Politics courses through three of the four scripts featured at this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival, Friday through July 31 in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
That's not surprising, given today's world. What is a little more unusual is that three of the four featured plays are by women and two of the guest directors are women.
Sam Shepard, whose "God of Hell" explores post-9/11 paranoia and creeping fascism, hasn't been around for rehearsals, we're told, so apart from festival founder and director Ed Herendeen, the playwrights and directors on campus have been something of a sorority.
"Of course it's wonderful, but I don't think it's that big a deal," says Melinda Lopez, author of "Sonia Flew." Director Tracy Brigden, who is staging "American Tet" by Lydia Stryk, agrees. More than one's gender, "it's your life experience that affects your interpretation of any given script," she says. The remaining female playwright is Sheri Wilner, with the seriocomic "Father Joy."
Perhaps the rawest nerve in the four-play roster is Stryk's antiwar "American Tet." In it, the Iraq war upends a military family, first with differing views, then with tragedy. "I think it's essential that art has a point of view," Brigden says. "Tet" "might not please everyone in the audience, but hopefully, it will provoke them to think from a different perspective."
She sees the play as "very respectful and very sympathetic towards the family." What Stryk is trying to say in the play, Brigden adds, is that "history repeats itself -- not so much about the country and the powers that be, but mankind not learning from their mistakes."
Lopez's "Sonia Flew" examines painful memories awakened in a Cuban American woman when her son announces he plans to enlist after 9/11. Her anger has more to do with her childhood, when her parents sent her from Castro's Cuba and could not join her. "Her inability to forgive is the crux of the play," Lopez says.
"What can make a mother cut her son off like that, even if they don't agree?" she asks. In the second act, the play answers the question by going back to Cuba in 1961. We discover "the baggage and scars that she's carrying. And it's really that she can't forgive herself for leaving her parents," Lopez says.
Shepard and Stryk's plays take dim views of post-9/11 America, but Lopez's focuses on an evil her parents saw in another land 45 years ago: "the feeling that your rights are being eroded and suddenly you don't recognize your country anymore and you don't know who you can talk to." The playwright says, only half-joking, "Democrats will love the first act, and Republicans will love the second act? I don't know."
In Wilner's "Father Joy," a young sculptor struggles to find the right medium for her art. Just as she begins a romantic relationship with her professor, her father, always a quiet, ineffectual man, begins to fade away -- literally. He becomes transparent and sheds a sandlike substance as he disintegrates, then discovers that by disappearing, he can help his daughter find her way.
"To me it was a very accurate metaphor to have her struggle to find a material that she could use in her hands to make art, because we're all sort of doing that same kind of searching and shaping inside ourselves. And I think that's actually the process of becoming an adult," Wilner says.
She and director Pam MacKinnon agree that Dad's slow exit should be implied with no fancy effects. "It's a wonderful opportunity to use theater as theater," MacKinnon says.
Wilner likes bringing metaphors to life. Her play "Hunger," which premiered in Shepherdstown in 2000, was about an unfulfilled woman who was always ravenous. "In this play, a father literally starts disappearing," she says. "I'm really drawn to that -- instead of leaving something in the subtext, to actually just bring it right out in the open."
A Bug's Tale
Catalyst Theater Company will kick off its new season with an adaptation of Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" (Sept. 8-Oct. 15) by Steven Berkoff. Artistic Director Scott Fortier will star as Gregor Samsa, who wakes one topsy-turvy morning to find he has turned into a bug.
"It's the kind of play that suits our company very well," Fortier says. "We seem to be drawn to and do well with darker pieces," he notes of the small, experimental troupe, which will mark its fifth season at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop on Seventh Street SE.
As adapted by Berkoff, Fortier says, Kafka's tale is "stripped-down and raw," adjectives that he says also describe the Catalyst aesthetic. Olney Theatre Center's Jim Petosa, who directed Fortier in "The Elephant Man" this past season, will stage the play.
Lee Blessing's "Eleemosynary" (Feb. 2-March 11), about three generations of women, will be directed by company member Christopher Janson and feature Catalyst's Ellen Young as the matriarch.
"Someone Who'll Watch Over Me" (May 4-June 10), Frank McGuinness's drama about three Middle East hostages -- an American, Irishman and an Englishman -- will feature company members Christopher Janson, Jesse Terrill and Dan Via, directed by their compatriot Christopher Gallu. The play, says Fortier, is "not overtly political" and "doesn't force any kind of agenda on the audience."
Catalyst's New Works Project, Gallu's tentatively titled "Over," runs this Nov. 5, 10-12 and 17-19. It examines how a married couple try to shield their family from the onslaught of popular culture.
* "Petticoats and Politics," the new play festival of Washington Women in Theater, will run Thursday through Sunday at the Warehouse Theatre. Featured are "Stella Adler," a full-length play by Sidra Rausch about the legendary acting teacher; an evening of one-acts, including "Out of Body Experience" by Rose-Mary Harrington, "A Moment With the Xerox Man" by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, and a cabaret of satiric songs by Joan Cushing, Rausch and Debbie Wicks La Puma. Call 703-237-0711.
* Renegade Theater will present "Ninja Motorcycle Babes," a play by Lisa Voss, Thursday through July 17 at the H Street Playhouse. No plot description needed, we figure. Visit www.renegadedc.org.
Sheri Wilner, whose seriocomedy "Father Joy" is one-quarter of this year's Shepherdstown lineup.