100 Plays Produced as CATF Kicks off Ambitious 23rd Season by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins

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Over the last 22 years, the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, and has become a leading center for the production and development of new plays, having fully staged 95 American works, including 34 world premieres, by 69 different playwrights.  The “Think Theater” campaign that signifies the Festival has successfully  built an audience that seeks thought-provoking drama and cutting edge material from America’s exciting emerging talents and leading playwrights.  It’s 2012 world premiere, Gidion’s Knot by Johnna Adams was recently published in American Theatre magazine and is the recipient of a citation prize from the ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award.

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In its 23rd season of producing and developing new American theater, the 2013 four-week festival (July 5 – 28, 2013) kicks off week two on the campus of Shepherd University featuring a five-play repertory highlighted by three world premieres including two plays commissioned by the CATF. This past Sunday marked the milestone of 100 plays produced and the official opening of the 180-seat Stanley C. and Shirley A. Marinoff Theater, with the production of Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah by Mark St. Germaine. The month long  Festival will showcase five new scripts in 94 performances from playwrights – Liz Duffy Adams, Jon Kern, Jane Martin, Sam Shepard, and Mark St. Germaine.

Unveiling original storytelling in a stimulating way, the productions of the 2013 CATF will touch your heart, tickle your imagination, and flat out shock you. This is a daring and entertaining season of new American plays inviting thought and wonder, offering audiences something different from what one might be used to seeing.  Alienation, fear mongering, religious fanatiscism, and idolatry are themes within the five plays that seamlessly  translate into contemporary issues no matter the time period of the play.

Everyone may not leave with a smile on their face, but be assured, you will leave with a willing spirit of hope and inspiration.

“As we enter into our 23rd season, I continue to be inspired by contemporary playwrights who are willing to bravely tackle the important and complicated issues facing the world,” said Founder and Producing Director Herendeen. “One hundred plays is no small feat. What we have done so far, and what we will accomplish in the future, rests squarely on our willingness to take risks on daring and provocative new plays. This is what our adventurous audience demands and, together, we are shaping the future of the American theater.”

In addition to the plays – produced in rotating repertory, which allows audience members to see

all five provocative shows in just two days – the 2013 Season will also feature free lectures, stage readings, panels, discussions, an art exhibition, and a new film series (CATF at the Movies) added this year. Patrons also have the opportunity to experience audience immersion events including lunches with artists and breakfast with the Theater Festival’s producing director Herenden, or opt for a late night ‘After Thoughts Salon’ with Festival leadership, Peggy McKowen and James McNeel.

There are three weekends left to enjoy the Contemporary American Festival experience.  Take advantage of the beauty and history of Shepherdstown, and escape to a fulfilling and enlightening theater environment of impressive acting, talented direction, and provocative new American plays.

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Below are brief descriptions of the 2013 CATV plays and playwrights (info. – CATV program), followed by a capsule of my reactions to them:

      A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World  by Liz Duffy Adams. Directed by Kent Nicholson. World Premiere.

 The year is 1702—ten years after the Salem witch trials made famous in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’. About to leave the Colonies forever, long-lost Abigail Williams arrives at the frontier tavern of her childhood witch-conspirator—Mercy Lewis—desperate to understand the madness that overtook their youth. But with war threatening New England yet again, Mercy and the local Puritans are in no mood for Abigail’s doubts. And when things are most dangerously tense—the Devil himself shows up.

Liz Duffy Adams is an alumna of New Dramatists and the WP Lab. Her work has been seen at Off-Broadway’s Women’s Project as well as Magic Theater, Flux Theater, and the Humana Festival. Her plays include: Or, Dog Act, and Neon Mirage. She is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama.

