in Race, does better as the giddy Billie in Tracy Thorne’s song-infused We Are Here. Unfortunately, the production’s static stage pictures and rushed pace undo Thorne’s exploration of a mother’s grief over the untimely loss of her child. Kyle Bradstreet’s From Prague demands much of our credulity. As rumpled academic Samuel, John Lescault misreads signals and commits an infidelity that entails life-ending consequences through a contrived chain of coincidences.

OTC and I left the festival on a stronger note, The Insurgents by Lucy Thurber. It’s an intriguing piece, albeit flawed. Sally (the got-game Cassie Beck) returns to her broken Massachusetts mill town home after failing to complete college, funded by an athletic scholarship. She becomes obsessed with the failures in other American cities: in a good passage she talks of visiting Detroit and New Orleans, places where “people walk around like it’s their fault.” Inspired by writings by and about American millennial insurrectionists of the 19th and 20th centuries—Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and Timothy McVeigh (Cary Donaldson in a hoodie, looking like a bearded Mark Zuckerberg)—Sally progresses from an uncertain yearning to right wrongs to an even more unfocused rage. Hence the problem with the play: though we understand Sally’s urge for vengeance, it’s evident that anything violent she might do will be small-scale. The theatrical space she inhabits doesn’t extend beyond her own shabby kitchen and her broken-down family.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
  • From Prague, by Kyle Bradstreet, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Race, by David Mamet, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Ages of the Moon, by Sam Shepard, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • We Are Here, by Tracy Thorne, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • The Insurgents, by Lucy Thurber, directed by Lear Debessonet

Leta and I found an intershow meal at the congenial Mellow Moods Cafe and Juice Bar on German Street.