08 July 2015

Contemporary American Theatre Festival (2004)

[This year’s Contemporary American Theatre Festival, CATF’s 25th season, will run from 10 July to 2 August in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  I went to the festival 11 years ago with my mother and wrote a report on it (before I launched ROT), so I thought it would be interesting to look back at my impressions of CATF on the eve of its silver anniversary.]

Over the weekend of 23-25 July [2004], I went to Shepherdstown, W.V., to see the Contemporary American Theatre Festival which is held there every year (since 1991, apparently, though I didn’t know it was anywhere near that old).  They do four full productions (though that number varies from time to time) in rep over a three-week period.  There are also occasionally readings of plays under consideration for future festivals—two plays in this season were read in previous years.  All the plays are new, but not all are first productions—some have had regional stagings previously, but none have had major New York or substantial numbers of productions before.  All of the scripts, however, are new enough that changes apparently can be on-going during the CATF rehearsals, even down to changing casting needs or adding and eliminating characters, scenes, or songs.

The festival is staged in two theaters on the campus of Shepherd University, the main reason that Shepherdstown exists today.  (CATF isn’t actually connected to the school, which acts only as host as far as I can tell.  Shepherd University has no theater program.)  It’s a state college, founded as a “normal” school—a teachers’ college—in 1871 or so (though the town preexisted the Revolution, but I don’t know what sustained it before the Civil War—farming, I presume).  I never learned how big either the town is or the university, but I can tell from observation that the town is tiny (the shopping area of the main street is all of two blocks long)—maybe less than 1000 population.  The university, however, seems pretty good-sized, considering—maybe bigger than W&L [Washington and Lee University, my alma mater].  (My guess: about 5000 students, a little smaller than SUCO [State University of New York, Oneonta, where I once taught].)  It has two campuses, one obviously the older, original area and a newer campus that looks to have been begun in the ‘60s from the architecture.  (Both campuses have new buildings, but the “original” part has the old buildings, including the school’s symbolic equivalent of Washington Hall [original 18th-century building of what became W&L University], that all seem to be 19th- and early-20th-century constructions.)  It’s not at all an unattractive campus, though the town is smaller, I think, than Lexington [Virginia, site of W&L] and I can’t imagine spending four years there without being able to get the hell out pretty regularly.  (It’s only 1½ hours from D.C. by highway, and maybe an hour from Baltimore.  The nearest “big” town is Hagerstown, Md.)  It’s a cute town, with a number of shops and restaurants that are obviously there to cater to and attract tourists—not the kind of places either students or townies would patronize too often, both because of the prices and the fare.  It’s obviously been spiffed up sometime in the recent past—like Lexington during the Bicentennial.  One peculiar thing Mom and I noticed is that there were no “regular” businesses in town that we saw—drug stores, five-and-dimes, McDonald’s, gas stations, newsstands, 7-11’s, cleaners, even bookstores.  (Staunton [Virginia] was like this, too.)  There must be a mall somewhere nearby that we didn’t see (there’s a small shopping center with a Food Lion near our motel, but it only has about half a dozen stores)—otherwise where do the students get their necessities of life and where do the ordinary Shepherdstowners buy their staples (er—I also didn’t see a Staples).  Maybe the university has its own store for the students, but where do the local folks go?  There was no movie theater in town, either—though maybe there’s a multiplex somewhere out of town.

The town is historic in the sense that it goes back some.  It’s right across the Potomac from Sharpsburg and the Antietem Battlefield, though there was no real battle in Shepherdstown as far as I could learn.  Harper’s Ferry is also nearby.  (Shepherdstown is very small and there are only three hotel/motels in town—plus several B&B’s.  However, some people attending the festival stay in nearby towns, including Harper’s Ferry. )  Obviously, there was fighting all around there—the town was inundated with wounded from Antietem—and many Shepherdstowners fought and died in the war, of course.  (West Virginia seceded from Virginia, of course, but the citizens of the new state were still supporters of the Confederacy.  I’m not sure how that worked out—the little historical museum indicated that the secession-from-secession was accomplished against the will of the people.  Someone must have wanted it.)  Before the Civil War, back in 1787 or something, the first successful demonstration of a steam-powered boat was held on the Potomac at Shepherdstown.  That’s something I didn’t know.  There’s a model of the original boat, made for an anniversary commemoration of the event sometime early in the 20th century—the model’s on display at the little museum.  Who knew?  Finally, in recent days, Shepherdstown was the host of the peace conference with Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa in January 2000. 

