Backstage: Contemporary American Theater Festival

July 5, 2011

Recent plays by theater icons Sam Shepard and David Mamet will get new productions this month at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., which opens Friday on the campus of Shepherd University and runs through July 31.

Shepard’s “Ages of the Moon” and Mamet’s “Race” premiered in 2009.

In “Ages of the Moon,” Shepard puts two 60ish men, Ames and Byron, on the porch of Ames’s country house. They chat about their long friendship, perceived betrayals and lost loves while checking the night sky for a lunar eclipse.

Comparisons of “Ages of the Moon” to the spare works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett seem inevitable, Shepard says. Shepard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and film actor, chatted from Santa Fe, N.M., where he’s a visiting scholar at the Santa Fe Institute.

“Because there’s only two actors and it’s a predicament — two older men are alone and discussing their aloneness and discussing the disappearance of women, yeah, of course, it’s gonna be [compared] with Beckett, which I don’t mind . . . so long as they don’t call it imitating him. It’s not,” Shepard says. “He definitely influenced me, but I’m not trying to be Samuel Beckett. Nobody can be Samuel Beckett.”

But are Ames and Byron supposed to be the same man? Shepard won’t say. “I like the ambiguity of it. I don’t think it has to be one or the other,” he says. “People are always trying to . . . categorize things, but I like the ambiguity. Yeah, they’re two aspects of one, or they’re two separate individuals, or they’re both.”

Mamet’s play unfolds in a law office with two male barracuda defense lawyers, one African American and one white. They’re trying to decide whether to take the case of a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room — and whether the case is winnable in front of a jury.

The festival’s artistic director, Ed Herendeen, says “Race” has “some of the same themes that David Mamet is known for: corruption and power, dominance between men and women.” Herendeen is aware that the Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga makes the piece seem especially timely.

Three other playwrights are showcased in the festival’s five-play repertory. In Kyle Bradstreet’s “From Prague,” three people converge in a tumbledown Prague church and recall tragic events.

“The idea of faith does run through a lot of the plays I’ve done,” Bradstreet says. He sees his spiritual life as a long-term bout, “just going back and forth and kind of literally boxing with God.” “From Prague” will be part of a trilogy exploring religious beliefs, he says.

In the seriocomic “We Are Here,” playwright Tracy Thorne looks at how a happy mixed-race family deals with grief over the loss of a child. “In American theatrical literature, we have a very healthy amount of so-called dysfunctional family plays, and I thought, how would a [functional] family accept this terrible blow?”

Thorne says a singalong demonstrates family members’ affection for one another. “I thought, okay, so now I don’t have to show them being happy or [talking about] how happy they are,” she says. “They can sing to one another and we, collectively, will experience happiness.”

Playwright Lucy Thurber is obsessed with abolitionist John Brown and his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry. Her play “The Insurgents,” a world premiere commissioned by Herendeen and the festival, puts a disaffected modern woman, Sally, in a kind of spiritual colloquy with Brown, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and Timothy McVeigh.

Thurber says she became “fascinated by the fact that the more I read about slavery and the more I read also about the abolitionists at that time . . . it seems strange to me that more people didn’t stand up. And so, I sort of became fascinated by what makes people stand up and what doesn’t.”

“There’s such a thin line, I think, when you look at an insurgent, between someone being a revolutionary and someone being a terrorist,” continues Thurber, who teaches playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College. “For me, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner and John Brown were great American heroes that stood up against wrong to varying degrees; whether you support violence or not, they made a stand.”

The big question today, Thurber says, is, “How do you support your family . . . and the country as a whole, and be a patriot, and not become disillusioned and not become a Timothy McVeigh?”

Follow spot

l The Phillips Collection will host a staged reading of John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The play deals, in part, with a two-sided painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Alan Paul, associate director at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, will direct. For more information, visit www.phillipscollection.org.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

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