SHEPHERDSTOWN — The internationally acclaimed Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University is gearing up for its 22nd season of bringing new American plays to local stages in July. This year’s lineup consists of five shows written within the past year by professional playwrights, two of which will receive their world premiers at the festival.
In “In a Forest, Dark and Deep,” screenwriter and Broadway playwright Neil LaBute tells the story of a man who is called by his sister to help clean out a family cabin in the woods, only to discover that she has been hiding dark family secrets for decades.
Ed Herendeen, the founder and producing director of CATF, said that this psychological thriller explores why smart people make bad decisions.
“The play is psychological and suspenseful and very dark,” he said. “[LaBute is] really good at putting twists that you don’t see coming into the plot. That’s what makes it a thriller, a mystery.”
“Captors,” by Evan Wiener, is based on a true story about Israeli Mossad agents who captured fugitive Nazi Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires in 1960. Herendeen said the script is based on the little-known personal firsthand account of Mossad agent Peter Malkin who interrogated Eichmann. It dramatically recreates both the logistical challenges of the operation as well as the associated philosophical and moral issues.
“It’s interesting because one of the questions the play will examine is how can evil exist,” Herendeen said. “Evil is done by people, not some supernatural power. The play attempts to understand how a person like Adolf Eichmann can be so good at his job.”
Herendeen believes that this play will draw parallels in the minds of the audience to current discussions surrounding missions to neutralize terrorists.
“All of these [Mossad] agents have lost people during the war,” he said. “They have to put aside their extreme feelings of revenge because they have been ordered to bring [Eichmann] back unharmed without a scratch to stand trial.”
The world premiere of “Barcelona,” by Bess Wohl, is set in the eponymous city in present-day Spain where the audience is introduced to an inebriated American woman who goes home with a mysterious stranger for a one-night-stand. Herendeen said the play soon reveals that the situation is more than meets the eye and touches on very contemporary issues of cultural tourism and American foreign policy.
“The Exceptionals,” by Bob Clyman, unfolds in the near future when scientists have refined advanced genetic and pedagogical methods for developing exceptional children.
“This play asks the central question, what are you willing to do to have the most exceptional child,” Herendeen said. “It asks very relevant and contemporary ethical questions about genetics.”
The world premiere of “Gidion’s Knot,” by Johnna Adams, literally immerses the audience in the environment of the play. It takes place in a theater designed to be an exact replica of a fifth-grade classroom and the audience will sit in school desks while watching a fictional parent-teacher conference. The central premise of the plot is a dispute that arises between a mother and her son’s teacher concerning his recent expulsion from school.
“The teacher is very, very surprised to see Gidion’s mother show up because of events that had happened and the play is all about why he was expelled,” said James McNeel, managing director. “It might seem like a play about bullying but it’s also about artistic expression.”
Herendeen said that while he never chooses plays that follow a specific theme for a given season, the plays share similar goals in provoking questions relevant to contemporary life.
“[The plays] ask questions that we don’t always have the answers to,” he said. “You come away with what you identify and connect and what you think it means.”
McNeel said the performances of CATF differ from traditional plays in that the directors and actors work with the writers during rehearsal. He said that this method lends a level of excitement to the experience because “literally up to opening night there are changes happening to the script” and the actors are in a unique position to change the outcome of that script.
Herendeen said one of the major goals of the festival is to “make sure the playwrights leave Shepherdstown with a better script than that with which they arrived.”
Although the majority of the CATF audience comes from out of state, McNeel said there are ticket options available for local p[atrons. “We want to make sure that for anyone who wants to see the plays, there is a way they can do that.”
On every Thursday of the festival, all tickets are priced at $35 for every patron with a W.Va. address. On Sunday evenings, patrons may purchase tickets for $30 to see a single play, or $100 to see four of the shows. On July 4 and 5, CATF hosts “pay what you can previews” when the public may view dress rehearsals of any of the performances for a donation of choice.