So much for the surroundings.  The CATF was generally a good and interesting experience.  I’d go again, even though the plays all left something to be desired.  If you consider them all as plays-in-process, it was a good glimpse at new works from around the country.  The acting was almost universally good to excellent; one actor left me unimpressed in one role—most appeared in two plays—but I think he was miscast, which isn’t entirely his fault.  The productions were also generally well directed and well-designed at the level of non-commercial Off-Broadway, say, or a small rep company.  (I had strong objections to the design, and therefore staging, of one play, which was also the worst of the lot.)  Obviously, any given season will be more or less good than another, so you can’t tell in advance how things will work out, but the CATF producers are clearly careful to choose worthy plays which the artistic director reads and even sees in regional productions before they book them—it’s not a haphazard or unconsidered selection, though variation in taste might play a role in how much you agree with their choices from year to year.  They obviously have favorite playwrights—Lee Blessing, who was in this year’s season, is a frequent participant, for instance.  This year’s offerings included a musical play, a pair of one-acts (Blessing), and a long one-act, as well as the customary two-act play.  Except for the musical, they all had smallish casts (and even the musical wasn’t a large cast by musical standards).

Okay, enough mishegoss—let’s get to the plays.  First up for us (Friday night) was the one-act pair by Blessing, Flag Day (he subtitles it “A Play in Two Plays”—kind of silly, I think).  It’s billed as a world premiere, but it’s part of a trilogy of plays “about black-white racial relations in America”; Blessing’s done the first play, Black Sheep (Florida Stage, December 2001), and he’s working on the third, Perilous Night.  I’m not a big fan of Blessing, and one of my complaints with the few plays of his I’ve seen is that he gets a hold of a (good) idea and beats it to death.  He does that with this pair, though the second of the two has some interesting dramaturgical aspects.  The first play is “Good, Clean Fun” and takes place in a two-man office of an unnamed company.  (This play and the musical were staged in the school’s Studio Theater, a black box on the West, or “old,” Campus.)  The set was a minimal assemblage of office furniture—a large desk, a smaller work table, a shelf with files and office supplies, but no walls or doors—but the space was criss-crossed by four lengths of string running at odd angles from about head height to the ground, creating a sort of square area in the center.  The strings looked taut at first, but they turned out to be elastic as the actors stretched them sometimes to cross under them or, once or twice, just to distort the “boundaries.”  Since Blessing’s theme is black-white antagonism, and one character is black and one is white, I assumed this was some kind of symbolic borderline that would impede each character from “meeting” the other—but that didn’t turn out to be so.  The characters crossed from one area to another without any difficulty other than that they had to go either up to where the string was high enough to walk under, or down to where it was low enough to step over—or they just raised it and ducked under.  This entirely shattered my interpretation of the strings’ purpose, and I never figured out any substitute.  (Maybe Blessing or the director thought he/she—the director was a woman; she had a baby during the festival—was Richard Foreman.)

Anyway, the central conceit of “Clean Fun” is that the unseen boss has decided that the only way to deal with racial antagonism in the work place is not to ignore it or whitewash it, but to confront it by requiring that the employees voice their feelings when they arise, but only within the two-minute period allowed by an egg-timer.  So the whole play is essentially a verbal exchange between the black project leader and his white subordinate.  They go about their busy-work (it seems essentially meaningless checking, typing, and filing), talking about the project, reports that are due, the newest office policies, as well as their off-work lives—until one or the other says something that sets the other off on a racial bitch-session.  That worker then pulls his egg-timer out of a drawer, winds it, and begins his harangue, which lasts exactly until the timer’s bell rings.  The he puts the timer back in the drawer and the two return to normal behavior.  Until the same things happens again.  These bitch fests come more frequently and are expressed with more vehemence and personal intent, but as far as I was concerned, Blessing makes his point after the first—or, at most, second—session and nothing is resolved, either for the two characters or for us.  Blessing tells us—as we surely all already know—that white-black relations are fraught with tension and suspicion, but he offers no insight either into how this came about in society or how we can resolve it.  He also seems to be saying that it’s both inevitable and insoluble—which, though it may be true, is a bleak perspective.  Theatrically, the play is also all talk—the only thing the characters do is their office work, for which they move from desk to table to shelf and back like animatronic figures.  During all of which, they talk.  As I said, however: the acting was good.  The white worker, Lee Sellars, was especially good, and he’s quite versatile as he would demonstrate not only in the second one-act, but in the two-acter later in the festival.

