Category Archives: Reviews

Come from Away

Come from Away is a celebration of the profound act of kindness performed by the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland, when 38 aircraft were diverted to its airport on 11 September 2001. For nearly a week, this community of fewer than 10,000 souls opened its homes and shelters to the stranded passengers from those flights.

The ensemble-driven musical tells, by composites, some of the many tales that these travelers have to tell; it doesn’t shy away from stories of loss (the penultimate number “Something’s Missing”) or of irrational fears (an Egyptian sojourner is eyed nervously), but it is fundamentally a play about sharing and hope. Generally fast-paced (the transition into a brief scene set in the maelstrom of an air traffic control tower on that horrid day is electric), there are brief moments when everything comes to dead stop for comedy—as you would, for instance, when a moose ambles in front of your bus. A revolve is used to good effect, giving the characters of Nick and Diane a way to stroll along the cliffs of the Dover Fault (“Stop the World”) while the cast scurries about placing chairs for them to step to. Most importantly, it’s a show that calls for an ensemble of mostly character actors, notably Astrid Van Wieren’s welcoming schoolmaster Beulah, Joel Hatch’s suite of local mayors, and Geno Carr’s slightly befuddled local constable.

The music is traditional Maritimes folk music with a strong rock and roll bottom—if not particularly challenging, it’s certainly rousing. It stirs the emotions.

  • Come from Away, book, music, and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein, directed by Christopher Ashley, Ford’s Theatre, Washington
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Angels in America

A short post to call out just a couple of the exceptionally strong elements of the Round House/Olney Theatre Center joint production:

Jon Hudson Odom is delightful as Belize; Dawn Ursula’s keening as the Angel is other-worldly. The production relies much on fun projections by Clint Allen and lights by York Kennedy: the arrival of the Angel, the alien streetscape of San Francisco, the talking dummies at the Mormon visitor center.

  • Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, by Tony Kushner, directed by Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, Bethesda, Maryland
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 3

This year’s festival delivered some solid and memorable shows and some disappointments. Such was Chisa Hutchinson’s The Wedding Gift, a play that doesn’t surpass the promise of its premise.

In this fairly transparent parable, Jason Babinsky’s Doug finds himself transported into an alien culture where he is the only fair-skinned humanoid. He is a shimseh, “like a pet, only more useful,” presented to the wife (Margaret Ivey’s Nahlis) of a newly married royal couple. Doug discovers the ways of this new world only gradually, because only two others (including the enjoyable Edward O’Blenis as Translating Attendant) speak any English; great swathes of dialogue are delivered in a language of Hutchinson’s invention. The conlang has the intended effect of disorientation, but it also means that small plot points are confused, and any subtlety of psychology is lost. How exactly is Doug to perform, in the eyes of Nahlis’s new husband Beshrum (Damian Thompson, with an impressive high leg kick)? We’ll never know.

Nevertheless, the play offers the tech teams the opportunity to go a little crazy, from Peggy McKowen’s costumes to Nathan A. Roberts’ and Charles Coes’ soundscapes. Director May Adrales establishes a movement and gestural vocabulary for this strange new planet, and then encourages each actor/character to invent within that framework: a gesture of mourning, expressed at the top of act 2, is both easily understood and unique to each player.

And if the denouement owes something to a certain series of dystopian films from the 1960s and 70s, at least we learn how the post-apocalyptic inhabitants of this world say, “I guarantee you there’s no problem.”

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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 2

Festival veteran and favorite Joey Parsons takes on the epic role of Medea in the intimate space of Studio 112, as reworked by Allison Gregory in her Not Medea, a version that overlays Euripides’ tragic figure with a modern-day pediatric nurse who is desperately trying to keep her shit together. Called simply Woman in the program, Parsons portrays her with a flexible acting instrument imbued with yogic control.

While the play, with its fourth wall breaking worthy of early Stoppard, is generally effective in arousing our empathy for Woman’s loss (due to an ill-timed [self-inflicted?] distraction), it is on surer ground in its re-enactment of the old Greek tale. There are moments of magic conjured out of the mundane (body lotion from the shopping mall that becomes a shield of invincibility), and the rock-lined pool of water on Jesse Dreikosen’s set actually has a purpose—indeed, multiple ones (even though it is the cause of a scripted cleanup by the running crew).

