July 10, 2018

28th Season: CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL

5 plays reviewed by Grace Cavalieri.

(Regrettably a schedule demand prevented reviewing “Cake.”

THIRST” written by C.A. Johnson (World Premiere,) directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt.

This is a play about the final war where survival is all that’s left and water is the precious trade and currency. A young black orphan Kamil (Jalon Christian) has been found and saved by two women, Samira, black, (played by Monet) and, Greta, a white, ( Jessica Savage) who both mother him— scratching out life in a forest— a handmade clearing— a camp that becomes family. In this dystopia, the young boy goes, daily, for one allowed jug of water to “the well,” water distributed by the guards of the black Army of Peace, the ruling occupational force.

When Kahil is refused, we find there’s now a ransom for that water. Terrance, “King of Peace,” has never stopped loving Samira who left him after their children died of starvation. His obsessions become a sickness which we find turn him to murder. The play’s intensity never lessens from Kahil’s opening remarks, “First the planes, then the bombs, then the gangs, then the starvation.” Samira must leave to demand their daily ration, but Greta insists she’s the one unafraid to confront the crazed leader.

It’s not surprising that the wild dictator doesn’t take kindly to his ex-wife’s blonde lover – a female who is unafraid to stare him down. She’s rewarded for defying male authority by being shot in the leg, taken back to camp to suffer, heal, or die. “We’re all good till the war changes us.” The interesting idea behind the plot is the notion that a leader would save his entire people, the black population, but let his personal comrades die for his personal vendetta. Samira must finally go to the long-avoided meeting with her ex-husband, the “King.”

This is a fearless play that not only touches but pierces the subjects of race and gender within the ruins of war. “The people we were are all gone;” and gone is humanity and compassion.

What if we gaineth he world but loseth our soul” is a subtext unspoken but surely the play’s premise. There’s hope at the end where a “Peace” guard, sent to the camp, tends the struggling Greta and then stirs the campfire. That the world should end is bad news enough, but that it ends with such bitter separation of races is doubly painful. This is a powerful piece written by a brave writer who is undaunted “to go there.” Finally, a woman writer who’s not afraid of blowback. She takes no prisoners and the American theater is better for her presence. The excellent actors never waver from the play’s intensity, and young Jalon Christian (Kamil) is an actor to watch.


 

A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan” (World Premiere) by Michael Weller, directed by Sam Weisman

Featuring John Keabler playing Ronald Reagan

What a fabulous Ronald Reagan is portrayed in this one-man-show. To enter the theater is to be astonished by the set design (Luciana Stecconi;) Scrim is used for projections punctuating memory scenes (Christopher Erbe Taran Schatz;) with the right lighting (John Ambrosone;) and the right stage composition for elegance. Technical director is Miguel Angel Lopez.

I can’t say enough about Keabler who catches the movement and every gesture: hiking up pants, swaying on feet, scratching his ears, hands behind back – okay you get it. And writer Weller caught the homespun unsophisticated humor of a guy who was, if nothing else, affable and congenial. What crystallizes most is Reagan’s love for Nancy. It’s the silver thread running through the monologue tying disparate memories together. And is the piece that makes us care.

We hear of the career chronologizing radio days to Hollywood days (film history here, with lines from his movies;) his previous marriage to Jane Wyman, and their two children. “I hit lots of targets I never aimed at.” Then there is the California governorship and the attempted assassination on his life, swiftly written. Another excellent technical dimension is voice simulation from unseen characters (David Remedios.) There’s a terrific conversation with Russian leader Gorbachev. Reagan can appear self-deprecating, and no matter how strong his political enemies are— seeing this—they could say no more than ‘a good man did bad things.’ He appears uncomplicated by power. He liked the White House pencils: “white and blue.”


 

Memoirs of A Forgotten Man” (World Premiere) by D.W. Gregory, directed by Ed Herendeen.

(Setting: Moscow and surrounding provinces, 1957; flashbacks to Leningrad, Formerly St, Petersburg, 1937-38.)

“We invent history to make memory tolerable.”

How can a man have a memory of something that never happened, the Soviet authorities want to know – although of course it did happen.

A psychologist wishes to publish her findings on treating a man with 100% recall of every word he sees written and every scene he witnesses, but National Security has to review the piece and remove certain material that would ‘compromise the state.’ The Soviet Inquisitor is “just here to help you.”

