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Theater in Shepherdstown, West Virginia
July 16, 2014
Commentary by:

Contemporary American Theater Festival’s 24th Season

Contemporary American Theater Festival’s 24th Season Opens in Historic Shepherdstown, West Virginia (plays run July 11-August 3, 2014) Reviewed by Grace Cavalieri

Let us first praise Ed Herendeen who came to Shepherd University to Head the Theater Department and, in nearing a quarter of a century, has turned an aspirational goal to an artistic gift-economy for playwrights and audiences. Herendeen’s ability to strike an agreement between resources, strategies and protocols has resulted in an infrastructure that makes theater survive globally —by making new theater, regionally.

Five new plays are presented. (Lectures, exhibits, and theater gatherings also make up the 2-month event)


UNCANNY VALLEY (A World Premiere)

by Thomas Gibbons, directed by Tom Dugdale features Barbara Kingsley as CLAIRE and Alex Podulke as JULIAN.

Innovative media effects invite excitement the moment we enter. We feel Science Fiction becoming Science Reality before the play begins.

This is a play about the search to find and maintain consciousness and to prolong its vitality; Algorithms allow artificial inventions (i.e., robots) to adapt human characteristics, thus developing a confluence/ unfolding of robotic actions made through modes of programming.

We watch robot Julian’s development from a torso without arms to a robot playing a flute, “Notes first, emotions later.” And the evolution is made impeccable by actor Alex Podulke. Over time, Julian’s conversations with his scientist/creator, Claire (Barbara Kingsley), question time-honored fundamentals, “Who am I?” “What is my purpose in life?” – He begins to find what “friendship” means and this leads to Julian’s interest in Claire’s personal life. Barbara Kingsley is perfect as Julian’s clinician/ nurturer.

Self-consciousness is the first human gift given. Julian learns to walk—and then to dance. As Julian begins to learn about his world, he finds that he’s being fashioned after a human billionaire named “Julian” who’s dying of cancer and wants his identity preserved forever. Our artificial Julian has been replicated with downloaded DNA and can expect a life expansion of 200 years.

And what about the most admirable human emotions? Concern for another? Julian has this too, as he enters Claire’s emotional life, becoming touched by her dilemma with an estranged daughter. After he is programmed to perfection Julian plans a reunion between mother and daughter. Claire, enraged at the violation, denounces her invention and belittles the creation, stripping his dignity, scorning him as a machine —but this machine has feelings and is stunned by rejection. Claire is as well.

Our new Julian has inherited all the world’s medals: greed, power, money, and so he will go on, planning to bully a court to win legal status. But a robot cannot dream. And this is a brilliant stroke. Our consciousness apparently can be captured and reproduced, but the ability to dream is the one quality Julian lacks, and nothing in this manmade world can make up for such an omission. Among all the important scientific findings about Artificial Intelligence I believe this is the significant fact: The unconscious cannot be captured or duplicated. Just think, that is exactly where—from imagination, creativity and memory— Thomas Gibbons found his play.


 

DEAD AND BREATHING (A World Premiere)

by Chisa Hutchinson, Directed by Kristin Horton, features Lizan Mitchell as CAROLYN and N.L. Graham as VERONIKA.

The audience rewarded this premiere with a standing ovation for an evening of smart dialogue and repartee. A caregiver, “Veronika” (played wonderfully by N.L. Graham) is assigned an elderly woman (Carolyn) who wants to leave her wealth and this earth behind. Lizan Mitchell puts a stinging excellence to cantankerous “Carolyn.”

What would you do if someone begged you to kill them, and incidentally made you the beneficiary of the estate for the favor? Carolyn argues, “We all have to die anyway.” But Veronika is a Christian and quotes/bellows the Bible in her defense. Veronika is of course horrified by the offer, but after all, when intimacies are exchanged, we find she does have big dreams. These could all be fulfilled, ‘twenty seven million and the house.’ But the mercy killing must be done by the end of the nurse’s shift.

Veronika is tempted but salves her conscience with whatever good can come from it. She bargains that she will consider, if Carolyn ‘will accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.’ “You just have to trust me,” and the deal is struck via hilarious negotiations. As Veronika is preparing the “death bed,” Carolyn realizes her caretaker is a transvestite and the play hits the fan. Social boundaries are breached and the deal is conflated as we begin the battered relationship anew.

