Contemporary American Theater Festival Launches its 25th year

The newest theater works in America presented in West Virginia’s oldest City, Shepherdstown.

Commentary and review by Grace Cavalieri

World Builders by Johanna Adams. Directed by Nicole Watson. (world premiere)
Everything You Touch by Sheila Callaghan. Directed by May Adrales.
On Clover Road by Steven Dietz. Directed by Ed Herendeen.(world premiere)
We Are Pussy Riot by Barbara Hammond. Directed by Tea Alagic’. (world premiere)
The Full Catastrophe by Michael Weller(Based on the novel by David Carkeet.) Directed by Ed Herendeen. (world premiere)

When my 10-year-old granddaughter, Rachel, visited our home in Hedgesville, years ago, we took her to a new theater event in nearby Shepherd College. We sat on benches in a studio theater with large fans in a hot July. I think the play had clowns or puppets, but I’m not sure. Today Rachel is 35 years old, a successful person in the world. And CATF is America’s premiere regional theater.

Two plays of the five extraordinary plays presented are the best theater I’ve seen in any theater, anywhere, in many years. Each work is an emblem of what can be done to illuminate this time in history, at this moment, lighting which of Dante rings we want to turn into a stage.

“WORLD BUILDERS” by Johanna Adams.

Johanna Adam’s “World Builders” is a world premiere. Her previous play at CATF “Gidion’s Knot” (2012) was so arresting I called a director in LA who’s active in theater and film. He received the script, tried for the play, but it was already optioned. That is one illustration of the power and reach of CATF. It was already optioned one month after premiere,

“World Builders” is a play about two schizophrenic patients participating in a drug experiment—taking pills at intervals so that their fantasy worlds will dissolve and restore them to “normal” functioning members of society. Whitney (Brenna Palughi) wants to connect; she wants to share fantasy worlds—Max (Chris Thorn) want to keep his private. But if the pills work, Whitney knows she’ll lose her magnificent multi-galaxied construction, and wants someone to see her work of art. She knows her world is intergalactic and better than his, she’s sure— but, it’s still a dying world and Max is the only one who can possibly know it before it goes away forever.

Whitney’s fantastic universe she describes as “feeling” centered, a living thing:” the closest thing I have for a heart.” Max disputes her logic, step by step, struggling with his solitary anguish. Their relationship grows as they reveal their private imaginary worlds with complex and stunning narratives. Max’s fantasy world is a hole in the ground where women die. He’s doomed to watching the women die there, observing their final moments, unable to save them, except perhaps in memory. Whitney and Max write a manifesto to let doctors know how they feel. As their imagined worlds are dying, true feelings are being created between them.

Max envies Whitney’s world. Hers is paradise. His is a responsibility for the cruelty of humankind. And as these two face the knowledge that there will soon be nothing left of their fantasies, they want to fill impending emptiness with the reality of each other. But how? Should both discontinue the pills, once at home? Should one allow the survival of complex parallel universes? How to make a relationship possible? How to find an internal model for external possibilities; and not lose all they imagined?

This is a play of philosophical significance. Suffering and vulnerability are what make art. But not all art is equal to the necessary capacity for pain that is required. Johnna Adams’ is our new stage treasure; and her characters will live longer than we do.

“EVERYTHING YOU TOUCH” by Sheila Callaghan.

If the interior world is amplified with intelligence and insight by Johanna Adams, the external world is turned to magic by Sheila Callaghan epitomizing that theater is spectacle, the more highly imagined the better.

The play begins with a fabulous fashion show (you know like the ones we watch on TV with birdcages for hats) and fabulous it is. Callaghan satirizes the world of high couture with robot like models and ruthless dehumanization in the name of clothing as art. A wonderful point is made early on: A model wearing an outfit with legs stylishly tied together, falls, of course, and is upbraided by Victor, our narcissistic anorexic designer; finally she no longer sees reason to go on living. He wants fashion to be “furious”, to “make my blood boil” with clothes that are “anxiety ridden” and “obsessive.” “Can you make a garment look like a Sunday suicide?”

This writing is fabulous and the stage sets, lighting, costumes are equal to the task. What a winner this production is. Callaghan uses every tool in the theater book: monologues, singing, dreams, flashbacks, flash forwards, and not a one of them fails her.

Our frumpy overweight heroine, Jess, (Dina Thomas), is dreading a visit to her dying mother who was a fashion maven—but she is to be transformed by Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), temporarily to be sure, but enough to enter the world of unwearable shoes and a chance to see who her true love is—fellow nerd, Lewis, (Mark Thomas) back at the office, who keeps updating her on their business of the day.

Victor’s office is shared with ultimate extreme fashioner “Esme” (Libby Matthews); and in comes Louella from Little Rock Arkansas with a box of cupcakes. Esme is Victor’s muse and not willing to share her space but Louella (Marianna McClellan) won the trip to NYC and is happily on board in her mint green pastel outfit from Dillard’s bargain rack. From this grid of characters where” beauty is about death” beauty suddenly may be about humanity.