Analysis: As imperfect humans we are all complicit with evil. This is a theatrically rich and gripping play that speaks to our contemporary environment and how fear motivates people to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise. And, even thought the play takes place in 1702, it illuminates hot topic issues pulsating throughout politics and society in the current events of today. A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World is set ten years after the end of the Salem Witch Trials and Arthur Miller’s Crucible, and reunites us with two of its memorable characters – afflicted, witch conspirators, Mercy Lewis and Abigail Williams. What’s clever about this tale is how their actual historical personages are used. It’s a story that is steeped in history. (Abigail disappeared from record before the Trials were over. Her fate is unknown). In this play we see what happens when she returns a changed woman. The other four characters in the play are inventions, and playwright Liz Duffy Adams has created an imaginative world where the story is both fictional and possible. This is a story that will wake you up and keeping you talking once the play is over.

        Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them by Jon Kern. Directed by Ed Herendeen

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It takes big (and possibly sweaty) balls to write about people determined to blow up the Empire State Building. This violently funny, provocative black comedy is a satire of paranoid times and explores themes of alienation, revenge, and yearning for purpose and fame. A trio of terrorists is determined to bring retribution to America as they plot their elaborate plans from a New York City apartment. The only problem? They aren’t very good at it. And when their upstairs neighbor—a dude named Jerome— accidentally gets involved, well, a new kind of chaos ensues.

Jon Kern is the 2012 winner of the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation Award, the largest playwriting prize of its kind in the United States, for Modern Terrorism. He is a member of Ars Nova Playgroup, the Civilians R&D Group, and the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. He is a staff writer for The Simpsons. Modern Terrorism was first produced at Second Stage Theatre in New York City (2012).

Analysis: Real life is stranger than fiction. Jon Kerns Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them is not a true tale as far as we know.  But in light of the recent terrorist events and all the known prevented terrorist attempts in the United States, this play gives us an exploration into the everyday lives of these protagonists with severely flawed narratives. We are familiar with the horrific end result of terrorist acts but do we truly understand the anger, frustration, and the why these acts are committed? Do we care, and does the question even matter? This play forces a response.

Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them  is a bold, innovative, and a daring statement of a play by Kern. His unique voice is a fresh, challenging, cry out loud that deserves a wide and diverse audience to pay attention. The difficulties one might have with the seriousness of the play is lined with humor and humanity – in a Dr Stranglove  or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb kind of way.

We live in threatening times and a scary world. The acts of violence by disconnected individuals have overwhelmed the American psyche, and the anxieties faced today are best handled through intelligence and understanding.  Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them is Kerns’ satirical, compassionate contribution to opening a dialogue with receptive audiences.

 H2O by Jane Martin. Directed by Jon Jory.

World Premiere.  Commissioned by the Contemporary American Theater Festival.

After arriving to the City of Angels, an aimless young man catapults to movie stardom and into Hollywood’s sleazy celebrity culture. Banking on his fame (and name), he is soon selected to appear on Broadway in Hamlet. Given full casting approval, he embarks to New York City to seek out his Ophelia(Hamlet 2 Ophelia—get it?) and encounters his muse and his match—a young evangelical Christian woman set on getting the role…and saving his life. From the reclusive, madcap world of Jane Martin comes this drama/comedy/love-story about self-destruction, notoriety, and the dark journey to purity and salvation.

Jane Martin’s plays include Anton in Show Business, Talking With…, Flaming Guns of Purple Sage, and Vital Signs. Her Keely and Du and Jack and Jill won Steinberg/ATCA New Play Awards.

Analysis: H2O forces you out of your comfort zone and challenges you to think what life is about, and how we create a structure in order to survive in this cut throat world we live.  This is a theater play that is funny with dark humor and is at the same time disastrous – often within the same scene. What is refreshing is that even though the female lead is a resolute, evangelical Christian, it doesn’t satire religion. And, the male lead has profound emotional  problems, but the playwright, Jane Martin, smartly doesn’t force an explanation. It’s a unique account about the interaction between someone who is in a state of chaos and someone who is guided by the foundation of faith.  It is both the success and inability to get beyond those two that makes H2O a complicated, and intriguing tale skillfully directed by Jon Jury.

                  Heartless by Sam Shepard. Directed by Ed Herendeen.

 The heart has always been a vital metaphor in the plays of Sam Shepard; and never more so than in this poetic, enigmatic, and humorous exploration of the failure to connect. Opening with  a piercing scream— a primal cry that cracks the dirty haze of the Hollywood canyons—Heartless is set in the home Sally shares with her sister, mother, and family nurse.