Carolyn admits she only wants to die because she is mean and cruel and has ruined so many lives. She is tired of destroying. Veronika has the heart of a saint and the mouth of a sailor.

What wonderful new humor comes to CATF with this play. The nudity on stage is not half as fascinating as how the bathtub empties and the toilet flushes with no seen pipes.


 

ONE NIGHT

by Charles Fuller directed by Ed Herendeen features Kaliswa Brewster as ALICIA G.; Jason Babinsky as HORACE LLOYD and Willie C. Carpenter as MENY. Supporting cast members, Shauna Miles, Brit Whittle and Matthew Burcham.

Pulitzer Prize Winner Charles Fuller has another award-winner with ONE NIGHT.

Iraq veterans, a woman and man, come to a sleazy motel from their homeless shelter which suffered a fire. They’ve lost all possessions and find themselves in a 7th rate dump afforded to the homeless in case of emergency.

Corporal Horace Lloyd is protecting war-torn Alicia, wrapping her in a wet blanket, buying food and trying to calm her hysteria worsened by severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The demoralizing situation of loss and abandonment of veterans is clarified vividly by interspersing scenes of army life. Flashbacks expose the treatment Alicia received as a sexual assault victim and the way in which her case was subverted and denied.

“Concentrate on anything but Iraq,” Horace counsels. “We are warriors.” He tells the motel owner that ‘she never came back from Iraq.’

Sideline: the next door neighbors are pimps and prostitutes, underscoring the treatment of women, a shadow to our story.

The Army claimed it had no proof of Alicia’s rape; the event was categorized as fornication by consenting partners. The leader of the gang was discharged returning home after losing a leg. No transfer was allowed Alicia and she was unable prosecute without evidence. Other perpetrators received a slight reprimand. After all, “you can’t ask a man to stop being a man because he is wearing a uniform.”

Horace suggests that Alicia set the fire purposely because, if she has memory lapses, who can say she didn’t? He calms her fears, disillusionment and paranoia by reminding her he had the highest kill rate. He had 14 kills as a sniper; he has ribbons; and prides himself for “not running down disabilities and chasing ghosts.”

The Policeman investigating the fire wants a “freebie” from Alicia to waive fire investigation. The motel manager wants the same –he needs an extra girl tonight.— Fortunately Alicia has Horace. Alicia does have a husband back home who had disowned her for the rape and PTSD; taking their child from her, the boy now lost in social services.

Horace and Alicia each recall the fire a different way: “The truth depends on who tells it and who it’s telling to.” Horace suggests Alicia set the fire, and in her confusion, she is almost convinced. “Don’t go CASPER on me,” Horace warns.

But then something else Horace says resounds clearly in Alicia’s memory. The same exact words spoken by the last soldier /rapist whom she never saw. The exact same words. When exposed, Horace breaks, “It started as a joke. You have to fuck something to fuck the shit out of you.”

He calls her a bitch sergeant who just drove a truck, and when he found her homeless he saved her. Without him, she is nothing, he reminds her.

When the fire Marshall arrives, Alicia has clarity sharpened and fueled by anger. She points out that Horace was fully dressed when he hurried her from the burning shelter whereas he insisted he was in bed asleep. Alicia debunks his story and nails him in a moment of vindication. This bitter tale unpeels layers of meaning, line by line.

The Buddhists tell us that we must feel compassion in 360 degrees, for those on each side of the gun. But they also say “May you be awake one moment before you die.” That’s why we’re grateful to Fuller for his play.

The supporting cast of actors enrich the play; and the talented Kaliswa Brewster as Alice, and Willie C. Carpenter as the slumlord, win the day. As for Jason Babinsky who plays Horace— this actor is going to have a rich theater life, and I for one, will be watching from a distance.


 

THE ASHES UNDER GAIT CITY

by Christina Anderson, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, features Daphne Gaines as SIMONE THE BELIEVER, Kaliswa Brewster as D, Shauna Miles as FELICIA, Biko Eisen-Martin as JEREMIAH, Willie C. Carpenter as CLAY, Tiffany Reneé Thompson as COMPLEMENT.