Ben Chase as Jason provides stalwart partnering, while Rachael Balcanoff as Chorus nicely rides the text’s half-sung, half-spoken sections with a sweet singing voice.

Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues is an insipid undertaking. Photographer Danny arranges a reunion of her three Boomer-generation friends for the culmination of a long-running group portrait project (cf. Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of the Brown sisters). Trouble is, she’s never arranged for her friends to sign release forms. The unnatural dialogue among characters who represent types, not real people, rarely rises above what OTC Leta calls a certain “scriptiness.” (Although nimbus-haired Kathryn Grody brings a little oomph to Gabby.) Imagine the leaden heart of Return of the Secaucus 7 further dragged down by discussions about paperwork.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • Not Medea, by Allison Gregory, directed by Courtney Sale
  • 20th Century Blues, by Susan Miller, directed by Ed Herendeen
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Contemporary American Theater Festival 2016: 1

Christina Anderson’s pen/man/ship starts with some interesting materials — a black man in charge of a former whaling ship in 1896, bound for a somewhat mysterious expedition to Liberia; a free-thinking woman willing to challenge and assume authority — and the play features some committed acting performances. But much of the action is static, featuring the rather tired device of a character reading his own journal entries. The play reads as an academic exercise. The design choice to cover the deck of the Marinoff stage with an inch of water, requiring the four actors to perform in bare feet, comes off not as a metaphor but rather as a self-imposed restriction.

The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, begins with an equally intriguing premise: the action plays in the kitchen of the home of Eugene O’Neill’s Tyrone family, simultaneous with the events related in his Long Day’s Journey into Night. We meet the cook Bridget Conroy (Jessica Wortham) and the chauffeur Jack Smythe (Ted Koch), both of them offstage in O’Neill, as well as the titular “second girl,” Cathleen Mullin (Cathryn Wake), common to both plays. Kris Stone’s kitchen set is meticulously dressed and fitted with a working stove and sink. Noone’s delicate drama is gradually unfolding, underscored by simple (and grinding) household tasks like food preparation and loading coal into a stove. The ambiguous ending offers some hope of escape, some chance for dreams to be realized — at least for some of the characters.

  • Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W. Va.
  • pen/man/ship, by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
  • The Second Girl, by Ronan Noone, directed by Ed Herendeen
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An Octoroon

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins brings us An Octoroon, his very strong post-modern and post-theatrical adaptation of an 1859 melodrama by Dionysius Boucicault (in turn, a version of a novel by Thomas Maine Reid). It’s genuinely provocative, on several levels, from the visceral (an historical image projected on the stage at a key point hits its mark) to the intellectual to the spectacular; Boucicault was writing and producing in the genre that demanded big theatrical effects, and this production both comments on that genre and makes good on its promise, with a outsized KABOOM!

Jacobs-Jenkins helps us out by framing his adaptation with direct address by two different versions of the playwright (one played by an African American and one by a European American [James Konicek, with the voice of an angelic bassoon]) in which he explains the creative and production challenges of reconstructing a pre-Civil War potboiler that calls for a cast of 21. In this way, he prepares us for an distanced approach to the material that he has reworked and appropriated for his own means—in a way that his misbegotten Appropriate does not. (Perhaps one’s reactions to that other play depend on whether one takes the title as an adjective or a verb.) Jacobs-Jenkins thus calls to mind another master and occasional mishandler of irony, surfaces, and the reality beneath, Herman Melville.

Suffice it to say that this is a show that benefits from program notes by the dramaturg and two company staffers concerned with things literary.

The script—and this production—attacks the question of appearance vs. reality by employing a black actor in whiteface, a white actor in redface, and another actor in the crudest of minstrelsy’s blackface (and “lawsa-lawsa” dialect). Certain characters act and speak as if they were on a stage in the 1800s, ready for their turn at Ford’s on 10th Street, while others (the entertaining Shannon Dorsey as Minnie) speak in the most contemporary of hip-hop vernacular. Pre-recorded underscoring accompanies expressive live cello work by Katie Chambers. A character eats a real banana, seated on a stage whose floor is covered in bits of cotton… representing, what exactly? A disaster effect is a blatant borrowing of a sight gag perfected by Buster Keaton nearly a century ago.

This is not to take away from the stage chops on display by Jon Hudson Odom in the triple roles of BJJ (one of Jacobs-Jenkins’s standins), George (the hero), and M’Closky (the mustache-twirling villain). The third-act cliffhanger calls for Odom to execute a knife fight with himself: smartly done!