The second one-act, “Down and Dirty,” is based on an actual crime which you may recognize—it got a lot of news coverage at the time.  This one is set in a woman’s garage (the strings are still in place, for even less clear reason), and the lights come up with Sellars, bloody and distorted, suspended from the ceiling and wedged into the shattered windshield of a car.  (There is no car body—just the windshield hanging there, like the Cheshire Cat’s smile.)  The woman, Dot, is sitting in a beach chair, swigging a beer, glaring at him: “Why you ain’t dead yet?” she demands.  Well, if you’ve read a newspaper or watched any TV news in the several years or so—it happened in October 2001 in Fort Worth; the driver was sentenced in June 2003—you immediately recognize this as the case of the black woman—Dot is black—who ran into a homeless white man who smashed through her windshield.  She drove him back to her house and parked the car in her garage for three days while she waited for him to bleed to death.  And that, of course, is the plot of this play.  Except—and this is the interesting dramaturgical element—Blessing inserts a playwright who has written this play based on the facts he read (a little like Peter Shaffer wrote Equus based on the filler article he read about a boy who blinded six horses—he took the few reported facts and then built the rest from his imagination).  As the play unfolds (that’s being generous—it sounds more dramatic than it really was), the characters and the playwright argue over what he can change and what he can’t.  Both the victim and Dot would like the writer to make the man die quicker than he really did—the writer asserts he can’t save the guy; that’s too much deviation from the truth—but at first he says he can’t do that.  The playwright has invented a friend of Dot’s who comes by in astonishment—she told her boyfriend and he had told this guy—and there is an argument between the friend and the writer about why the playwright made him talk and behave they way he does in the script.  It’s all a little Pirandellian, and could be interesting, except that it ultimately goes nowhere.  In the end, all the writer’s good for is winding the play up when he decides he can make the poor man in the windshield die sooner after all.  Pirandello did it much, much better.  But, again, the acting was good.  Dot is so cold—and basically selfish and stupid—that she’s frightening—and the actress (Roslyn Wintner) nailed it good.  Sellars was incredible—though he was braced so he could stay in one position for the hour, suspended in mid-air.  Still, it’s hard to pull that off convincingly, especially so close to the aud.  I just wish the play amounted to more.  I don’t really know what Blessing’s up to here—there’s an element of race, but it doesn’t seem especially significant to the play.  I suppose that Dot might be less cold if the man she hit had been black, too, but I doubt it.  Her real (and stated) problem is that she has already had several DUI convictions and would face jail if she reports the accident—that’s not a racial problem.

A friend and playwright, Kirk Woodward, ascribes this approach—presenting situations but not making anything of them—as one used by more and more plays: Here’s a mess o’ scenes, now you make sense of them.  That “mess o’ scenes” concept, I suppose, can work in some cases.  Emily Mann said she intentionally didn’t draw any conclusions in Execution of Justice because she wanted the audience to do that for themselves.  Leo Shapiro said the same things about his plays, though in both cases, I think this was a little disingenuous because both people had definite points of view that guided their work, even if they didn’t state it directly in the script/production.  In the cases I cite at CATF, however, whatever the playwrights had in mind thematically, the plays ended up being undramatic—and that’s a serious failure in a play, don’t you think?  (Someone said of Chekhov’s plays, especially Uncle Vanya/Wood Demon, that a play about boredom cannot be boring.  I think that applies here a little.)

At the Saturday matinee we saw Homeland Security by Stuart Flack at Shepherd University’s main theater in the Frank Center for the Performing Arts, where the two-act play also took place that evening.  Exactly why a school without a performing arts curriculum has such a large performing arts facility was never explained to me—but it does.  The Frank Center is on the “new” campus and on its back lawn, CATF pitched a tent where they hold discussions between the matinee and the evening performancs on some days.  This day there was one with Nelson Pressley, the former critic of the Washington Times and, after he quit over coverage of Corpus Christi, the Washington Post briefly, but we decided we needed a break between shows and didn’t stay.  I heard while I was there that CATF is planning to build its own facility.  It’ll be on the SU campus, so the school won’t lose the attention the festival gets it, but I wonder how much less the theater will get used, especially in the summer.  (I gather that Shepherd has no summer session, which I assume is one reason they host CATF to start with: the buildings are there—might as well get some use out of them.)

