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The Rousuck Review: The Contemporary American Theater Festival

Seth Freeman

Theater critic J. Wynn Rousuck reviews the new plays being presented at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. These productions take on such topics as personality disorders, missing children, and Pussy Riot. The festival runs through August 2nd at Shepherd University:

The Contemporary American Theater Festival turned silver this summer. For a quarter century, it has brought fresh-off-the-page, top-notch new plays to sophisticated audiences that make the annual pilgrimage to the unlikely Mecca of Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

The five plays in this season’s bold line-up have settings that span the globe, from Johns Hopkins Hospital to a Moscow courtroom and prison. Though producing director Ed Herendeen says he doesn’t look for plays with a common theme, most of this season’s offerings feature characters struggling with psychological problems, from clinical disorders to brainwashing.

The two characters in Johnna Adams’ “World Builders” are participants in a Hopkins drug trial to treat schizoid personality disorder. Whitney and Max are both ensconced in their own fantasy worlds: Hers complex and futuristic; his narrow, frightening and immediate.

Max has no interest in connecting with real people. But “World Builders” is subtitled, “A Love Story,” and in the course of the play, Max and Whitney form a bond. Part of that bond is their collaboration on a manifesto that Whitney writes to convince the doctors not to medicate their “worlds” out of existence.

Brenna Palughi and Chris Thorn deliver tour-de-force performances in roles that require them to convey as much by staring off into space as they do through dialogue. This challenge begins as soon as we enter the theater and find Palughi and Thorn already on stage, engrossed in their separate worlds.

Like Johnna Adams’ 2012 festival hit, “Gidion’s Knot,” “World Builders” is deeply troubling. But the final scene in “World Builders” is more open-ended, and the result, even more engrossing.

Steven Dietz’ “On Clover Road” is billed as a thriller, and you get a chill down your spin as soon as you see designer David M. Barber’s derelict motel room set.

Nothing good can happen in this place, despite the good intentions of the protagonist. Kate is the single mother of a teenaged daughter who joined a cult four years ago. Tasha Lawrence brings aching familiarity to the role of Kate. She’s a mother ready to go to any length to get her daughter back, including hiring the antagonistic deprogrammer played by Lee Sellars.

The play twists and turns and twists and turns and twists and turns some more. A few twists need honing, but “On Clover Road” does what thrillers should do. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. Then playwright Dietz does something rare for this genre: He leaves you guessing how things will turn out. And that may be the most tantalizing twist of all.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival steps into new territory with “We are Pussy Riot,” a play it commissioned. The show is the most audience-interactive, in-your-face work I can remember seeing here.

The style fits the subject perfectly. Pussy Riot is a real-life Russian activist punk band. Three of its members were arrested, tried and jailed in 2012 during a protest at a Moscow cathedral. Essentially, this all-female group is a performance art collective, and much of Barbara Hammond’s play is presented as a piece of performance art.

This begins in the lobby where Pussy Riot re-enacts a protest, complete with their colorful trademark ski masks. Later, in flashback, we hear how they prepare. The play, however, consists primarily of Pussy Riot’s 2012 trial. Theatergoers serve as courtroom spectators. A few are even called up as witnesses.

Playwright Hammond constructed her script largely from trial transcripts, letters and public statements. She also incorporates a character based on a male political prisoner who went on a two-month hunger strike while awaiting trial in prison. Members of Pussy Riot have protested such cases, but splitting the play’s focus proves distracting and a bit confusing.

The judge claims the Pussy Riot defendants have a “personality disorder.” But the broad, absurdist manner in which the trial is portrayed leaves no doubt where the real insanity lies.

In “The Full Catastrophe,” by Michael Weller, a linguist is asked to take on the role of an ad hoc psychologist, or more accurately, marriage counselor.

The play is adapted from a 1990 novel by David Carkeet, part of a trilogy about the linguist, whose name is Jeremy Cook. In “The Full Catastrophe,” Jeremy takes a peculiar job that requires him to move in with a married couple to help resolve communications issues that threaten their marriage.

The well-to-do couple’s problems, however, are banal and undramatic. And the upbeat conclusion, which also involves Jeremy’s relationship with an old flame, feels forced.

The final play in this summer’s festival is the only one that’s had a previous production. All of the others are world premieres. Sheila Callaghan’s “Everything You Touch” is partly a condemnation of the New York fashion world in the mid-Seventies, and partly a look at the failed modern-day relationships between a fashion designer and his first muse, and a mother and daughter.

A link between these troubled relationships eventually reveals itself. But the human connections get lost in director May Adrales’ excessive interpretation of the play’s eccentric stage directions – stage directions, for example, that call for actors to serve as furniture.

A certain degree of excess may reinforce the notions that society increasingly objectifies people and that an emphasis on trappings and appearances has obscured the most basic human interactions -- between man and woman, mother and child. Callaghan’s writing is imaginative and original, but what comes across here is busy, convoluted and ultimately, incongruously sentimental.

Traditionally, happy endings have been a rarity at the hard-hitting repertory festival in Shepherdstown. But as it celebrates its 25th year, the Contemporary American Theater Festival is clearly in a positive place.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.