In its ninth year, the Contemporary American Theater Festival here is devoting itself to thorny political and social issues: abortion, the death penalty, a 12-year-old girl seeking sexual experience, and a man who apparently makes the journey from gay to straight. Unfortunately, none of the plays are as interesting as the questions they try to address.
Actually, Jeffrey Hatcher's "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," about the 17th-century actor Edward Kynaston, might be interesting if you could make out what it's about. Kynaston (Dallas Roberts) had become a star doing female roles. When Charles II, partly under the influence of his mistress, actress Nell Gwynn, decreed that women onstage should henceforth be played by women, Kynaston found himself in a fix.
But what kind of fix? Hatcher appears to be addressing the notion of learned gender, with his hero beginning the play acting as a woman onstage and ending it acting as a man in society, complete with wife and children.
The subject is rich but the treatment confusing. Kynaston's sexuality, for example, is unclear. As the play begins, he has a male lover he sleeps with only because it's a way to sleep with the female characters he's portrayed. At one point, Kynaston's future wife tries to seduce him and he is not repelled, merely hopeless.
By play's end, he's married. Kynaston's sexual boundaries are so blurry that dramatically he's shapeless. (It's certainly possible--though I don't think this is what Hatcher had in mind--to see Kynaston's journey as one from "deviance" to "normalcy.") There may be more in the play than was clear from the production, which Ed Herendeen has directed shrilly and heavily, obliterating any subtleties.
Herendeen also directed Wendy MacLeod's "The Water Children" but can't be held responsible for its annoyances. The play claims to address the political and moral issues surrounding abortion, giving its actress heroine, who is not happy about an abortion she had 20 years ago, a romance with a right-to-lifer by whom she gets pregnant. The extremist sides of the issue are represented on the left by a Man-Hating Lesbian and on the right by a Homicidal Psychopath.
Mr. Right-to-Lifer turns out not to be Mr. Right when the heroine decides she may abort the child (a decision the play unambiguously sees as hers alone to make), and after going to Japan to ask forgiveness of the soul of her earlier unborn baby, she decides to go ahead and become a single mother. And everything's fine. There's hardly a difficult question about abortion that this play doesn't either sensationalize or slide by coyly.
Bruce Graham's "Coyote on a Fence" is another script that acts as if it's tackling a tough question--are some people such predators that society should kill them?--but in fact takes shortcuts around all moral difficulties. It is, however, cracklingly well-directed by Lou Jacob and acted through the roof by Lee Sellars as a death row inmate who edits a prison newspaper and Paul Sparks as a half-witted, near-illiterate racist who has killed 37 people by setting fire to a black church.
Graham pulls any teeth his topic might bare by making Reyburn, Sparks's character, a psychopathic innocent, hideously wrong but without a vicious impulse in him. If the man had been repellent, the audience might have found itself genuinely conflicted about his fate, but as written and played, Reyburn is easy to sympathize with and also, since he doesn't seem morally or intellectually complete, easy to imagine as someone whom only death will stop. The play's unpleasant issues go down with a spoonful of sugar.
Graham can certainly write, though. "Coyote on a Fence" is vigorous and intense, and the not-quite-friendship between the two convicts is drawn very well. The smartest thing in the script is the way the editor, Brennan, sneers at a New York Times reporter (T. Ryder Smith) as a slumming liberal yuppie, only to find his own "superior" values continually tested by the guileless Reyburn.
Julia Jordan's "Tatjana in Color" is an irritating princess fantasy in which our heroine, 12-year-old Tatjana Von Mossig (Juilliard graduate Elizabeth Reaser), discovers the glories of her budding sexuality while posing for painter Egon Schiele. The girl is spoiled, selfish, spiteful and shallow, but we're supposed to find her passage into womanhood affecting. There is a lot of symbolic talk about fruit.
The play is hopelessly, deadeningly static, though male audience members may appreciate the sight of the womanly Reaser posing for Schiele in nothing but pale blue stockings and a mane of pre-Raphaelite red hair.
Many worthy topics are addressed this year at Shepherdstown. The trouble is, except for "Coyote on a Fence," they're not addressed with any theatrical skill and so, under the circumstances, might just as well have been printed as essays.
The Contemporary American Theater Festival will continue through Aug. 1. For information, call 1-800-999-2283.
CAPTION: Cherene Snow, left, Lee Sellars and T. Ryder Smith in Bruce Graham's "Coyote on a Fence."
CAPTION: Lee Sellars and Dallas Roberts in "Compleat Female Stage Beauty."
CAPTION: T. Ryder Smith as quite the dandy in "Compleat Female Stage Beauty."