Homeland Security is the play with which I had the most problems, including the stage design.  Simply put, the story is of a woman and her South Asian boyfriend who are pulled from line at an airport and subjected to interrogation because of the man’s alleged ties with terrorists.  During this long one-act (no intermission, about 1½ hours), the characters—there’s also the woman’s ex-husband—are interviewed in between scenes in which, in various pairings, they essentially discuss the permutations of their situation.  In the beginning, of course, it looks like the boyfriend, Raj, is being unfairly profiled, and, just to enhance this appearance, the interrogator and interviewer, a Homeland Security official, behaves secretively and conspiratorially, without actually saying anything.  In the end, however, as we learn more about Raj and his friends—he has apparently let friends of one particular and mysterious friend of his stay at the woman’s house where they made strange long-distance phone calls and left behind other heavy hints of unexplainable acts—we become suspicious of his affiliations as well.  At the end of the play, Raj has actually disappeared, probably having fled to his native country.  (This is never specified—it could be India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or even Afghanistan.)  The biggest problem I had with this script was that it is, first, extremely literal—the story is what it’s about.  (Remember my little thing about theater not just telling a story?  Well . . . .)  The title, essentially, tells it all.  There’s nothing subtle, surprising, or unpredictable about any moment in the play—except that it doesn’t come down either on the side of paranoia or legitimate caution.  (This, in my book, is another fault—either the author should show us a paranoid government gone wild, à la 1984, or a truly vigilant agency on the watch for real terrorists.  That may not be real life, but the namby-pamby middle road we end up with here isn’t dramatic.)  Yes, there are secrets (not very exciting ones) we learn bit by bit, but once they start to be revealed, they become predictable.  And everything unfolds very linearly, if you get what I mean—there are no curlicues or detours.  No quirks, as one of my teachers would say.  On top of this all, the script is virtually all talk—not only the interrogation and interview scenes, which are two people seated on opposite sides of a table asking and answering questions, but also all the other scenes whether they take place in a bed or on the jogging path of the local park.  Furthermore, there are lots and lots of short scenes crammed into this short play so there were constant blackouts to punctuate the talk. 

Now, this is also the play with which I had serious design complaints.  It was as if the director or playwright—I don’t know whose concept this was—had had an idea independent to the play and decided to try it out here.  Two ideas, actually: first, there was onstage, live music, though this was not a musical; second, there was a large sculpture stage right in front of which the two musicians sat.  Going backwards, the sculpture took up a quarter the stage area from right center to up center, leaving the only playing areas for the actors the extreme left and the apron below the proscenium.  (A few standing scenes, like the jogging path, were staged in front of the musicians’ sculpture.)  This not only severely limited what the actors could do and where they could go—I wonder if they would have had to be so static if there were more possibilities available for the director—but almost everything happened stage left while almost nothing happened stage right leaving half the stage virtually unused.  (I suppose this is okay of you were sitting house right, of course)  And that sculpture was always in shadow—as were the musicians—so I have no idea what it looked like or if it was in any way evocative of the play.  It was just this big, dark mass behind the musicians.  As for them, I don’t know what effect the writer/director intended for the music, but it had little as far as I was concerned.  The musicians/composers—apparently much of the music was improvised—were Indo-Pakistani and the music was occasionally ethnically/culturally redolent, but it wasn’t either really Indian or Western but a kind of mish-mash in between.  Like the sculpture, the music seemed like an idea that had no real purpose.  It was just there, occupying a large chunk of the play. 

The acting here, like in all the performances, was fine, though the script didn’t give anyone much to chew on.  I can’t say the actors were misdirected or anything—I just don’t think there’s anything in the play for them to do—anymore than there is for the characters.  All the scenes are two-person scenes, and with the limited space and the talky text, I don’t know what they might have done otherwise.  (If I’d been the director, I’d have first found another place for the musicians and given the actors the whole stage to at least pace around in while they’re talking.  That may not have been action, but at least it’d have been movement.)  Homeland Security was produced previously at the Victory Gardens in Chicago.