  • An Octoroon, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Nataki Garrett, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

At the top of show, BJJ drinks off half of bottle of what looks to be whiskey. Woolly hasn’t seen such an interesting draught since Rob Leo Roy nightly chugged an bottle of Yoo-Hoo in The Food Chain.

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Journey to the West

Mary Zimmerman’s Journey to the West is another of her masterful renderings of ancient texts as modern theater, and it receives an equally masterful staging by Allison Arkell Stockman’s Constellation Theatre Company within the friendly confines of the Source Theatre space. The ensemble cast portrays episodes from the pilgrimage of the monk Tripitaka, drawing on a Ming dynasty novel that in turn adapted mythic materials from 1000 years earlier. The evening is packed with theatrical storytelling.

We watch very entertaining personified animals who accompany Tripitaka on his journey to the wellsprings of Eastern religion—strongest of these is the yogic, gymnastic Dallas Tolentino as the Monkey King. (This is basically a superhero road trip movie, with better karma.) There are trickster’s personality exchanges, a lengthy fight in slow motion, and multiple distinct water effects achieved with banners. The magnificent cornucopia of costumes are by Kendra Rai; composer/musician/sound designer Tom Teasley crowds numerous effects into his small space, including an inventive rendering of a pig at the trough.

  • Journey to the West, by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Allison Arkell Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company, Washington

There were several respectful younger audience members at this matinee performance, but with a running time of 2:50, some budding theatergoers may find it a bit long.

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The Nether

The titular Nether of this dystopian play is an immersive cyberspace where anything imaginable—legal or otherwise—is possible. Its weakness is the condescending script: for some reason, the old saw that pornography leads technological advances is trotted out. A police detective, investigating improprieties in the Nether, has precisely one verb to play: to hector.

A cloudy plexiglas box encloses the set in early sequences, causing significant audibility problems for us in row E.

The dismal enterprise is lightened by Jared Mezzocchi’s dazzling projections and the performance of Maya Brettell as Iris, a fantasy avatar.

  • The Nether, by Jennifer Haley, directed by Shana Cooper, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Guards at the Taj

Rajiv Joseph fancies two guards assigned duty at the soon-to-be-unveiled Taj Mahal in 1648: the dour, straight arrow Humayun (Ethan Hova) and the free-spirited, bumbling, imaginative Babur (the fearless Kenneth De Abrew). They’re called upon to execute a quite bloody task, and their temporary paralysis in reaction to this horror turns out to be quite funny: complementary disabilities that suggest Beckett’s similarly doomed Hamm and Clov. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan conjures an ominous sonic landscape in the pre-dawn hours while the two clowns await their fate.

  • Gaurds at the Taj, by Rajiv Joseph, directed by John Vreeke, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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The Critic and The Real Inspector Hound

Early Stoppard and rebooted Sheridan, in an adaptation by Jeffrey Hatcher, both of them quite fun. One might think that there is nothing funny left to be found in a play-within-a-play that experiences a disastrous run-through, but errant 18th century stage machinery and wobbly wigs are up to the task. And how much more interesting, how reflexive, that the Guffman for whom the play is being presented is “Sheridan” himself. Robert Dorfman is very fine as Mr. Sneer, egging on the hapless Sir Fretful Plagiary (John Catron), giving him ridiculous notes that move his historical play of the Spanish Armada onto a plane not visited by reality.

In the second half”s Stoppard, the opening monologue by theater critic Moon—a celebration of second-stringers and deputies—was all the more piquant on the night we heard it, as understudy Brit Herring was standing in as Moon. Naomi Jacobson is perfect as Mrs. Drudge, the dogsbody of Muldoon Manor who answers the telephone with the scene-setting stage directions. Dorfman is quite deranged as Inspector Hound, as if Agatha Christie’s Sgt. Trotter were played by a braying Harpo Marx. And hats off to the props and effects departments, who provide an offstage crashbox that actually sounds funny, as well as the excruciatingly noisy chocolates wrapper with which Birdboot opens the proceedings.

Who is the mysterious intruder? Tom Stoppard offered this answer in a 1999 speech reprinted as a program note: “…a play which depends on keeping its secrets isn’t worth seeing twice… When it comes to mystery stories I am in agreement with Edmund Wilson… whodunits would be more interesting if Playbill named the murderer.”

