CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL

'Eelwax Jesus' adds trippy dimension to Contemporary American Theater Festival

Zabryna Guevara and Barzin Akhavan in absorbing
Zabryna Guevara and Barzin Akhavan in absorbing "Inana." (Contemporary American Theater Festival)

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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, July 14, 2010

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.VA. -- A gas-masked figure tossing moon pies. A stuffed dachshund named Sarah Palin. A tap-dancing vagina. Those are just a few of the hallucinatory images that swim out of "The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show," the most memorable, if not the most satisfying, production at the 2010 Contemporary American Theater Festival.

The four other works on view will flatter your moral certainties with sleek, irony-primed narratives and tidily aligned motifs. "Eelwax Jesus," a world premiere with book and lyrics by Max Baker and music by stage and screen actor Lee Sellars, is more likely to leave you scratching your head -- but that's a refreshing experience in the context of this festival. The annual new-play smorgasbord has sometimes favored middlebrow fare and easily digestible sociopolitical parables -- but it is also known for spotlighting writers and scripts that go on to broad exposure around the country.

Baker and Sellars's trippy collaboration evokes "Brave New World" as re-imagined by Salvador Dali and Mark Knopfler, with homages to "Mad Men." The wisp of story concerns a group home in an America where cloning, consumerism and viruses have run amok. Seeking solace, the home's misfit residents tune in to a daily televised music show called "Eelwax Jesus" (the name of Baker and Sellars's real-life band).

As the show's huckster host, Mr. Shine (Kurt Zischke), preens and the home's serene Mrs. Worthington (Helen-Jean Arthur) fusses over her dearly departed dachshund, rocker Ignatz McGillicuddy (Sellars) sings deadpan lyrics like "Aaron Sorkin sold Tuesday to the Japanese/Twitter merged with swine flu/Now the world knows when you sneeze." Meanwhile, at stage right, a woman in a 1950s-style dress (Margot White) irons and folds white handkerchief after white handkerchief.

It all makes for an appealingly oddball meditation on commercialism, conformity and paranoia, and, under Baker's direction, the stage tableau -- with screens relaying footage of motels, explosions and more -- looks spookily like an art installation come to life. (Robert Klingelhoefer designed the set; Trevor Bowen devised the costumes, including the female-genitalia suit worn, briefly, by dancer Kate Nielson.) Still, a little theatrical surrealism goes a long way, and theatergoers may be checking their watches well before "Eelwax Jesus" ends.

The festival's more conventional selections offer greater entertainment value, thanks to the shrewd directing and, especially, the knockout acting that compensates for some jury-rigged dramaturgy. The cast of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's "Lidless," for instance, does a stellar job fleshing out that play's contrivances. Directed by the festival's producing director, Ed Herendeen, and staged in-the-round -- a format that emphasizes its themes of secrets and exposure -- "Lidless" centers on Alice (an intense Eva Kaminsky), a Guantanamo Bay interrogator whose techniques include sexually molesting a detainee named Bashir (the imposing Barzin Akhavan).

Flash-forward to 2019: Gitmo is closed and Alice, now mother of the teenage Rhiannon (the quicksilver Reema Zaman), is a Minnesota florist. When Bashir turns up, Alice and her husband (Michael Goodfriend) struggle to keep the ugly past from destroying their family.

Freighted with overly pointed lines ("When you're a florist, life and death is in your hands") and motifs so neatly interlocked that they recall metaphysical poetry (the color of Rhiannon's goldfish is compared to the orange of detention-camp jumpsuits, for example), "Lidless" can be heavy-handed -- but the actors invest their characters with riveting vitality. A scene in which Bashir methodically tears the blooms off yellow roses, in particular, is wrenchingly theatrical.

Performers work a similar alchemy with "White People," J.T. Rogers's triptych of monologues about racism, previously seen in New York. Rogers, whose more complex play "The Overwhelming" ran at this festival in 2008, has written each soliloquy around a type, rather than a person: Martin (Zischke, radiating smugness) is a big-shot St. Louis lawyer; Alan (a persuasively nervy Sellars) is a New York City professor; Mara Lynn (White) is a cash-strapped Southern housewife with a disabled child. The characters never interact, but their talk gradually reveals comparable wary, condescending and bitter attitudes toward racial minorities (Tsubasa Kamei's elegant tri-part set underscores the symmetry). The scenarios feel simplistic, but director Herendeen's actors conjure up full-blooded individuals -- Mara Lynn's smile of tamped-down disappointment is particularly heartbreaking.

If the aforementioned plays variously critique 21st-century America, Jennifer Haley probes the personal with "Breadcrumbs," about the bond between Alida (Arthur), a writer losing her memory, and Beth (Kaminsky), her caregiver. The narrative is predictable, the sentiment dutifully bittersweet. Keeping director Laura Kepley's world-premiere production from being an utter yawn are the vulnerability and zesty crotchetiness of Arthur's Alida and the fluid transitions (aided by Colin Bills's lighting and Matt Nielson's sound design) between past and present, realism and fairy tale.

Like "Breadcrumbs," Michele Lowe's "Inana" -- previously staged in Denver -- explores intimate relationships, but it layers them bracingly onto a geopolitical canvas. The festival's most accomplished play, and also -- as directed by Herendeen (how does he find time?) -- the most absorbing production, the suspenseful "Inana" is a mystery, thriller and romance set in the world of Iraqi antiquities. Among other winning performances, Akhavan portrays a passionate museum director in the city of Mosul; Zabryna Guevara is his shy, stubborn bride; and James Rana brings gravitas to the role of a persecuted Iraqi bookseller. Klingelhoefer's clever set, with bland hotel-room walls morphing periodically into Mesopotamian bas-reliefs, almost gives the imagery of "Eelwax Jesus" a run for its money.

Wren is a freelance writer.

Contemporary American Theater Festival

through Aug. 1 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283 or visit http://www.catf.org.


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