Contemporary American Theater Festival 2013

It’s usually the case that two or three of the plays at CATF share a thematic affinity. This year, three shows are connected by the theme of religious zealotry—not precisely extremism, but perhaps overcommitment, to the point of a fault.

The first of these is the drama A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams, which takes place in coastal Massachusetts in 1702, ten years after the Salem witch trials. And indeed, the first act comprises the retrial of Abigail Williams (Susannah Hoffman), one of the accusers and key player in Arthur Miller’s version of events, The Crucible. Abigail finds herself accused of witchcraft herself, via a chain of suspicion and hysteria not unlike Miller’s story. Although, in a sly aside, we are reminded that you can’t trust any of those stories that “the Miller” made up.

One of the most interesting passages is a fanciful recounting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the young indentured servant Rebekkah (small but powerful Becky Byers). Rebekkah once visited the big city of New York and observed a touring company production. In her garbled retelling, the Scottish thane is named “MacDeath” and royalty are referred to as governors. (There’s a nice resonance with Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.) There are also hints of another work of Shakespeare’s: a discussion of utopian societies by Abigail and a mysterious stranger (Gerardo Rodriguez) reminds us of The Tempest.

Technical elements are very effective here: the subtle flickering of lamp light from floor-mounted instruments (designed by D. M. Wood); the muffled roar of distant surf at the back of house left (sound design by Eric Shimelonis).

Next is the comedy Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, by Jon Kern–a very funny farce with death at its center, and the all-around most successful work in the festival. Here the fanatics are a trio of feckless Muslim suicide bombers working out of an apartment in Brooklyn: Qalalaase (Royce Johnson), a Somali who seems to be condemned to the “those who can’t do, teach” track of terrorism; Yalda Abbasi (Mahira Kakkar), a Pakistani woman whose emotions are even more tightly wound than her headscarf; and the moonstruck Rahim Janjua (Omar Maskati), whose fanaticism for the films of George Lucas and the computers of Steve Jobs exceeds his devotion to jihad. Despite all efforts, they find themselves joined by Jerome, their upstairs neighbor (the superb Kohler McKenzie), a stoner who’d never found a purpose in life until he discovered holy war.

Lots of good physical comedy in this one: Johnson ‘s hand shoved into the back of Maskati’s briefs, checking for moisture that might disrupt the bomb he’s attached to Rahim’s scrotum; Kakkar unspooling and strewing an entire roll of paper towels lest her unwanted guest spill tea (or his own blood) on the upholstery; a crazy blind backwards cross by McKenzie that calls for him to step over a coffee table and love seat, with akimbo grace.

Although it’s been almost twelve years since the attacks in Washington and New York, and our healing has come to the point that we can laugh at some of the blundering war criminals who have followed, and although the time will come (as one character says) when Osama bin Laden is a face to be silk-screened onto an ironic tee shirt, it’s worth remembering the gore and destruction that bombers of any stripe are accountable for. And remembering the compassion that goes into a good laugh.

It’s probably stretching a point to include Jane Martin’s H2O with the others, but there is no question that Deborah (the laser-focused Diane Mair) is dedicated to her Christianity. Once again, Martin succeeds in taking a character from a tradition easily parodied or ridiculed (or worse, just dismissed) and writing a genuine person, one with a burning inner life (think of Martin’s early Twirler). If the setup of this play too much resembles Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet and Martin’s own Anton in Show Business (commercially successful movie actor [Alex Podulke as Jake] seeks stage cred, talented actor as mentor), be assured that the resolution of this play is bitterly sharp (perhaps excessively so) and calls for Deborah to give up more of herself than she ever has before. Deborah’s eyes, impossibly wide-open and ready for the world at the start of the play, end up hooded and ringed in darkness.

The remaining two plays perhaps could be connected with the idea of contemplating the abyss; this idea connects them back to the seaside cliffs of Discourse as well. In the first instance, Sam Shepard’s enigmatic ghost story Heartless, the psychological hole is physicalized as the canyons of Los Angeles and environs. One character drops into a chasm and returns unharmed; another looks into the void and (perhaps reliably) explains the backstory of her daughter’s brutal chest scar. There is a recollection of climbing a tree, Nicodemus-like, to gaze on the beautiful burnout that was James Dean.

What’s special about this play, for Shepard, is that his strong writing here is for his four women characters. Michael Cullen’s Roscoe (a ruined academic on the run from his marriage and his life) is important to the play for introducing us to the more seriously damaged Mable (Kathleen Butler) and her family. In another Shepard play, Roscoe would take center stage.

And there are jelly donuts.

On the lighter side is the bio-comedy Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, by Mark St. Germain. The abyss is no deeper than the swimming pool next door to the apartment where F. Scott Fitzgerald (Joey Collins) is holed up doing Hollywood script rewrites, but there is a real threat that Fitzgerald will drop back into alcoholism and the self-pity of a creator who never lived up to his early promise. A visit by the false friend Ernest Hemingway (the boisterous Rod Brogan) knocks him off the edge.

Entertaining as the play is, it carries the burden of too much research, too much name-checking. Benchley, Parker, the Murphys—didn’t these guys have any friends that we’ve never heard of?

If you don’t agree with these reviews, remember Qalalaase’s advice: “The internet is full of falsehoods.”

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World, by Liz Duffy Adams, directed by Kent Nicholson
  • Modern Terrorism, Or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them, by Jon Kern, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • H2O, by Jane Martin, directed by John Jory
  • Heartless, by Sam Shepard, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, written and directed by Mark St. Germain