  • The Critic, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher
  • The Real Inspector Hound, by Tom Stoppard, both directed by Michael Kahn, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington
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Sweat

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat (commissioned and produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) is a distillation of the frustrations and personal tragedies visited on the working class of Reading, Pennsylvania. The economic shocks of globalization generally and NAFTA specifically resound here on Route 422 as plant closings, lockouts, and busted pensions. Nottage dramatizes these Berks County stories with a strong ensemble of nine fully-realized characters, by turns striving, washed up, deluded, and occasionally successful. All of them, in one way or another, are trying to find a way to hold the line, be it against strikebreakers, addiction, or self-destructive violence. And through Nottage’s particulars she achieves a universal.

The main playing space is a local bar, designed by John Lee Beatty, meticulously tricked out with lamps advertising beer and a TV set playing news from the Bush-Gore campaign of 2000. It’s almost too good looking—one feels the need of a little grit and grime in the corners. It’s presided over by Jack Willis’s Stan, a veteran of both Vietnam and the shop floor; although partially disabled, he makes a worthy bartender, his voice a powerful deep bray of sardonic acceptance.

  • Sweat, by Lynn Nottage, directed by Kate Whoriskey, Arena Stage Kreeger Theater, Washington

In a note in the program book, Executive Producer Edgar Dobie calls out the importance of unions and collective bargaining to the artistic process.

Embracing a system of unions benefits both employees and employers; the production you are about to enjoy would not have been possible without several of the unions mentioned above, nor could it have transferred from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to Arena in its original form. We are indebted to the men and women who are represented within these unions, as they hold us accountable to our commitment to fairness and prosperity.

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New venues, 2015

Didn’t get around much this year, but I did visit one performance space that is no more.

2014’s list. 2013’s list. 2012’s list. 2011’s list.

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Winners and Losers

Winners and Losers is an intriguing agon of words, a novel way to open up personal storytelling. Scripted and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, both of Vancouver, B.C., with breakouts of improvisatory riffs and a quick game of ping-pong, the work is a rapid-fire debate over the question of who, or what, is the biggest winner.

Warming up with a quick assessment of what they had for dinner last night, they move on to topics like whether Canada or the U.S has handled its First Nations/American Indian issues better. Digging most deeply, they confront one another: is James or Marcus the more worldly wise, the better father, the more successful person?

It’s key to their argument that you have to consider the resources randomly doled out to each of us when we commence this Checkered Game of Life. Through a bit of mental martial arts, a dominant culture like the U.S. can be seen as weak. (To physicalize this line of reasoning, the two men engage in a brief [we hope, choreographed] bout of wrestling.) Perhaps they explain it best in an interview with Woolly:

MARCUS: Doing the show in DC is a dream. You guys live in the centre. Of an empire. Holy winner. And we feel like winners just for being invited–that’s the Canadian way. But is your empire in decline? Seems like it. Then who’s the bigger loser? You guys, for an electoral system entirely about raising unimaginable sums of cash over an absurd length of time? Or the rest of us, for paying far closer attention to your endless electoral sideshow than than what’s actually going on in our own countries?

The stories they tell are sometimes hilarious, sometimes chastening (Marcus once worked in a hospital laundry, sorting through the fouled sheets of the departed), sometimes a little crazy (James’s set piece in a dive bar about swapping insult jokes with a First Nations man recently released from prison). Embellished? Perhaps. But it makes a good story.

James and Marcus are marvels of the improvisatory “yes-and” even when the requirements of the piece call for a “no-but.”

  • Winners and Losers, created and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, directed by Chris Abraham, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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Women Laughing Alone with Salad

Sheila Callaghan’s new play, a satire of gender roles and social expectations about mental and physical fitness, features some high-energy set pieces: white girls rapping about how to satisfy them, a dance club that morphs into a Paris boîte in the 1920s, a food fight with heads of lettuce. There’s a rejuvenation regimen with just a few nasty side effects that suggests the grotesqueries of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. What the play lacks is any sort of emotional journey for Meredith, Tori, or Sandy to embark upon.

It’s only in the second act, when a well-executed reversal develops, that we see much in the way of human feelings: it comes in the form of a lovely monologue by Janet Ulrich Brooks, looking back on the life of her first act character (Sandy) through the eyes of Sandy’s son.

  • Women Laughing Alone with Salad, by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Kip Fagan, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington
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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
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