The Contemporary American Theater Festival

Where new plays by Philadelphia writers and others emerge

I confess, I hadn't heard much about the Contemporary American Theater Festival in tiny Shepherdstown, West Virginia — an easy three-hour drive from Philadelphia — until last summer's American Theatre Critics Association's annual conference there. Founder and producing director Ed Herendeen's 24 seasons of premieres have included many plays familiar from later Philadelphia-area productions (Gidion's Knot by Johnna Adams at InterAct and Bess Wohl's Barcelona at People's Light & Theatre Company, both 2013, are recent examples). Their 2014 repertory of thought-provoking new American plays is special for us, however, because three of the five playwrights are Philadelphians.

Is there a difference between feeling an emotion and conveying it to others? Barbara Kingsley and Alex Podulke in "Uncanny Valley" by Thomas Gibbons. CATF 2014. (Photo by Seth Freeman)

Honestly, I'm not succumbing to homerism when I say that this year’s two best plays are by familiar area playwrights.

Uncanny Valley by Thomas Gibbons (InterAct Theatre Company's resident playwright: Permanent Collection, 6221) is a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, meaning that the San Diego Repertory Theatre and InterAct's upcoming versions are also technically premieres (InterAct's runs April 3 - 26, 2015). Uncanny Valley is a rarity: a science fiction play. Thanks to Hollywood, that label conjures alien monsters, killer robots, and lots of explosions orchestrated for ten-year-old kids, but Gibbons shows that mature speculative fiction works on stage.

Barbara Kingsley plays Claire, a pioneering scientist developing artificial intelligence and humanoid robots, or androids, though neither word figures prominently in Gibbons's smart, cutting-edge script. Alex Podulke gives a chillingly convincing performance as Julian, her team's creation, who first appears only as a head on a slab. Subsequent scenes show him breaking in his torso, arms, and legs, while Claire nurtures his personality and behavior. "Do you feel better?" she inquires after a breakthrough. "If I should," Julian carefully answers, "then I do." Is there a difference between feeling an emotion and conveying it to others? This philosophical question is pertinent to actors as well as to androids.

The 90-minute one-act makes a startling leap when Claire informs Julian that he was built to hold a dying billionaire’s personality and memories — his digitized self. Will Julian’s nascent personality still exist? Will the completed Julian be a living being — and, legally and morally, the living person whom he replaces? Uncanny Valley navigates the existential chaos without preaching, leaving us to consider the very real possibilities. Director Tom Dugdale's production features a live video feed of the audience projected on the stage's curtain before the show begins; I was shocked that we didn't recognize ourselves at first, a tidy metaphor for the play's fascinating issues.

Long-shot dreams of escape

North of the Boulevard by Bruce Graham (Coyote on a Fence, CATF 1999, and Barrymore Award Best New Play winners Something Intangible and Any Given Monday) premiered in a brilliant production by Theatre Exile last season. Herendeen's production nearly equals it in many important ways; like Exile's Matt Pfeiffer, he trusts the play's cognitively dissonant build, as its four desperate characters discuss long-shot dreams of escape from their meager existences. It seems, even though they're profane and funny, like the play isn't going anywhere. Moreover, unlike in Philadelphia, where theatergoers love Graham's brutal frankness, I sensed the CATF crowd didn't know whether to laugh or recoil in politically correct disdain. The well-crafted first act builds to an explosive event that confronts the characters, and us, with a vexing ethical dilemma. If you missed it here, it's well worth the trip.

Christina Anderson's Ashes Under Gait City, set in Oregon "sometime between Obama's first term and Hillary Clinton's second term," successfully addresses social issues provocatively and tells a hell of a story. In a fictional city that forgot about its black people — inspired by Oregon's notorious "exclusion laws," which barred free blacks from the territory in the mid-1800s — a charismatic web personality, Simone the Believer (Daphne Gaines, in a powerful performance), wants to make Gait City "a mecca for the displaced." She recruits some of Gait City's few black residents and launches a movement that morphs in surprising ways, leading to a frightening finale. Anderson's characters talk like essays early on and poetically finish each other's sentences, but Lucie Tiberghien's in-the-round production makes them real.

Problem endings

Chisa Hutchinson's Dead and Breathing vexed me greatly, despite its capable performers. Lizan Mitchell's Carolyn struggles with stage three uterine cancer, and has worn out 17 hospice nurses in her two years' suffering. Sassy Veronika (N.L. Graham) gives as good as she gets, shocking the old woman with her frankness and swearing. Like any two-person play, Dead and Breathing features a lot of bargaining; Carolyn wants to die and bribes Veronika with a huge inheritance to do the deed. Veronika counters with evangelism and ethics, but is tempted. Then a big revelation resets the conflict, introducing new issues. Hutchinson, however, undercuts her drama with a breezy ending that dismisses all the arguments. Imagine Marsha Norman's courageous drama 'night, Mother rewritten by Neil Simon.

Philadelphia native Charles Fuller's One Night features Kaliswa Brewster's towering performance as Alicia, an Iraq vet suffering from PTSD due not only to combat, but also a horrific rape. Her tragic story, told in flashbacks, worsens when she seeks help and justice: The army protects her attackers to preserve morale, and the Veterans Administration foils her attempts to restart her life stateside in a ripped-from-the-headlines chain of errors, delays, and apathy.

Fuller sets the play in a seedy New Jersey motel room, where Alicia and fellow vet Horace (Jason Babinsky) land after a homeless shelter fire that Alicia might have started. Victimized again by the manager and a cop, Horace seems like her best and only chance — but why did he search for her after they came home? The play's big secret is obvious long before it's revealed, and then it ends with a note of hope that feels unearned.

One Night and Dead and Breathing illustrate the thrill and danger of new plays: Sometimes they feel unfinished. CATF's vision overcomes this because Herendeen chooses plays with dramatic heft (though there's also a lot of comedy) that address important issues. Plays about the desire to die or the mistreatment of veterans are meaningful and worthwhile, even if these are not entirely successful.

What succeeds at CATF is Herendeen’s commitment to meaningful new plays and audience interaction (they schedule lots of talks around the plays), and the company’s high production values overall. While located at a university, this is not a college intern theater (they have no department), and the three theater spaces are used with innovation and skill. Anyone looking for a worthwhile summer theater experience that isn’t as far away as Canada’s Stratford and Shaw Festivals should head to Shepherdstown.



All photos by Seth Freeman, courtesy of CATF.

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