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In Shepherdstown, Festival Slate Pulses With Political Tension

(Photos By Ron Blun Photography)

But as animated by the irresistible Anne Marie Nest and directed by Herendeen, the piece seems -- for the first hour, at least -- primarily a study of a quirky personality. Nest is by turns exuberant, vehement and cheeky, flashing a crinkly-eyed smile, and she underscores the expressiveness and literary timbre of Corrie's diaries. But the charisma fades in the show's last third, when the violence in Gaza overwhelms the young American's attention, brushing away the comfortable certainties of her earlier existence.

Certainties shatter in a more spectacular fashion in the festival's most intriguing production, the display of postmodern pyrotechnics that is "1001." Unfurling on a gorgeous blue set that evokes a towering mosque, Grote's Orientalist fantasia -- directed by the apparently tireless Herendeen -- conjures a storybook world that dissolves, at a moment's notice, into an apocalyptic, 21st-century landscape.

Where to begin to describe this seductive if smart-alecky, nonlinear play? With the exotic tales related by Scheherazade (Zabryna Guevara) to King Shahriyar (Jonathan C. Kaplan)? With that duo's alter egos, roaming the smoking wreckage around the twin towers? With the poetic references to jinn, or the cameos by Gustave Flaubert (Carman Lacivita), Jorge Luis Borges (Marc Damon Johnson) and Alan Dershowitz (Ariel Shafir)?

Or with the phantasmagoric shadows cast by lighting designer D.M. Wood, or Sharath Patel's sound design, which sandwiches muezzins' calls and the whiz of a scimitar between blaring punk rock and ambulance sirens? Or, perhaps, with Margaret A. McKowen's CD-spangled medieval Persian costumes?

Perhaps one might just cite the startling appearance of a UPS delivery person in a chador -- which is exactly the right shade of UPS brown. Or an even more preposterous sequence, in which dancers in Arab garb -- one of them wearing an Osama bin Laden mask -- vamp to the music of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," complete with a jihadist Vincent Price voice-over.

As those images illustrate, "1001's" frenzied, ahistorical juxtapositions can be a little glib. But at least the play doesn't preach, and it doesn't underestimate the audience's intelligence.

"As usual, I obscure more than I illuminate," Grote has Borges observe at one point. As a philosophy of political theater, that wouldn't be half-bad.

Contemporary American Theater Festival, through July 29 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283 or visit http://www.catf.org. http://


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