Saturday evening we saw what I think was the best play in the festival, Rounding Third by Richard Dresser.  He’s also a favorite of CATF, having participated in several since the festival’s early years.  As the title suggests, this is a baseball story, and it does take its theme from the on-going Little League debate over which is more important: playing to win or just having fun.  That makes this play a bit literal, too, but I think Dresser has a little more on his mind—perhaps not much more—than a sports(manship) lesson.  There are only two characters, both Little League coaches: the older veteran, played by Lee Sellars (from Flag Day), and the younger newbie, played by Andy Prosky, the son of Robert Prosky of TV, the movies, and, for many, many years, the Arena Stage company.  (Robert Prosky was at the shows over that weekend, supporting his son.  He was always a favorite of ours at Arena.)  Both actors were excellent—and it’s a good acting play, too.  (If it doesn’t start to show up in acting classes soon, I’ll be very surprised.)  Dresser says that the impetus for the play was his own experience as a Little League dad, and he was, himself, sort of on both sides of the win/have fun debate at one time or another, so the play does start out a little clichéd and formulaic.  (I think Dresser can fix this, and there’s a problem with the ending I also think he can fix; he needs a dramaturg.)  As you might guess, the veteran coach is the hard-line, win-at-all-costs guy and the new dad—whose only sports experience was curling when he was a boy in Canada!—is the have-fun-and-learn-sportsmanship guy.  (One of the reasons Dresser said he was prompted to write this play is that his son came home from Little League practice one day and told him that the coach had a new strategy for the team.  Dresser put this is the play, too: when a slower player got on base, when he was coming to the next base, he should slide and then pretend to be injured so the coach can substitute a faster runner.  That’s not strategy, Dresser, Prosky’s coach, and I agree—it’s cheating!)  Sellars’s character is, perhaps predictably, a blue-collar guy (convincingly very different from his office worker and his homeless windshield guy in Flag Day) who drinks beer, steps out on his wife (with lonely Little League moms), and swaggers and barks like a minor-league coach.  Prosky is doughy, shy, prissy, and inept—a harried white-collar employee whose stepson is on the team, his first try at baseball (and, we learn quickly, he isn’t a natural athlete and wears glasses he often loses on the field).  The two men start out a little too predictably one-dimensional, but by the end of the first act, there’s a bit more to each of them and they’ve become more complex—more like real people than cartoons—and an honest conflict, not just a contrived one, is developing.  (This is what I think Dresser needs to address: he should move the characters beyond the clichés much sooner.)  The play unfolds mostly at practices (and a few games) and though we never see the players—we’re sitting in the field—a lot of the dialogue, especially for Sellars’s coach, is delivered to them.  The set was a unit, evoking a Little League ball field with bleachers, a dugout, and the first-base line—though some scenes are set in Sellars’s van, in a gym, a bar, and one or two other locations for which parts of the ball field set do double duty—but that works fine. 

As the play develops, the two coaches not only evolve into more complex individuals—we learn bits of their personal stories that round them out more and more—but they each begin to absorb some of the characteristics of the other man a little.  Dresser insists that there is right on both sides of the Little League debate, and neither Sellars’s nor Prosky’s coach is really the complete buffoon he starts out to seem.  Rounding Third is a comedy-drama, but there are some touching and even sad moments along the way—such as Prosky’s revelation that not only is his boy his stepson—we know this early on—but that his wife, the boy’s mom, has died a year earlier and Little League baseball is an important bonding and healing experience for them both.  He also sincerely wants to be part of the team and the community—he’s a new arrival in town—but just doesn’t know how to do that.  Though the curling thing is a joke—and a rather obvious one I think Dresser can lose; there must be something else less clichéd he can replace it with—other stuff isn’t so sit-com ready.  (There are equivalent aspects to Sellars’s character—dramaturgically, the two characters are equal forces in the play.)  The other problem I alluded to above comes at the end.  After we see that the two coaches have absorbed some of each other’s beliefs, the play goes on a few scenes longer—essentially just to show that even after seeing some value in Prosky’s dad, Sellars still isn’t ready to be friends off the field.  Now, that may be worth demonstrating, but as a sort of coda to the main point of the play, it’s anticlimactic.  The play seems like it runs on after it’s over—like a car I once owned whose engine kept turning over after I switched off the ignition.  Once again, I think Dresser can fix this—even if it just means cutting the coda.  (Cynthia Jenner, a dramaturg and one-time professor of mine, used to pass on advice she said she got from a former editor: ”Kill your babies,” she said, meaning cut the things you’ve written that just don’t work, no matter how much you like them.  This may be a case of applying that advice.  Of course, I always add that you can save them for another piece, like the songs composers drop from musicals only to insert them successfully into later plays.)

