The festival takes place in Shepherdstown, West Virginia July 8-31 CATF.ORG 304-876-3473/ 800.999.CATF.
(World Theatre Day 2016 announced the ten top theater festivals in the world in : Ireland, Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland Serbia, Canada, NYC, Massachusetts, and SHEPHERDSTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA, on the campus of Shepherd University.)
Five New American Plays include three World Premieres*: Not Medea* by Allison Gregory; The Wedding Gift* by Chisa Hutchinson; 20th Century Blues* by Susan Miller; The Second Girl by Ronan Noone, pen/man/ship by Christina Anderson.
Presented by Ed Herendeen, Producing Director and Director
Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri
Not Medea, by Allison Gregory, directed by Courtney Sale
(Place CATF. Time ,Now) Cast: Woman, Joey Parsons; Jason, Ben Chase; Chorus, Rachael Balcanoff
As the lights lower on a stylish/classical/modern set, a latecomer barges in, stumbling over seats, dropping bundles and umbrella, talking to the audience, apologizing for her intrusion. She’s interrupted by cell phone calls come from her daughter, a child left alone, by the way. (…she just had to get out of the house you know how it is with kids always pestering …) Her story becomes the overarching scaffolding for the play: the present-day situation is one where the husband’s left her for another woman and our theater-goer (combination of Carol Burnett and Roseanne Barr), in telling her story, gradually becomes the outraged Medea. Her transformation is a tour de force by actor Joey Parsons, dressing in classical costume – ridiculing Medea, while replicating her. The monologue is a mix of street talk and lyrical language, combining a tired single mom and the greatest murderess of all time. The under current is the real-life tragedy suffered by this woman who’s lost a child accidentally , not her fault, but blamed for her death. The chorus-of-one (the crystalline Rachael Balcanoff) serves as connective tissue between time and action.
On comes Jason, big, sexy, tattooed, black leathered. He’s a dude, and a hunk. Medea says “I wasn’t a goddess. He made me one.” There’s a nice moment enacting the first rush of love; Medea and Jason each hold a tiny bird—she marvels at its fragility. He crushes it thoughtlessly. Jason’s ambitious, and Medea makes him invincible, with the Golden Fleece, allowing him to supersede her father’s demands; now they can marry and be happy. He thinks she’s more “amazing” each time she flatters him. Medea says “Nothing but death will ever come between us.” They move to Corinth but she’s miserable. Jason says ,”You’ll get used to it. Buck up.” But he’s already bucked up, He’s sleeping with another, the Princess of Corinth.
Jason doesn’t know why women get all bent out of shape when husbands sleep with other women and then marry them; but Medea is serious now, as she prepares a poisoned shawl for Jason’s new bride. Jason says of Medea, “You come on too strong. You’re too willful. “
“How better to wound my husband then to take his children.”
Although playwright Gregory masterfully manages the Medea character without schizophrenia, and brilliantly combines humor and tragedy, she also throws a shade. Why did the woman leave her child unattended to come to the theater? Is the present day Medea without blame? Are all Mothers carrying Medea’s original sin? This same Mother, in the final scene, ascends as a goddess of vengeance in full funeral regalia with bloodied hands, vindicated, and alone.
The actors work with rhythm, exuberance, and accuracy for an electrifying experience.
The Wedding Gift by Chisa Hutchison directed by May Adrales
(Setting & Time: “A far off place, so far in the future, it’s stupid”)
Chisa Hutchison must be from a star planet, because she brought that planet on-stage. This is the most singly original work I’ve seen in a long time. It bubbles. It bursts. It’s the imagination unleashed, and I marvel with gratitude that CATF had the ability to see how to produce this.
Doug,(Jason Babinsky,) a white guy is brought into a culture of glamorous people-of-color, who live in a fantastic world of grandeur. He’s brought, by the way, in a golden cage, and also by the way, he’s quite naked except for an elegant loincloth. Where is he? Who are these people in their science fiction Versace’s; and what do they want with him? It turns out he’s been “found” and is now to be the family pet –this shackled divorced guy from the USA with a six-year-old kid back home somewhere— is to be a fuck-toy. Did I say that all the characters but Doug speak a made-up language? A stylish combination of French, Splanish and God knows what –and only through gesture can communication occur. The Princess of this epitomized society is marrying Prince Beshrum (Powerful Damian Thompson,) in the highest of all styles— but in bed he doesn’t get it, and so she wants to resort to her boy toy. All this time Doug (Babinsky) is hilariously trying to break the golden chain that binds.
Of course, it’s about serious questions of domination and submission, the master and the slave; but in another time and sphere and another hemisphere, playwright animates the problem. Our tethered victim is befriended by a “citizen” who’s a daughter of another ”found pet “and she speaks Doug’s language. Sadly she loses her life in trying to help him. My favorite scene is when the “doctor of pets” (played to the top, by Edward O’Blenis) interprets for Princess Nahlis (the adorable Margaret Ivey.) Doug finally understands, “You consider me an animal, less than human,” but the Princess has taken a liking to him. He bargains with her (via the Vet) to stay 10 days, and even without common verbiage we see a bond beginning to form, through tenderness and playfulness—the common language of love.
