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Heating up the stage in Shepherdstown

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. — SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- There are enough hot-button issues on stage at this summer's Contemporary American Theater Festival to singe the average theatergoer.

The four plays -- including two world premieres -- in this 14th annual festival tackle such sizzling topics as racial profiling, post-9 / 11 security, bigotry, the nature and cost of competitiveness, and an issue that's been particularly incendiary in Maryland lately: whether Spanish-speaking Americans should be required to speak English.

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Tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Contemporary American Theater Festival, which runs through Aug. 1, not only offers a forum for playwrights dealing with up-to-the-minute concerns, but has a history of nurturing plays that have gone on to off-Broadway and regional theaters across the country, including such area venues as Everyman Theatre, Columbia's Rep Stage and Washington's Arena Stage.

The hit of this year's lineup is Richard Dresser's Rounding Third, a play that has had several previous productions, including off-Broadway. Contentious, scabrously comic and highly accessible, it deserves to be seen by even wider audiences.

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The accessibility factor stems from the subject matter -- Little League. Dresser pits two diametrically opposed dads, a coach and his assistant, against each other and uses their antagonism to examine fatherhood, friendship, rage and, most of all, the dangers of the winner-takes-all mentality.

What elevates Rounding Third from mere debate to bristling drama, however, is that Dresser has created a pair of fully developed characters, who are powerfully realized by Lee Sellars and Andy Prosky, under Ed Herendeen's muscular direction.

A tightly coiled spring of barely repressed hostilities, Sellars' Coach Don sums up his philosophy of baseball -- and life -- in his first address to the team: "One word. Winning."

Prosky's Assistant Coach Michael, on the other hand, is a sensitive soul, whose initial advice to the kids is: "The fun is in the playing, not the winning and the losing." Behaving at times like two kids themselves (Sellars as the schoolyard bully, Prosky as the sissy), these two engage in sparring sessions that crackle with energy and hilarity.

Although the play includes a degree of role reversal, Dresser is a smart enough playwright not to leave things at that. Instead, he has crafted an ending that ensures that each character learns from the other, while never completely sacrificing essential differences.

Race relations

Lee Blessing, like Dresser, is a repeat playwright at Shepherds-town, as well as a writer who regularly focuses on the type of hard-hitting, masculine-oriented topics at which this festival excels.

One of the event's world premieres, Blessing's Flag Day is a double bill of one-acts that take an unvarnished look at race relations. In Good, Clean Fun, a veteran corporate employee (Sellars again), who is white, shares an office with the younger black man (Albert Jones) who was promoted over him.

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The corporation has a novel anti-discrimination policy that gives employees, as Jones' character puts it, "the rare and golden opportunity to share our innermost fears and hatreds" by setting an egg timer and spouting whatever vitriol strikes their fancy in two-minute increments.

Clever as the situation may be, the characters are undernourished and their debate rarely becomes more than a spirited -- make that mean-spirited -- exchange that reinforces how painfully far apart the races remain.

Blessing's second one-act, Down and Dirty, is based on a gruesome event that actually took place in Texas in 2001: A woman hit a homeless man with her car, impaling him in the windshield, then left him to bleed to death in her garage.

As envisioned by the playwright and realized by director Lucie Tiberghien and set designer Markas Henry, the image of the victim -- Sellars suspended nearly motionless in a harness contraption -- is almost painful to watch. It's an image that re- inforces the chilling cruelty of the driver (Roslyn Wintner), who not only watches him die, but yells at him to speed it up.

Blessing has acknowledged that he chose not to research the details of the case, but used it as a springboard to imagine what might have happened and what the characters -- the victim was white; the driver, black -- might have said to each other.

In several instances, however -- particularly the interpolation of the character of a writer (Michael Flanigan) into the piece -- Blessing simply appears to be trying too hard. In the end, his script produces few insights that approach the disturbing impact of the situation itself or its visual representation on stage.

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Patriot Act

Pushing the hottest of the hot buttons in this summer's festival is Stuart Flack's Homeland Security, a play that begins with its two main characters -- an American doctor of East Indian heritage and his Jewish-American girlfriend -- being questioned by an FBI agent at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Afterward, the doctor, Raj (Amol Shah), wants to forget the whole thing, but his girlfriend, Susan (Christianne Tisdale), can't let it go. She's sure they've been subjected to harassment and racial profiling, and she's also sure she truly knows Raj. But does she?

Homeland Security at first seems to be commenting on the excessive measures adopted by our government after 9 / 11. But as the play progresses, the investigation conducted by the FBI agent (Scott Whitehurst) appears to be based on something more than paranoia.

The element of mystery inherent in the plot helps build audience involvement. But the script suffers from didacticism. "Why doesn't anybody trust anybody any more?" Raj asks before stating one of the play's major themes: "What is the cost to all of us of this lack of trust?"

The script is further hampered by the less-than-credible character of Susan, who is, at best, extremely naive. Though described as "one of the most vigilant mothers you will ever meet," Susan has exposed her 10-year-old son to the risks of becoming involved with near strangers. And if she trusts Raj, as she repeatedly attests, why does she hide the fact that she's been questioned by the FBI a second time?

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But by far, the most troubling aspect of the play is what it appears to be saying -- that in these uncertain times, we are right, indeed wise, to distrust those around us. At least in director Herendeen's staging, the play is virtually a defense of the Patriot Act.

This is particularly odd since just about everything leading up to the final scenes -- including the use of incidental Indian music performed by two onstage musicians -- suggests that the playwright's sympathies are the exact opposite. Leaving the conclusion open-ended would have made for a far more provocative and challenging drama.

Chamber musical

The festival's second world premiere is its most ambitious production -- a chamber musical, The Rose of Corazon: A Texas Songplay, written and directed by Keith Glover, with a score by Glover, Billy Thompson and George Caldwell.

Like Glover's previous musical, Thunder Knocking on the Door, which was produced at Center Stage in 1996, The Rose of Corazon is essentially a fable. In this case, the story focuses on a Spanish war bride named Rosa (played with tenderness and charm by Arielle Jacobs) whose pilot husband (Flanigan) brings her to live in his hometown in Texas. There Rosa is made to feel increasingly ill at ease by the provincial townsfolk and even by her husband, who refuses, for example, to let her speak anything but English.

When a drought threatens the livelihood of the community, the pilot goes off to seed the clouds and disappears, leaving his lonely but loving wife susceptible to the advances of a handsome itinerant Mexican man (Perry Ojeda).

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The cast also includes a trio, whose members narrate Rosa's tale and do multiple duty in roles ranging from other war brides to aging banditos. The trio's involvement -- along with designer Moe Schell's costumes and a subplot about a rose bush whose fate will determine the course of Rosa's love -- contributes to the aura of magic realism that permeates the piece.

But such imaginative touches cannot compensate for the frequently trite, repetitive lyrics and banal rhymes ("I'll be true to you. ... Love will see us through," etc.). Nor does it help that the music primarily has a generic pop sound, instead of a Spanish or country western flavor.

A musical that strains to convey the ethereal enchantment of romance, this is a Rose that never fully blooms.

On stage

What: Contemporary American Theater Festival

Where: Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va., about 80 miles west of Baltimore. From the city, take I-70 west to U.S. 340 west (at Frederick) to Route 230 north.

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When: In repertory Wednesdays-Sundays, through Aug. 1

Tickets: $28 and $33

Call: 800-999-CATF or visit www.catf.org for show times


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