Rounding Third was by far the best play of the four, though it’s too small for a big New York production.  I see it showing up in regional theaters around the country (and colleges, too, if it gets circulated) and in a season of one of our smaller non-profits.  (It’s already had a run at the Northlight Theatre near Chicago and at the Globe in San Diego.  The Washington Post review mentions in passing that Rounding Third had had a poorly-received staging in New York City sometime in the past.  I checked:  It was at the John Houseman Theater on Theatre Row in October 03; I don’t know if the script was substantially developed since then or not, though.)  It might even go commercial after that, but I can’t see a commercial producer bringing it here straight away—too sentimental and small.  (I’m not saying those are faults—just not immediately commercial.)  Don’t get me wrong: Rounding Third isn’t a great play—but it’s a nice play, and decent theater if audience response is a criterion.  (It is, isn’t it?  Sometimes I wonder.)   One way or another, however, I suspect Rounding Third will start showing up on stages here and there.

Our last play, the Sunday matinee for us, was Keith Glover’s The Rose of Corazon, which Glover subtitles A Texas Songplay.  Glover said he wrote the play because he wanted to explore “the clash of culture down in Texas and how it enriches” and because he “wanted to see what would happen when musical theater meets Spanish music.”  Now, those sound like plausible concepts: the clash of cultures can be dramatic and even theatrical and the confluence of Spanish—by which I assumed Glover meant Mexican and/or Tejano—and Anglo music has the potential to be theatrical, too.  But I ended up with problems with Glover’s pursuit of both his goals.  (Of course, the musical thing was sort of done in West Side Story with Puerto Rican and Anglo music, and the cultural clash—not to be confused with the writing team of Culture Clash—was sort of taken up in Zoot Suit, I think.  But there’s always room for more, if you add something to the exploration.)  Now, I know that the common writers’ wisdom of “write about what you know” has been pretty much disparaged lately, but I still think that you ought to have some basic familiarity with your milieu.  If not, you need to do an awful lot of research, probably.  Neither Glover nor any of his collaborators are from Texas, or spent any time there (or anywhere in the Southwest as far as I can tell), or come from any kind of Latino music tradition, whether flamenco, mariachi, or salsa.  The result reminded me of the epithet that the press hung on the California production of the current Fiddler revival: “Goyim on the Roof.”  This came out sort of like a “Gringo in the Barrio.”  (Maybe that’s cruel—too bad.)

Unlike Homeland Security, which had so many fundamental problems that I hardly feel it’s worth revisiting, I feel as if Glover’s idea for Rose is okay except that he made really bad choices at nearly every turn.  (He was also the director of this production, so he did make some good casting decisions—and one poor one.)  Perhaps his first bad decision was choosing a subject/theme with which he was so unfamiliar, but he went on to compound that.  Simplistically, the plot of Rose is the story of a Texas flyer who is shot down over Europe in WWII and badly wounded.  As he’s recovering, he’s nursed by a Spanish—not Hispanic, but Spanish, from Spain, Odd Choice #1—woman and, of course, they fall in love.  The flyer marries Rosa (who loves roses!) before he leaves, and when he gets back home to Corazon, Texas, he sends for her.  (Corazon, of course, means ‘heart’ in Spanish—the heart of Texas, as in “deep in . . .”but no one mentions this little additional sentimentalism.)   When Rosa arrives, she’s welcomed neither by the local Anglos because she’s Spanish, nor by the local Chicanos . . . because she’s Spanish.  But that’s the last that this little cultural clash comes up.  In fact, there’s nary a mention of cultural divisions, tensions, or clashes at all.  Bad Choice #2.  (I’m beginning to feel a little like Gutman in Camino Real:  “Block 2 along the Camino Real!”)  I’m going to skip some of the many (too many—Bad Decision #3) little plot details and skip ahead (this was a 2½-hour play): There’s a draught and all the crops (including Rosa’s special rose) are dying.  Champ, the flyer, learns, Oedipus-like, that he must fly into the clouds and seed them (this is The Rainmaker meets Magic Realism—there’s a crone . . . you don’t want to know)—and he does.  But he crashes in the mountains (during which there are several totally unnecessary scenes with a band of very old banditos who’ve been lost/hiding there for decades—one of several entirely superfluous side trips in the story; Bad Decision #4), and while Champ’s missing, Rosa encounters a strange (but handsome) itinerant Mexican handyman.  He tries to take her away, but she won’t go.  Just then, Champ reappears (one of the banditos had had a map all the time—he just didn’t want to leave!), there’s a fight and the handyman kills Champ (speak of West Side Story!).  Rosa’s left alone, and that’s the end.  Except what becomes of Rosa?  Her husband’s dead, she still a Spanish war bride among Anglos and Chicanos, she speaks little English, she has no job, and she can’t drive.  She doesn’t even live in town—she meets the handyman when she’s walking back from shopping in town because she can’t drive Champ’s car.  What’s the ending?  Bad Decision #5.