When her new lover arrives, life is thrown out of whack as the scars of the past rise up. This new play is Shepard’s EKG on the human condition. 

Sam Shepard returns to CATF for the fourth time. Heartless was first produced at Signature Theatre in New York City (2012). Eleven of his plays have won Obie Awards and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child in 1979. His other work includes Curse of the Starving Class, Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind, True West, The Late Henry Moss (CATF’02), The God of Hell (CATF ’05), and Ages of the Moon (CATF11).

Analysis: We are all striving to be heard. Extraordinary and unusual, Heartless is bewildering in this intense, metaphysical tale. Even when you think you are inside the particulars of this Sam Shepherd play – you’re out. A play where all five characters are scarred, crippled, and plagued by guilt in some way, Heartless is rooted in Shepherd’s familiar territory – the failure of human beings to connect.

The play weaves an instinctive tapestry of the in-between world of existence and the sensation between life and death. Confusing? You very well may be, unless you pay close attention to the intricacies of this probing existential drama. This is a play that is difficult to describe in terms of plot, and one where many questions are presented but few are clearly answered. In Shepherd’s domestic world where the past is present, I think that’s the point.

  Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. Written and directed by Mark St. Germain.

Rod Brogan as "Ernest Hemingway" and Joey Collins as "F. Scott Fitzgerald"/ Contemporary American Theater Festival / 2013 Season. Photo by Seth Freeman.
Rod Brogan as “Ernest Hemingway” and Joey Collins as “F. Scott Fitzgerald”/ Contemporary American Theater Festival / 2013 Season. Photo by Seth Freeman.

 World Premiere. Commissioned by the Contemporary American Theater Festival

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway wrestle with the sparks of art and the perils of creativity—and the personal destruction they can reap—in this combative new play set amidst Hollywood’s glittery backdrop. Fueled by friendship and rivalry, two literary heavyweights reunite in 1937 for a final night at the Los Angeles resort villa, the Garden of Allah. From an  American master of historical dramatic fiction, the men explore their mysterious bond and the genius that first brought them together (but was fated to tear them apart).

Mark St. Germain is the author of numerous plays, including Camping with Henry and Tom, The Best of Enemies, Dr. Ruth, The God Committee, and Forgiving Typhoid Mary (CATF ‘94). His 2011 hit, Freud’s Last Session (Best Play, Off-Broadway Alliance), has been performed around the country and ran for 775 performances Off-Broadway in New York City.

Analysis: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway make good company, and it’s easy to see why Mark St. Germain not only wrote the play Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah (that was commissioned by the CATF), but decided to direct it as well. 

In a whirlwind of confusion and indecision, this play centers on the fictitious last meeting with the glamourous Fitzgerald and the colorful Hemingway in Hollywood at the Garden of  Allah. Fitzgerald and Hemingway had a very difficult relationship. There was both great affection and disdain for Fitzgerald by Hemingway; yet it seems Fitzgerald felt differently and always had great respect for Hemingway.

A period play set in the 1930’s, they both have their demons,  but there are some universal truths that make this stunning play more than just a bio piece on two great authors. Hemingway is at his peak, and Fitzgerald has only made a little more than $13.00 for that entire year from his writing. Once the country’s most famous author (The Great Gatsby, 1925), we find Fitzgerald struggling at a time where he is virtually ignored and disregarded.  Inspired writing is a frightening mystery. At its heart, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah, the exceptionally well written and engaging play by Mark St.Germainis about the process of writing and creating, and the toll it takes on both of the writers. Time and several decades have passed since Scott and Hem were in their heyday, but it is the quality of their writing that sustains the interest and keeps them relevant today.

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The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) runs July 5-28, 2013. Performance tickets to the Contemporary America Theater Festival can be purchased through the Theater Festival Box Office, which is open Monday to Friday from 11am to 5p.m., by calling  800-999-CATF (2283), or 24-hours a day online by visiting www.catf.org/boxoffice

 

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - sydneychanele@gmail.com [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]