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Contemporary American Theatre Festival full of belly laughs, doomed love

By Carolee Felber

For the Sunday Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The phone's abrupt ringing through the car's sound system startled me. It was the theater. Sam Shepard's play would not go on that night because of "circumstances beyond their control." Not the best start to our weekend away at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown.

And so on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. we joined a jostling throng for the other play that night: "Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah." As I gazed around the new Marinoff black box theater, my husband carried on with a man, who turned out to be Producing Director Ed Herendeen's neighbor. He'd already seen the Sam Shepard play in another city. Told Ed he didn't like it. He said Ed didn't listen; Sam's plays drew the crowds and Sam promised to come to Shepherdstown. He promises to come every year and never does.

The lights dimmed and we were in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Hollywood flat where Scott was on a deadline to complete a screenplay for film producer Louis Mayer under the watchful eye of Mayer's assistant, a smoky blonde who had walked straight out of a Phillip Marlowe detective novel for the evening's performance. Things were not going particularly well and then Scott's buddy Ernest Hemingway showed up.

The two writers play on each other's insecurities, bantering about personal relationships, the public's view of their writing and their view of each other's writing. The tension mounts until there are fisticuffs. The repartee we experienced in Scott and Hem was one of those rare moments when great acting and great writing come together.

Friday, 4 p.m. "H2O." Wide-eyed, innocent, Christian girl tries to save rich, bad-boy, movie star. The first saving is from his suicide attempt when she shows up at his apartment to try out for the part of Ophelia to his Hamlet and finds him lying on the floor with slit wrists. She badly wants the role, but refuses to take it without an honest audition. He is smitten and the doomed courtship begins with an old-fashioned bouquet and a modern vegetarian picnic.

The pace is relentless. She stands right up against the first row telling us her story, then he tells his, then we watch them together, and so on. As they act, doors, beds and sofas appear and disappear as the deft set crew creates and recreates apartments, a hospital room and an office. The dressers are on stage as well assisting the girl out of her jeans and into her evening dress as she carries on with the story. I was breathless as the tragic end unfolded.

Friday, 8:30 p.m. Driving, pulsing music. My husband says, "Maybe the playlist is on Facebook." This year's one comedy: "Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill Us and How We Learn to Love Them" Lights up and we see a man wiring something inside a pair of y-fronts. And a young man is in those y-fronts twisting and turning with each pinch. There is nervous laughter from the audience. And we went from nervous laughter to full belly laughs as the absurdity continued. The man in front of me had to cover his mouth to regain control.

Saturday, 2 p.m. "A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World." In a small village tavern two of the women accusers in the Salem witch trials reunite. One voices her second thoughts and is then accused of now being a witch by the other. The arrivals of two locals and a mysterious stranger signal the start of an engrossing trial marred only by a digression for a re-enactment of "Macbeth" by a girl servant. The play is at its best here with the four locals pitted against the returning woman and the stranger. In the second half there is a lengthy discourse on the political "why" of the witch trials, followed by an abrupt sequence of events at the end that are not justified by the character development.

Saturday, 8 p.m. "Heartless." The Sam Shepard at last. The play is about the relationships among a quirky mother and her two daughters. The mother, in a wheelchair since falling out of a tree when she was trying to get a better glimpse of James Dean, rants on and on and on. The older sis is the caretaker who wants out. The younger sis had a heart transplant some time back and is currently involved with an old academic who may or may not be her lover. Think twin beds. Last there is the mute nurse who may or may not be the embodiment of the murder victim whose heart is now beating in the younger sis. (She can talk to the younger sis.) I am still mulling it over. Sam didn't make it to explain it.

The plays continue Wednesday to Sunday through July 28. For details go to www.catf.org.

Carolee Felber, of Charleston is an avid theatergoer and frequently sees the new plays at the annual Contemporary American Theatre Festival.


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