By the way, you note that I gave you a short précis of the plot.  You’ll never guess how many details I left out!  And those aren’t the only bad choices I think Glover made, both as playwright, composer, and director—they were just the plot problems.  For instance, there’s a three-person chorus (who also play incidental characters).  There’s nothing basically wrong with a chorus, of course, but this was the most undramatic and untheatrical use of one I can recall seeing.  They’re also sort of kindly Macbeth witches—Mayan gods, I guess (they have sort of Mayan/Aztec/Ancient Mexican costumes at the beginning and end) and they are judging Rosa somehow or other.  (One of them says early on, “To be judged correctly, a tale must be told from back to front . . . .”  Problem is, the story’s told front to back—so we start off with a dramaturgical error.  Not very auspicious.)  The chorus, I guess, is Error #6 (though this is getting all out of order now, since the chorus shows up right at the start).  If it were my play/production, the first thing I would do with this bit is cast real dancers and get in a better choreographer to put in some very strong movement rather than the wan, actors-who-move stuff that Glover used.  The chorus’s music was wan, too, but I have a whole thing about the music on its own.  I’ll just say about the chorus music/songs that they ought to be much more distinctive than they are, and very identifiable with the chorus rather than blend in with all the other music.  The chorus also speaks (prose), but I’d consider making all their words into song—recitative or oratorio or something.

Since I brought it up, let’s look at the music now.  As I said, none of the composers—Glover had two collaborators on this part—has any substantive connection to Latino music.  The result, to my ears, was an unrecognizable blend of 50s pop, a little mariachi rhythm, and unspecific sounds.  (The music was live, but since both it and the actors were miked—in a tiny little black box theater!—it was almost indistinguishable from recorded.  This is probably Bad Decision #7—miking the voices and the music in so small a space.  Nothing sounded live.)  Once again, I’ll give you my ideas—if I were directing: I’d go with something like Latin jazz, maybe off Santana—strong, vibrant, and its own kind of sound that isn’t associated with a specific era or cultural milieu.  (Remember, the period of the play is late 40s, just after WWII.  The alternative is to really imitate the sound of the era, both in Anglo music and Tejano.  I think that might work, too, but my personal preference is for the unique sound that doesn’t belong to a specific period, but is just evocative of the theme—it is magical and mystical, though that wasn’t played much onstage.)  What Glover and his team came up with was so unmemorable that I don’t . . .umm . . . remember any of it!  How is that helpful?  Bad Choice #8.  (Maybe even 8 and 9, if you separate the style of music from the choice of collaborators who don’t know any more than you do.)

Finally (and at long last, I hear you mutter), the set/decor.  Yes, I had problems here, too, and I’m not apologizing, either.  This one’s simple, I think: The set, as minimal as it was—some small boxes, a larger box, and a round floor covering center stage—it was all wrong stylistically.  It was practical enough—I don’t object to the boxes over more literal set pieces; it kept the play flowing, after all—but the pieces were all decorated like stone blocks from a Mayan ruin and the center floor piece was reminiscent of the famous circular Mayan calendar.  Now, okay, Mayan is Ancient Mexican—but the farthest north the Maya got was southern Mexico.  (The Yucatan was already the northern suburbs.)  Even the Aztecs didn’t get up into what is now Texas (so even if my iconography is off, and Glover meant for this stuff to evoke Aztecs and not Maya, he’s still off by hundreds of miles).  God knows, there are plenty of very evocative Mexican images Glover could have used that are prevalent in the Texas border areas—all that wonderful cut tin, the ocho de dios thingies, the Dia de los Muertos imagery, the colorful carved and painted animal figures for sale all over this country (even as far up as New York!)—some I can’t even think of just now.  I’m assuming that Glover used the Maya imagery and the chorus to approximate a classic Greek drama, and maybe he could have done that, but he didn’t pull it off.  He’d have to make more of it to make it work—and that would mean a different play altogether, I think.  (Maybe Glover should write that play!)  All this adds up to Bad Choice #9.  (Oh, and there was one other set piece I never figured out at all—a sort of patch of thatch hung from the flies over a leko spot stage left.  I couldn’t figure out if the panel of twigs was supposed to represent something itself, or if it was supposed to act as a kind of cookie to make shadows on the stage—it didn’t as far as I could see—but it was pretty prominent in this small space—about 3’X4’, hanging just above head height.)

