The Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., looks likely to shake up its audience from July 11 to Aug. 3 in its 13th season.
Artistic Director Ed Herendeen announced his four-play roster of brand-new and nearly new works last week. "Whores" is by Lee Blessing, whose best-known plays include "A Walk in the Woods" and "Chesapeake." A world premiere, "Whores" takes place inside the mind of a Central American general responsible for an atrocity in his homeland but now living in comfortable exile in the United States. It's based on the 1980 murders in El Salvador of three nuns and a Catholic lay worker.
"He really looks at the subject of violence, responsibility, what our role as Americans is," said Herendeen. "He's haunted now by these nuns . . . it really explores his guilt, his lusts, his angers, full of his self-justifications." Herendeen will direct the play.
"Wilder" by Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote the S&M love-story film "Secretary," is the festival's first new musical. It's about a boy's coming of age while growing up in a bordello. "We're calling it an erotic chamber musical," said Herendeen. Mike Craver and Jack Herrick of the Red Clay Ramblers will write and perform the music, and Lisa Portes will direct.
Herendeen will direct "Bright Ideas" by Eric Coble, a "rollicking comedy" about a socially ambitious couple who resort to foul play to get their toddler into the right day school, Herendeen said. In "The Last Schwartz," by Deborah Zoe Laufer, a family gathered on the anniversary of their patriarch's death reveals juicy secrets. Lucie Tiberghien will direct.
A Straight Line Through Time
"It's the hardest thing I've ever done," said actor Marty Lodge of his role as the Narrator in Round House's "The Pavilion" (playing through March 2). Lodge gets the first line in Craig Wright's philosophical play about Champagne and regrets at a 20th high school reunion: "This is the way the universe begins," followed by another page and a half -- single-spaced. It is, Lodge said, "essentially a history of the universe from the beginning until now, in a poetic way . . . my goal is to make everything as clear as possible."
After he explains the universe, Lodge plays 17 distinct characters, all of whom encounter the central couple, Peter and Kari, who were an item in high school but whose love didn't survive an act of betrayal. Two decades later they still wonder how it altered their lives.
Lodge said he was nervous about how he'd handle his multiple personae, but a car accident on opening night cured him. He wondered, "Why am I nervous about a stupid little play when I'm about to crash my car into a big white van?" It's a question that dramatist Wright, who deals with questions of determinism vs. choice and the personal vs. the cosmic, would appreciate.
Jane Beard, who plays Kari, saw big acting challenges "because the language is so heightened and because it is like a piece of poetry in many ways." She decided her task was "to make everything small and real the way poetry actually is."
Aaron Shields, who plays Peter, is a veteran of "Shear Madness" productions around the country and is the new guy on the block, having done only "Shakespeare, Moses and Joe Papp" at Round House. "These guys have been around each other so much, they're almost mind-melded," he observed of Lodge, Beard and director Jerry Whiddon.
But he, too, saw the need to bring Wright's high-flying words down to earth. "Can we take this flowing, slightly poetic language and put some heart into it and make it real?" Shields wondered. "If we can do that, it would just be a lovely, lovely piece."
Rebellion's Siren Song
Mark Rhea, the Keegan Theatre's artistic director, knew it would take a major effort to put on "The Hostage." The work of mid-20th-century Irish playwright Brendan Behan is rarely done, even in Ireland. (Arena produced "The Hostage" in its 1962-63 season.)
Even though the Arlington-based Keegan grounds its repertoire in Irish plays and classic American drama, "The Hostage," which has been extended through Saturday at the Clark Street Playhouse, presented extra hurdles. It requires a lead actor who can accompany himself on guitar and sing folk tunes and IRA rebel anthems with convincing passion. Set in 1958 Dublin, it has a big cast and a ramshackle, comic plot that culminates in a tragic anti-British act of violence.
Rhea is convinced that Behan, who died in 1964, meant to decry political violence by spoofing an incompetent act of rebellion. "I think he was trying to make the point that it's all out of hand. It's ridiculous, bombings and killings . . . he was saying this isn't how we should be," said Rhea.
"You've got to have a group that will go out on a limb and produce it with all of its absurdity," he said. "You have two, three story lines going on. You have all this music." So Rhea cast actor David Jourdan, an expert singer of Irish music, to play the central character. "Without him, I would not have done this play," Rhea said.
* In an effort to connect with its new neighborhood, the Theater Alliance, which performs at the H Street Playhouse, has announced an offer of up to 25 free seats per performance to residents who live within five blocks of 1365 H St. NE and to students at nearby Gallaudet University. The Alliance opened "Slaughter City" last week. Call 202-396-2125 or visit www.theateralliance.com.
* Asian Stories in America will perform two one-acts, "Drizzle" and "Change," by New York playwright Sung Rno, Friday at 7 p.m. in the Hirshhorn Museum's Ring Auditorium. A panel discussion about Korean Americans will follow. Call 202-357-2449.
* The Shakespeare Theatre will have a reading Monday at 7:30 p.m. of Henrik Ibsen's rarely performed 1866 play "Brand," about a priest trying to balance his spirituality and the demands of society. Call 202-657-1122, Ext. 4.