A wonderful scene is GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER when Princess Nahlis brings Doug to meet Mom and Dad. It does not go well, but our Romeo and Juliet of gibberish land vow to escape! And they do! Through a magic toilet! (I told you this play was terrific.) They find themselves in a paradisiacal forest. There’s a flower Doug recognizes from earth and Nahlis gestures that this is where Doug was found. He’d been frozen in the ground when apparently the sun had gone out, and the earth was covered with ice. “So I’m a human fossil,” he realizes. We can only say that sometimes it takes centuries for cultures to blend; and this apparently wasn’t one of them—However, this is a sweet fantasy (with a serious premise) beautifully orchestrated and paced. A spectacle on a magnificent scale.
pen/man/ship by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien
(Setting & Time: “A worn whaling shop on the Atlantic Ocean, September through November, 1896, after the Jim Crow Laws were upheld as constitutional”)
This is a perfectly built play. This play honors language; and presents us with impeccably drawn characters. The ship’s log begins in 1896 when a religious man, Charles (passionately played by Brian D. Coats) leads an expedition to Liberia with a full crew aboard. Also on board are his son, Jacob, and the woman he brought with him, Ruby (Margaret Ivey) who seeks escape from an America whose cruelty she’s experienced. The play is poetic with movement and meaning. We begin the journey with a single sail overhead, and a stage that's ankle-deep with water. Charles is a surveyor traveling to Africa to plan a building. This pious, unctuous father is having a Bible discussion with a dutiful son Jacob, (played beautifully by Damien Thompson.) Jacob introduces Ruby to his father who’s not all that happy to find that Ruby hasn’t brought a Bible with her. He immediately sees her as a renegade. Although she’s invited to join the discussion, the way Ruby quotes the Bible angers Charles, and although confronted, she holds her power, interpreting verse in an enlightened fashion. It’ clear she’s an enemy to “The Word” and thus to his son.
Charles, in his supercilious religiosity, is not liked by the crew. He remains alone, contemptuous of men whom he feels are “heathens and savages.” There’s one exception and that’s crew member Cecil (beguiling Edward O’Blenis) who is allowed to play his accordion, and so is loyal to Charles. Jacob’s torn in half, wanting to prove Ruby’s independence and intelligence, while trying to restrain her boldness.
As October comes, relationships worsen: Jacob, Charles, and Ruby become a triangle, always an odd one out. Ruby has leadership skills and becomes the spokesperson for the crew— she eats with them and she listens to them, respects their humanity. Rumor is that the journey has been funded by whites and that Charles is preparing to build a penal colony for blacks from America: “colored thugs,” he calls them. The prison will be “for those Negroes who do not deserve what respectable ones do.”
Charles’ reliance on gin fuels his paranoia; and when he thinks a young man is threatening him, Charles pushes him overboard; then cuts his own chest to fake a struggle. Charles is going mad with hatred; the crew insists on a tribunal; so he sequesters himself with Cecil, barricaded from the others. Ruby maintains that she’ll have “her crew” drop sail unless Charles opens the door, and submit to an inquiry. For 10 days, without sail, they are adrift – running out of rations. Charles is insane but resolute; and Ruby is equally stubborn. We should note, at any time Ruby could have the crew members lift the sails and prevent impending tragedy. The playwright creates an equal conflict creating a perfect tension. The alcoholic Charles is finally conquered by his need for gin. He ends in chains, righteous, broken, and deluded.
Elegantly written, and breathtakingly directed and acted, this one’s got it all.
20th Century Blues, by Susan Miller, directed by Ed Herendeen
“Setting&Time: The present, during a Ted talk. Then four months earlier in the course of a day in NYC.”
We can always expect a great opening under Herendeen’s direction. Photographer Danny (Betsy Aidem), stands before a gigantic word “TED” about to give her talk on photography, and delivers an opening monologue about "what we are remembered for." The scene that follows is a technically stunning use of projection to create space and place.
Then the play opens to four women in reunion, all middle-age, about to be photographed by Danny in a final series on aging—a series from the 1970’s to present day. Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is a reporter about to retire from a job that defines her life. Gabby (Kathryn Grody) is a veterinarian, practicing to be a widow, because one can’t start too early; Sil (Alexandra Neil) is a realtor who’s about to have plastic surgery so she can face the business world, refreshed. These friends of 40 years gathered for a new photo shoot to see how they’ve weather time— but instead— they’re suddenly not willing to subject their faces to public scrutiny. Who knew this was to be on video circulated worldwide via a TED TALK? No, they do not want to sign the releases. The play is witty and stylish, and manages to raise some interesting questions about time. One of the more subtle idea s is whether the image of the thing is the thing itself. More practical is a question raised about the value of marking "Time’s passage."
The photographer, Danny, sees her three friends as a timetable to be studied and documented. There’s a pervasive fear of age shared by all. The women are not willing to sign releases, and doubt the integrity of the project.
Old times crop up— old hurts –old loves. No one can feel fully comfortable in life not knowing “what comes next,” especially in photos to be shared with the world. To stem the discord, Danny brings in past photos never seen by the women, and they fall in love with their past camaraderie. Many topical issues transvers the day – a transgender granddaughter, a demented mother (wonderfully played by Mary Suib,) an adopted son, a gay marriage. Most importantly, though, is the idea of memory and what versions of ourselves are the real versions, as we are all moving toward technology, not knowing what can possibly come next.
These women actors are consistently excellent in elevating the play’s themes, and letting us pretend the clock doesn’t matter, at least during this performance.
Grace Cavalieri founded, and still produces, “The Poet and the Poem“ for public radio, now from the Library of Congress, celebrating 39 years on-air. Her new book of poems is WITH (Somondoco Press, 2016.) Regrettably, a family emergency prohibited seeing and reviewing “The Second Girl “by Ronan Noone.