By the way, I said Glover made a poor casting choice here, too.  All the rest of the cast was good to excellent—even, as far as I could judge through the miking, the singing.  Rosa (Arielle Jacobs) was quite pleasant, though as a character, she didn’t have a lot of acting to pull off.  The best singer was the itinerant handyman, Joe, played by Perry Ojeda.  (He’s also darkly handsome and smooth.  He had a Clark Gable/Rhett Butler pencil mustache here, which made him seem a little oily, but I suspect he can do a good straight—no sexual allusions intended—leading man, too.)  The one who was weak was Champ, the flyer.  He was all-American good-looking enough—blondish and youthful, very white-bread—but he didn’t have the singing chops for the role.  His voice was okay, but he was a crooner, not a pop singer and he looked awkward and out of his element when he had to belt an energetic number with some physicality.  The role needed more Springsteen and less Paul Anka.  (Of course, if you change the musical style, like I think the play needs, then you have to reconsider the casting anyway.  But the guy isn’t just a pilot, he’s a wing-walker and an aerobat—the part needs more swagger overall anyway.)  This actor, Michael Flanigan, was pretty decent as the playwright in “Down and Dirty,” the second Flag Day one-act, and I suspect that CATF wanted to keep the overall cast down and needed to use as many actors in dual roles as they could, so Glover may have been convinced to cast Flanigan because he was there.  On the other hand, the Flag Day director might have cast a better singer and solved both problems.  (CATF uses a casting director—there was an article about her in the Washington Post just after we got home.)  I don’t know if I’d count the casting weakness at the same level as the other mistakes, but I suppose it still counts as Bad Choice #10.  (If I got picky and really went into individual detail about all the aspects of this play/production, the number of bad choices would probably be higher, but ten’s a nice round number.  Kind of makes my point, I think.)

Like I said at the start, though: overall the CATF was a nice experience despite specific problems with individual plays.  I think the CATF folks see them as plays still in process—they do acknowledge the changes that are made along the way, and since they do readings of some, they clearly see CATF as a kind of working/development environment.  Maybe not as inchoate as, say, the O’Neill, but not as finished as ATL-Humana.  I’ve been quibbling and caviling, but nothing was awful—and most of the plays were better than a lot of the stuff I saw in New York last season!  Besides, as I also said, the stage work was so good for the most part that it was worth seeing it.  As I also said as well: I’d go again.

*  *  *  *

I had a look at the Washington Post review of CATF after I wrote the above report.  Peter Marks (the Post’s regular critic) pretty much said the same things I did.  He thought less of Rounding Third than I did, though he conceded it was an audience favorite, and he also found the insertion of the playwright character in Lee Blessing’s “Down and Dirty” one-act ultimately pointless, but he didn’t concede that it was at least an interesting idea.  Otherwise, he and I agreed—for what that’s worth.

[CATF was founded in 1991 by current producing director Ed Herendeen, formerly a staffer at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts.  Before that, he worked with the West Virginia Governor’s Honor Academy at Shepherd in the late 1980s. Herendeen was serving as a theater consultant to Shepherd University when the notion of a professional theater company came up.  That idea grew into CATF, which states its mission as “producing and developing new American theater.”  To date, the festival has produced 105 new plays, including 40 world premieres by 77 American playwrights and has a budget of $1.3 million.  Last year’s audience was just under 15,000 and the productions are reviewed in the Washington Post.

[This year’s entries in the festival include World Builders by Johnna Adams (world première), Everything You Touch by Sheila Callaghan, On Clover Road by Steven Dietz (world première), We Are Pussy Riot by Barbara Hammond (world première), and The Full Catastrophe by Michael Weller (based on the novel by David Carkeet; world première).  We Are Pussy Riot, a documentary play based on the 2012 incident in which five activist Russian women were arrested, tried, and sent to labor camps for publicly denouncing Vladimir Putin at a performance, was commissioned by CATF.]  

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