Jess becomes “Future Jess” wanting the world to notice her for a moment, especially her dying mother, before she goes back to donuts and bagels; Victor now sees his new line is clothing people really want to wear, because the new season “Cavanaugh 1975” is a smash hit. A pregnant Esme and reconciliation with death are all is part of the play’s fabric. But not enough can be said about the free spirited creation of this theater piece where every piece comes together seamlessly.

“ON CLOVER ROAD” by Steven Dietz.

A parent hires an “expert” to find and return her daughter hidden within a cult. The plan is to kidnap the young girl and bring her to the motel on Clover Road where her mother is waiting. But, Stine (the incomparable Lee Sellars) explains that the parent has to be tougher than the cult; and so to toughen up Kate Hunter (Tasha Lawrence,) Stine reminds her what a lousy mother she was and why her daughter left. The plan takes some mean spirited preparations almost losing Mom as a participant but this is what she came for and it’s essential to save her daughter from “The Prophet”( played by Tom Coiner) who’s enslaving her. She wants to start over with her child.

This is a fast moving thriller “action” play where a lot happens in a small amount of time so it poses the question, ‘How does a writer write about confusing situations without being confusing?’ As the plot twists, the wrong child is abducted and Stine is found to be part of the Prophet’s system. This is exciting stuff and at one point the mother is captive with her own life at stake.

The audience seemed ready to be scared and wheeled by surprise with quick changing events and, by its response, no one went away disappointed.

“WE ARE PUSSY RIOT” by Barbara Hammond.

When I saw the actual Pussy Riot girls visiting the USA being interviewed widely, it seemed insignificant news. Here were some spirited young rockers who were protesting lack of civil/artistic liberties in Russia but saying what seemed lame compared to what we see every day on YouTube. That’s perhaps the most important reason why this play should have been written and should be seen. The Pussy girls were eventually sentenced to two years in a penal colony in Russia for their protests and the details of their trial and sentencing needed to be heard. What better way than through stylized theater where exaggeration emphasizes social injustice –where those in power become caricatures. “You can be arrested for anything” in this the country where the young women were imprisoned. And they were, for disrupting a church service. (Ironically in a country where Stalin would have prevented the church service entirely)

An important thread in the writing is of another political prisoner refusing food and willing to die of starvation in the name of all the great victims of an authoritarian society, including Anna Akhmatova, the great Soviet poet. These scenes were contrary to that of the Pussy Rioters’ trial, but substantiated the long rich history of abuse and oppression, honoring those who died.

T Ryder Smith played the prisoner and he’s the star of CATF this year, for in other productions he plays transgenders, characters, and Dufus personalities. He has comedic gifts not to be believed as we see him performing, so seriously and convincingly, a heroic individual dying in a Russian jail for his principles, and those of his country.

Audience members are involved during the trial in some delightful moments. And the Pussy Rioters disrupt with colorful animated behavior sporadically, creating fun where otherwise it would be difficult to find. The writer takes a few swipes at the Pussy girls becoming celebrities with a brief Madonna appearance creating music frenzy.

But this doesn’t distract from the very real premise that art disrupts and the artist often pays a huge price for the right to be free. The rioters are played, with conviction, by Libby Matthews, Liba Vaynberg, and Katya Stapanov.

“THE FULL CATASTROPHE” by Michael Weller.

This ingenious theater concept was adapted from a novel. An out-of-work linguist is employed by a high power relationship broker to enter a couple’s home and, by the rules set out by The Company, save the marriage following a day by day directive.

The trouble of course is communication between spouses; and so our antihero Jeremy Cook (Tom Coiner) is pressed into service by the international mogul Roy Pillow (Lee Sellars) to execute PILLOW principles with the Wilson family. Assumedly “Welcome to our life” is standard practice, yet Jeremy cannot quite fathom living with others to interfere with their marriage. Envelope #1 commands “A quiet evening with the family.” The Wilsons have paid for this counseling so they go along. But Jeremy has only 12 days to right the wrongs between husband and wife and it doesn’t help that the wife Beth (Helen Anker) reminds him, heart achingly, of an old love, Paula (also played by Anker.)

Day 2 demands Jeremy interact and watch all with absolute silence. Day 3, he’s to be a vigilante asking probing questions. Husband Dan (Cary Donaldson) appears to be the stable one but not when a tape recorder is found calling his wife “Bitch” in a hilarious scene of mixed intentions.
Jeremy reports to Roy Pillow in very funny phone interludes while he’s getting no closer to solving the marital issues. Day 4 is to “make a crisis.” Wait and see how the “horror “at the center of the marriage is saved.

With all the reality TV of couples marrying at first sight, in therapy, having interventions, plus couples being “switched” for therapeutic reasons, this is a funny, timely play and perhaps not all that far-fetched.

Grace Cavalieri produces and hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” celebrating 38 years on public radio. She’s the monthly reviewer /columnist for “The Washington Independent Review of Books.” Her latest book is a Memoir: “Life Upon The Wicked Stage.” (newacademia/SCARITH, 2015.)