Simone “The Believer” hopes to gather blacks to restore energy in Gait City which has, historically, displaced black people. She wants to build a mecca from the ruins; and she’s a professional Believer who inspires others and gives hope to her followers via skype. This is a thriving business but one based on genuine idealism. She summons cooperation from a reluctant landlady in Gait City, and adds two other followers, including the mail man who has been changed by her messages.

Simone’s plan is to go against the majority in town and to build a new world within the town. The whites appear to be friendly enough, but there is racial discrimination, and evidence comes to a head when the yearly town historical “Reenactment” is to occur. Simone gets hate mail. Inflaming the situation is information about a portion of the reenactment that shows whites in a footrace chasing blacks from the city. This was actual in the 1950’s and apparently recreated as drama until the 1990’s.

“The Believer” needs others to believe in her and that is her journey. Social Media is a major character in this play with google, text messages, email, skype and video nicely enhancing the action on a super-size message board.

The most interesting thing about this play is what happens when a group comes together. No matter how high its ideals, an hierarchy starts to form, dissention is inevitable, and control and manipulation emerge in leadership to get the job done. This is what we see as the spine of the work which was still being rewritten as of opening night. (One benefit of CATF)

With all its historicity, the real play becomes one of domination and submission and authoritarianism, even if said to be for the greater good.


 

NORTH OF THE BOULEVARD

by Bruce Graham, directed by Ed Herendeen, features Brit Whittle as TRIP, Michael Goodwin as ZEE, Jamil A.C. Mangan as BEAR, Jason Babinsky as LARRY.

Author Bruce Graham was a stand-up comic at one time and we’re glad. The lines are crisp and the timing is perfect. The scene takes place in a garage where neighborhood guys gather—Bear, a local security guard; Zee, an old geezer with disgusting behavior; Zee’s son, Larry, a nurse; and Trip, the owner, who’s trying to decorate the dilapidated service station for Christmas.

A crisis immediately starts the play as Trip’s son is beaten on the way from school by bullies; and it’s a black on white incident. Life has become dangerous in this neighborhood, adding to Trip’s misery. Enter Larry, played unforgettably by Jason Babinsky. Larry is a Woody Allen look alike— a woebegone- nasal-speaking- beaten-down son of old man Zee, who berates him continually.

Trip (handsomely played by Brit Whittle) has the odds against him. Business is off, the neighborhood is in shambles, a tree is breaking through his wall. He wants out of the business, “Nobody at Pep Boys carries a gun.” Larry, our wimp, wants to run for Mayor although everyone knows the warlords will tear him to pieces and feed him to the crocodiles. Yet he wants to buck the system and carries his crumpled petition with him. The weakest among them is willing to do the heroics.

Zee (hilarious curmudgeon Michael Goodwin) dies in the back of a car while sleeping. Larry’s “grief” is pure relief and happiness. Security guard, Bear (the robust Jamil Mangan) plans an insurance fraud and tries to persuade the other two to dump Zee’s body on the railroad tracks, supposedly having fallen from a faulty pavement construction. And the fun begins.

Comedy does not have to be a morality play to be deeply moral, jibing ethics vs. survival with a little criminality thrown in. The good guy is Trip who wants nothing to do with this, but he sees his world as a place with no jobs for life, and kids who’ll have no jobs. The ghetto is a war zone. He wants to move and there’s no way out. He holds out on the scheme but the insurance paid to Larry would be split three ways. The machinations to the final decision are very funny.

The characters are highly epitomized making every word count, lines that can be measured with a ruler, tight and right. Whoever said tragedy is failed comedy said the truth. It is built by a tree breaking through a wall, and crooked city officials running the system, and regular guys in a garage risking their necks to move north of the boulevard from a world they cannot fix. The play does not need a fix and will appeal to a legion of fans.

Ticket information:
info@catf.org
CATF Box Office P.O. Box 429 Shepherdstown, WV 25443
www.catf.org (credit cards only)
phone: 304-876-3473


Grace Cavalieri produces/hosts “The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress” for public radio now celebrating her 37th year on-air. She is the monthly poetry columnist /reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books; She reviews theater for The Montserrat Review; and danmurano.com.

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