by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
New play festivals are the lifeblood of the American theatre scene. If you have never gone to one, you ought to consider going and if you are a real theatre buff you will be in seventh heaven.
The Dual Critics have attended the annual conferences of the American Theatre Critics Association for several years, in cities throughout the United States. During July 17-21, we attended one of the most unique conferences at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (catf.org) on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where we saw five plays .
Shepherdstown is the oldest city in West Virginia, which has provided an unlikely but remarkable setting for the past 23 years for America’s newest plays. It is quaint, about ninety minutes by car from Baltimore or Washington, D.C., with a year-round population of just over 800 townspeople. The population expands during the academic year when the university, a liberal arts school with an enrollment of over 4,000 students, is in session. It has a village atmosphere with small shops that include a number of family owned and run restaurants that have been around for many years. We can highly recommend Betty’s, which has been open for fifty years; once you have tasted their food and enjoyed their down-home hospitality, you will know why.
Several hotels and inns offer accommodations. The Theatre Critics stayed at the granddaddy of them all, the Bavarian Inn, (bavarianinnwv.com) which was charming and rustic with old world European architecture. Located on the Potomac River, it is right across the street from the University and the three theatre venues of the Festival are less than five to ten minutes away.
Festival staff members were friendly, helpful, and interactive. Especially supportive were Ed Herendeen, Producing Director and Founder; Peggy McKowen, Associate Producing Director; James McNeel, Managing Director; and Jenny Ewing Allen, President of the CATF Board of Trustees.
Mr. Herendeen was very proud of the accomplishment of having produced 100 plays. He told us that the festival produces mostly new work, but also believes in giving authors a second run on their creations; they don’t do musicals. The works are presented in repertory during three weeks in July, and while he does all the casting, he is open to recommendations from playwrights and directors. The festival presents plays on a variety of subjects and seeks out bold voices. Indeed, CATF has not been afraid of controversy; in 2007 they produced “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, a play that was originally “postponed indefinitely” in New York.
“Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them”, written by Jon Kern and directed by Mr. Herendeen, was originally produced in New York and could certainly be classified as controversial. It concerns three terrorists in New York planning a suicide bombing with at first bumbling results, which were often humorous, as intended by the author.
The play with the intriguing title of “Scott and Hem In the Garden of Allah” was a world premiere commissioned by CATF and was written and directed by Mark St. Germain. This was an interesting fictitious meeting between Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937. Hemingway was at the height of his success while Fitzgerald’s career was waning. It was a very interesting piece from a literary standpoint. Rod Brogan as Hemingway and Joey Collins as Fitzgerald were outstanding performers.
“Heartless” by Sam Shepard opened originally in New York in 2012. The play explores family relationships, with the mother as a controlling matriarch, her nurse, two daughters, and an aging suitor. But we learn that all is not as it seems. One of the daughters is alive only because she has had a heart transplant, and is troubled by the continued presence of the donor, which layers unhappy family dynamics with an unexpected surrealism.
The Salem witch trials in the late 1600s inspired playwright Liz Duffy Adams to create a world premiere entitled “A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World”. The play is set in 1702, ten years after the trials, in a rustic tavern in New England. Two women, whose accusations and testimony were instrumental in the executions of many others as witches, meet after a separation of several years, and engage in a heated dispute about the morality of their actions. A self-righteous preacher and his buddy arrive and, learning of their past, decide to put them on trial. Mr. Brogan and Mr. Collins, who shined as Hemingway and Scott, play the preacher and his friend and are equally impressive in these roles. The author also directed this interesting play, which certainly has a future on many stages.
The play that had the most buzz among the critics was the world premiere of “H20”, by Jane Martin. Many of the mysterious Jane Martin’s plays debuted at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville and notably included the works ”Talking With”, “Vital Signs”, “Keely and Du”, “Jack and Jill”, and “Anton in Show Business” .
The plot of “H20” concerns the relationship of Jake (Alex Podulke) a successful actor (financially, not artistically successful), and Deborah (Diane Mair), very attractive and very religious, who is trying to break into theater as an actress. Jake is a rude and crude substance abuser who has the desire and the money to do “Hamlet” and hires Deborah to play Ophelia. She wants to save Jake, he wants to seduce Deborah. The play was superbly directed by John Jory who was the Artistic Director of the Humana Festival for many years and now teaches acting at The Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Ms. Mair and Mr. Podulke performed brilliantly, and hopefully they will have the opportunity to reprise their roles many times. This play certainly will be a hit and should be very successful.
Besides seeing the five plays, the American Theatre Critics held workshops and panel discussions. Additionally, Jason Zinoman, theatre critic for the New York Times, presented “Perspectives on Criticism”, the keynote address.
The final performance of this year’s festival is on July 28. You can be sure that Festival Founder and Producing Director Ed Herendeen is already thinking and planning for season 24 in July, 2014. The festival produces excellent shows, with equity actors, marvelous sets and costumes and the hospitality extended by the staff is wonderful. This area of West Virginia is surrounded by historical civil war sites like Harpers Ferry, Gettysburg, and Antietam; combine this with natural beauty and theatre opportunities and it is indeed the spot for a unique and fantastic vacation for theatre lovers.