Rebellious characters are flouting the rules at the 2015 Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Now celebrating its 25th season, the prominent annual showcase for recently minted plays is presenting five works that deal with small groups of renegades bucking the status quo. The scripts are not terribly satisfying, mostly falling on the spectrum that connects the flawed-but-interesting with the sleek-but-unremarkable. Still, as is invariably the case at this festival, the performances are top-notch. And frequent theatergoers may particularly enjoy rooting for the repertoire’s insurgent protagonists. After all, in our society theater itself is something of an insurgent art form, struggling against the dominance of screen entertainment.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the rebellion of creative people is the subject of two of the more intriguing plays: Johnna Adams’s “World Builders” and Sheila Callaghan’s “Everything You Touch.” “World Builders” is less taut and vivid than Adams’s harrowing “Gidion’s Knot,” which premiered at the 2012 festival, but it does share the earlier play’s concerns with loss, freedom and the possibilities of transgressive imagination.
Directed by Nicole A. Watson, “World Builders” focuses on Max (Chris Thorn) and Whitney (Brenna Palughi), who are enrolled in a clinical trial for a psychiatric drug. Both characters have schizoid personality disorder and are given to obsessing over imaginary worlds. As the two develop feelings for one another, they also confront the fact that their new medication may kill their fantasy lives.
Adams hasn’t found a way to make Max and Whitney’s fantasy experience as powerful to the audience as it is to the characters themselves, so the talked-about loss of it registers intellectually but not emotionally. The play also takes too much time to wind up and down. Still, Thorn and Palughi ace the job of showing how the drug gradually affects their characters’ perceptions and mannerisms. And although “World Builders” may be emotionally underwhelming, it does pose profound questions, such as who defines what is normal.
The question of what’s normal — as opposed to what’s elite or exceptional — also figures in Callaghan’s “Everything You Touch,” a smart but diffuse tale of haute couture, family and self-esteem. Victor (Jerzy Gwiazdowski) is a self-absorbed designer in 1970s New York who — shockingly, to his fellow fashionistas — experiments with creating clothes that ordinary people might actually wear. About four decades later, Jess (Dina Thomas), a dumpy computer geek, musters the courage to visit her dying mother. Toggling back and forth in time, the play teases out the connection between the two characters.
Directed by May Adrales, with costumes by Peggy McKowen (the festival’s associate producing director), “Everything You Touch” begins with a breathtaking sequence in which a New York trash heap morphs into a runway of models. (David M. Barber designed the stylized cityscape.) And that scene isn’t the only eye-catching touch: The performers who depict models double as elements in Jess’s physical environment — holding out a hand to depict a car’s rear-view mirror, for instance. The conceit underscores one of the play’s themes: While some beautiful individuals may revel in the public’s gaze, others can feel simultaneously objectified and ignored.
First staged in Pasadena, Calif., in 2014 (it’s the only festival offering this year that isn’t a world premiere), “Everything You Touch” brims with ideas and rich language, but it runs low on dramatic conflict.
That’s not a problem with Michael Weller’s comedy “The Full Catastrophe,” based on a novel by David Carkeet. The play follows Jeremy Cook (Tom Coiner), an amiable linguistics scholar recruited by a billionaire named Roy Pillow (Lee Sellars), to take part in an iconoclastic research experiment. Pillow thinks he has found a way to fix foundering marriages: embed a linguist to spot, and correct, miscommunication between spouses. As Jeremy discovers, that strategy is trickier than it sounds. Installed in the home of Beth and Dan Wilson (Helen Anker and Cary Donaldson), Jeremy manages to infuriate both his hosts and Pillow. Given a polished look and pace by Ed Herendeen, CATF’s producing director, with actor T. Ryder Smith supplying a series of hilarious cameos (as a bartender, a courier and more), “The Full Catastrophe” is the festival’s most successful production, but it feels a bit lightweight. Another burnished piece, Steven Dietz’s “On Clover Road,” directed by Herendeen, is a grim, twisty and none-too-memorable thriller about a cult.
The biggest disappointment is the high-profile festival commission “We Are Pussy Riot,” a misconceived and sometimes wince-inducing grab-bag of ideas and approaches, written by Barbara Hammond and directed by Tea Alagić. The play deals with the 2012 trial and conviction on hooliganism charges of members of Pussy Riot, the Russian protest group and punk band that staged a political stunt in a Moscow cathedral.
In a program note, Hammond writes that the dialogue in her trial scene is lifted almost exclusively from transcripts and that other lines reproduce public statements made by Pussy Riot members, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and other figures. That documentary-style strategy could have been powerful, but this production adds stylistic elements that distract from, and even seem to trivialize, the historical testimony. For instance, in the trial scene, when the prosecutor (Smith) reads out the charges, a burst of beatific choral singing rings out and the lighting pins him with a halo-like spotlight. At another point, as Nadya, Masha and Katya (Libby Matthews, Liba Vaynberg and Katya Stepanov) make courtroom statements, the lawyers (including Donaldson as the defense attorney) slither from their chairs and lie prone on the floor.
The play also features audience participation (on opening night, one poor patron was marched onstage and grilled about her religious beliefs), rowdy street-theater sequences and a tale of a non-celebrity Russian political prisoner (Smith). Presumably, the defamiliarizing techniques and lack of continuity aim to echo the disruptive effects of Pussy Riot’s political art. But the theatrical bells and whistles ultimately come across as incoherent and self-indulgent, overshadowing the activists’ original act of witness.
Wren is a freelance writer.
Contemporary American Theater Festival
Through Aug. 2 at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Call 800-999-2283 or visit www.catf.org.