Contemporary American Theater Festival 2015

A Festival that gives the design departments an opportunity to shine.

¶ In her new play, World Builders, Johnna Adams revisits some of the territory she last explored in the distasteful Gidion’s Knot (this time to better effect): the power and importance of personal worlds of the imagination, albeit streaked with fantasies of revenge and death. Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and Max (Chris Thorn) are psychiatric patients enrolled in a clinical drug study who face a familiar dilemma: continue treatment, but at the loss of their individual universes, hearts, and souls.

While Whitney’s interior world is an elaborate multiplanetary melodrama, something out of George R. R. Martin (a writer mentioned by Adams in her program notes), Max imagines a constricted place more suggestive of Beckett’s The Lost Ones. In a rather intense, economical 90 minutes, it’s a bit of comic relief when Max finds logical inconsistencies in Whitney’s complex apparatus.

Whitney and Max develop what you might call a relationship, and along the way find a way to accommodate one another’s fantasies—a good metaphor for the space each of us sacrifices to make room for another person in our worlds, our hearts.

Arshan Gailus supplies the subtle, effective soundscape.

¶ The strongest and most ambitious piece is Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, a rich, dark comic fantasia of fashion and body image, nougat laced with hot sauce. We follow the paired journeys of Jess (Dina Thomas), a schlubby software technologist of the present day who has rejected her mother’s ideals of feminine beauty (and disparages herself for it); and Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), a 1970s fashion designer who breaks onto the scene as an Alexander McQueen/Malcolm McLaren-ish child of the avant garde and undergoes a Damascene conversion into an easy, breezy Halston-like esthetic. Scenes interleave, mixing up present and past. Victor and Jess, each in their own way, come to a crossroads of identity, asking am I defined by this schmatte that I’m wearing? by the fast-food restaurant I frequent? Do I want to make art, or be accepted by the buyers for Dillard’s? And each makes a choice, although Victor’s is quite different from Jess’s.

The technical elements of this production need to be on the Festival’s highlight reel. Foremost among these elements are the costumes designed by Peggy McKowen, launching the play with a series of outrageous couture pieces for Victor’s 1974 show. The actor/models in that show also serve as ensemble, as well as autonomous set pieces to fill in the multiple locations called for by the script. What a luxury for director May Adrales to be furnished with a bedside table that can react to a remark by Jess about her mother. Also key for getting us from place to place are the projections, designed by Shawn Duan and projected against David M. Barber’s set. (I’m still wondering how Duan achieved the effect that ends the prologue.)

Some parts of the more outré costumes feel out of place in the mid-seventies, at times leaving us a bit confused about when we are. And the dialogue (and relationship) between Jess and her engineer colleague Lewis is rather weak.

But if you’ve only time for one show in this year’s Festival, Everything You Touch is the one to see.

¶ Michael Weller’s adaptation of David Carkeet’s novel, The Full Catastrophe, is an entertaining comedy of relationships that doesn’t reach too far. Jeremy Cook, a professional linguist down on his academic luck, takes a position as an unconventional marriage counselor with the Pillow Group, led by eccentric magnate Roy Pillow (Festival favorite Lee Sellars). To say that Pillow’s methods are opaque would be utter understatement.

In bringing the book to the stage, Weller excises an unnecessary subplot of professional jealousy but retains Jeremy’s point of view narration. If the early passages are a bit too expositional, Jeremy’s wry asides to us are usually worth it. T. Ryder Smith, covering the enesemble roles (his program credit is “Everyone Else”), earned his ovation for his last character’s final exit.

¶ Steven Dietz, in the program notes to his thriller, On Clover Road, says that the play is “built to take members of the audience certain that know what is going to happen and instead something wholly different happens.” Unfortunately, what does happen here, especially at the crux of Act 1 into Act 2, is wholly implausible.

The set, designed by David M. Barber and lit by John Ambrosone, is a grungy, crepuscular abandoned motel room. Much of the action is primarily illuminated by a portable mechanic’s work light, positioned down center on the floor. The lamp’s position and the slight rake of the stage make a powerful shadow play on the back wall.

The story of the play concerns a dissolute mother seeking to extract her teenage daughter from a religious cult with the assistance of a deprogrammer of questionable means. We’re left with no one to root for, even when the cult leader, played with silicone-slick determination by Tom Coiner, appears in the second half.

WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammond, brings new life to the expression “show trial.” The play provides a context for the antics of the provocative Russian feminist group, a punk artist collective whose means and motives are easily misinterpreted by Western media.

The piece incorporates a jumble of overtly theatrical elements, some more successful than others: exaggerated gesture, lines spoken as a chorus, audience participation, a dance break with Madonna (who has spoken publicly in support of the group). If the pre-show in the cramped lobby of the Marinoff is a muddle, the cast are quick on their feet in dealing with audience members. (On premiere night, T. Ryder Smith, as Russian prosecutor, gave somewhat willing volunteer Paul a sheet of charges to read; when Paul begged off, saying that he needed his reading glasses, Smith bounded back to Paul’s companion in search of the specs.)

The scenes of the 2012 trial of three members of Pussy Riot, with dialogue taken almost exclusively from public statements, are interleaved with scenes in the cell of dissident Sergey (Smith, again), a composite character. While we are left with the impression that the young women’s movement will prove to be a flash in the pan, the passages with Sergey give the play gravity, bringing all that dancing on the catwalk back to earth. Russia’s problems and injustices aren’t going away soon, and maybe this kick in the shins from these young women with their guitars and video cameras will spark something of lasting impact.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • World Builders, by Johnna Adams, directed by Nicole A. Watson
  • Everything You Touch, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by May Adrales
  • On Clover Road, by Steven Dietz, directed by Ed Herendeen
  • WE ARE PUSSY RIOT, by Barbara Hammon, directed by Tea Alagić
  • The Full Catastrophe, by Michael Weller, based on the novel by David Carkeet, directed by Ed Herendeen