“Mr. S,” the subject for psychological study, has been tested – at one time – for total word recall and a memory without limits. All of his senses are engaged so that he “hears” colors and “sees” sounds. This makes for lyrical writing in the script that elevates the plot beautifully. “Mr. S “– in the past was informed he had to “forget what he knows.” He writes his memories to destroy his knowledge, but this paper is found and causes tragedy for his family. Act II is gripping with constant psychological action and a surprise ending. Did “Mr. S” learn to forget too well, after all? The show’s well-structured and expertly written and produced. Talk overheard in bathrooms leads me to believe it was a Festival favorite. The acting is excellent, and to see Lee Sellers back to CATF (this time playing both Investigator Kreplev, and the boy Vasily) is a special pleasure.


 

The House on the Hill” (World Premiere) by Amy E. Witting, directed by Ed Herendeen.

The play centers about two cousins of the same age, Frankie and Alexandra. We see them as young teens (“Alexandra” well played by Joey Parsons; and a “Young Frankie” deliciously acted by Ruby Rakos. (As adults, “Alex” is played by Sam Morales, and “Frankie” by Jessica Savage.)

Why is there a 17- year- gap in this relationship? What accounts for the space and distance between two cousins who loved each other so much? The play has a long suspenseful entry to plot that unfolds slowly and skillfully. The flash-forwards and back, with the two girls, is done well, building to the trauma that separated the cousins, finally revealed.

Frankie brought her new baby to visit her estranged cousin. They’re nervous, uncomfortable, and compressed emotion with taut acting assists the tension, building to its stunning conclusion.

Frankie: “You left me…”

Alex: “I needed time to forgive you, but your father… “Alex revisits the tragedy: “I woke up in a hospital without a family…”

Frankie: “I didn’t do anything and no one ever asked how I was.”

This is an original experimentation in relationships – a true drama – Jessica Savage who triumphed as ‘Greta’ in the play “Thirst” shows her star power here as Frankie.


 

Berta, Berta (World Premiere) by Angelica Cheri, directed by Reginald L. Douglas.

Setting: Mississippi, early 1920’s, Berta’s home.

(LEROY played by Jason Bowen; BERTA played by Bianca Laverne Jones)

If Oprah doesn’t option this for a film, she should go back to Weight Watchers.

(It’s important to know that men were imprisoned at that time in history simply because cotton needed to be picked. Parchman Prison was the facility that fostered this)

With the sounds of chains throbbing in the distance, in a cabin wonderfully designed by Luciana Stecconi, we find Berta, a widow of five years “a widow with a window.” In comes LeRoy, obviously traumatized carrying a blood-stained shirt. The dialogue is ceaselessly rich, real, funny with the deep earth in every word, and the sweet metaphor of poetry in cadenced speech, and soft dialect. Writer Cheri keeps tragedy and humor dancing together on the head of a pin like a magician.

Naturally Leroy wants love, even though he’s coming from trouble. The acting aches with beauty. The verbal seductions, and rejections are magnificent, endearing, and choreographed to perfection. It seems Leroy has killed one Curtis Wilbur, a man hilariously described, but the killing is not to be so funny. Learning this, in her silence and shock, Berta hands him a bowl of greens (what a gesture.) It seems that Wilbur disrespected Berta; so, Leroy, filled with rage from submission in prison, killed Curtis, but Berta is having none of it. She’s been waiting for her former lover, and where has Leroy been the long years since her husband died?

It seems Leroy was in Parchment Prison:

“I was a colored man breathing in the wrong part of town, that’s what I do.”

“They let me go when they saw I was broke down.”

“Mississippi takes the wings off an angel.”

“There’s no running away from Parchman” but they still plan to take a train and go away, far away, and then— making love on this promise— Berta, at long last, admits she loves Leroy. He’s waited forever to hear this and speaks of the sunshine shining in his heart. That’s all he needs to go on for the rest of his life.

Although the barking of dogs is heard in the distance, there’s an unexpected turn in Leroy’s psychology that leaves us breathless. And a flame of hope that makes us want to weep. The play was inspired by a song with the play’s title which the playwright once heard, and look what she did with it, another testament to her true genius.

The fact that the prison system remains as torrid and unforgiving today as in this play is an indelible and unspoken thought behind the unforgettable story, “Berta, Berta.”


Grace Cavalieri is founder/producer of “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress, celebrating 41 years on-air. Her latest compendium of poetry and play excerpts is, “Other Voices, Other lives” (2017, Alan Squire Publisher.) Her latest play was “Calico and Lennie,” Theater for the New City, 2017 (Xoregos Performing Company.)


Tickets: CATF online at www.catf.org Phone: (304) 876-3473

 

Grace Cavalieri, all rights reserved

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