July's Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University
Genetics, Racism, Ecology, Cyberspace: CATF’s 30th year remains cutting- edge innovative theater.
The Shepherd University Festival runs from July 8-31
for more info: (800.999.catf www.catf.org)
SHEEPDOG by Kevin Artigue
Directed by Melissa Crespo
“The intricacies of love, duty, race, justice, integrity, guilt.” This play is a masterwork, opening on a stark geometric set where anything can happen.
Two people are in love: Amina, a black female police officer ( Sarah Ellen Stephens;) and Ryan, a white male police officer( Doug Harris) --- it takes a while to know each other; and through clear cohesive dialogue, we see the nuances of how two people learn to trust each other— until Ryan is called to action for a domestic dispute; the suspect is on the run; there’s a chase; Ryan sees a knife and discharges his gun. Did the suspect ever have a knife? Why was the officer’s video cam stopped at the moment of action? This paradigm is the focus for cultural differences within a black and white relationship. And the truth belongs to neither race but must be found. Moving back and forth across time, we learn our characters’ backgrounds— to the point where a wholesome guy who never shot before, finds himself an officer stigmatized and traumatized for weeks. Police camaraderie helps, but Ryan and his partner, both, truly struggle with guilt and innocence. The metaphor of ‘Sheepdog; part wolf part sheep’ brilliantly unfolds These expert actors transcend “bad cop/good cop” to show the truth so badly missing in the News. The plot hovers on top a pin until it culminates— a passerby to the shooting scene, turns in a thumb drive. At every moment of this play there’s the tension of decision-making, wonderfully directed and choreographed; and all is a tour de force for Sarah Ellen Stephens. The playwright portrays race and cultural differences within society. The writer reveals “right” and “wrong” but brilliantly transcends the norm—to what is deeply human.
USHAIA BLUE by Caridad Svich
Directed by Kareem Fahey
CATF is known for its technical excellence and USHAIA BLUE is no exception—lighting staging and sound.
Is the end of the world the beginning of everything, this play asks via a plot spanning southern USA Argentina and Antarctica. Sarah, a young scientist /documentarian (Kelly Rae O’Donnell) and her academic husband Jordan (John Keabler) travel from one part of the world to another balancing a university life and research projects until Sarah falls on glacial ice and is in a coma for months. This is the centerpiece for enacting a marital relationship, the wisdom of an Argentine native, and the faith of a southern family in Alabama. The premise seems to be that certain things are impossible to translate: love, climate change, words. ‘Penguins are disappearing’- ‘relationships are all but disappearing’ and the sound of water under the glacier augers a change that is not good. Through exposition, narrative, nonlinear sequence, and monologue, we feel impending—not disaster— but something worse, uncertainty. Disparate parts of the earth crash apart; Sarah crashes; Jordan’s family’s in the oil business amid ecological morality; men want to appropriate water stealing the precious resource “to sell back to us.” Stupidity greed, power, hate, but Antarctica and Argentina belong to no one. The play asks many questions: what does science do? what does science know? does it matter? The fault line, where Sarah falls, symbolizes a new and threatening condition. It was never there before “it rose up.” “The ice has its own language,” our characters say, “it speaks to us, and yet we still don’t know how to talk to each.” Sarah and Jordan want to plan a baby-- this never happens-- they talk of where they were, and what will be --the past and the future. And in this play, though well-acted and directed, we never find the Present.
THE FIFTH DOMAIN by Victor Lesniewski
Directed by Kareem Fahey
A visual and technical triumph.
What happens if a very smart guy, working in cyber security, knows he knows more than the government and needs to prove he’s right— that there is a “back door open” that could lead to a security breach. Troy (Dylan Kammerer) was already guilty of pushing his ideas at NSA (prevented by from doing ‘the right thing’ ‘to protect himself’ by his ex-girlfriend Nina (Kathryn Tkel.) Now he’s relegated to the talk circuit, warning corporations to be diligent; and he needs another job. What if a government worker, Naveed (Aby Moongamackel,) recruits him for a special project, working with another cyber expert –a Chinese woman— secreted in a small office in Arlington. This is a play with a fascinating twist-turning plot: a man is battling with choices, believing that he, alone, knows something is coming that the world needs to know. Troy identifies a flaw in the system; so perhaps a cyber-attack “Test” would wake everyone up to the facts. And for extra gain, the fall-out could be blamed on another country. Mei Li (Alexandra Palting) is happy to cooperative for her own reasons so there are motives enough. Troy knows he's right (he was the smartest boy in the senior class,) and the beautiful Nina is not around to stop him, so let's have a test. Troy has the power and Mei Li has the will in a wonderful roller coaster of ethics and principles –and what could happen, does happen, in a clever and gripping work.
BABEL by Jacqueline Goldfinger
Directed by Sharifa Yasmin
Two couples want babies. One couple is Gay, “Renee” and “Dani” (played by Karen Li, and Kate Mccluggage;) The other is Hetro, (Lori Vega as “Ann,” and “Jamie” played by Carlo Alban.) In this future world, babies in the womb must be certified as perfect before a document is signed by the doctor. An uncertifiable baby is a pregnancy that should be ended within three weeks of the test result. This, of course, is only a recommendation, but society is watching—and who would want a baby capable of extreme behaviors? Genetics control is reassuring in that there will be no more mass murderers, or aberrations of human conduct. Renee’s fetus is uncertifiable; and Dani, a corporate negotiator, will not accept this.” People with perfect genes should have perfect results.” “This can’t happen to a couple with perfectly certified eggs!” The play probes whether everything should be controlled by testing, whether all extremists should be eliminated, (and what of artists?) The playwright poses whether perfection should be the goal, with human plight at the center of the argument. The Hetro couple has its own surprise in store, and all is illuminated by a fantastical character (The Stork) who preps a woman if she can’t have a “normal” baby. The theme that prevails is about law and its penalties. To emphasize codification, the direction and production are imaginatively mechanized.
THE HOUSE OF THE NEGRO INSANE by Terence Anthony
Directed by Cheryl Lynn Bruce
This is a MUST SEE play where lyricism and mercy are illustrated within the cruelest setting.
The cast is pitch-perfect: Jefferson A. Russell (as “Attius”) suffers under the oppression of Henry’s supervision (played excellently by Christopher Halladay;) and the genius of “Effie “is played by CG; with a new talent, Lenique Vincent, as “Madeleine.” I say their names up front, so they are seen and remembered, because there are no better performances on any stage today. Attius is consigned to a woodshop on the grounds of the mental facility, making coffins, “Keep building. Keep working,” under the brutal friendship of Henry. When Henry’s away, another patient/ inmate appears—Effie is a wanderer and just wanders in, jeopardizing Attius who just wants to do the work which gives him pride and an ability to keep on. Effie has kept moving her whole life and is going to find a way to Harlem where Black folks own everything. Fear and tension, the dangers of being caught, intensify as Effie returns with a child inmate she’s befriended to escape. Madeleine says to Attius “You’re like a tree I used to know.” The stage is electrified with psychological changes, menace, terror and eloquence. The females are at once endangering and delightful. Attius is gruff, tender, and heartbreaking in his dilemma. The play reveals the best and the worst of humankind, and also exposes the conditions and medical experimentation performed in those “Lunatic asylums,” existing well into the 20th century. Attius tells Madeleine,” I think of a song when I want to feel something else.” Come see a well-made play. Come see the best of theater.
*scheduling prevented reviewing WHITELISTING
© Grace Cavalieri, 2022
Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate. She’s enjoyed reviewing every CATF production for 30 years. She produces/ hosts “The Poet and the Poem“ now from the Library of Congress, celebrating 45 years on-air.
I am intrigued by these passionate reviews. Cavalieri exhibits such a commitment to each play's characters, crises, and emotions. These are the potent works and ideas of our time -- and that bodes very well for this applauded festival. Congratulations to all the wonderful talent involved in these productions.
Contemporary theatre seems to be flourishing under the toughest circumstances. Cavalieri's summaries and observations persuade me to look to Artigue, Anthony, and other modern playwrights for fresh insights into ethical and social issues.
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