BWW Review: Incandescent Youth and WILD HORSES, a Heady Combination at CATF
The highly-stuffed, maybe overstuffed, play is definitely a thing today, if the selection of plays provided in recent seasons of the Contemporary American Theater Festival are any evidence to go by. This event, held each July in Shepherdstown, WV, provides something of a microcosm of the latest in American drama, and of this season's six offerings, at least three try to deal with a perilously large selection of issues.
Exhibit A would certainly be Allison Gregory's Wild Horses, a comically indulgent reminiscence of youth, a la Ah, Wilderness! or A Christmas Story, delivered as a one-woman show. But in the course of the intermissionless performance's roughly hour and a half of running time, during which the narrator principally recalls, as far as I could piece it together, two 24-hour stretches of her life as a 13-year-old, we find ourselves in the midst of eleven very distinct characters, and dealing with themes as diverse as first encounters with alcohol and sex, strains in a parental marriage, animal welfare, sibling rivalry, teenage friendships and what the passage of the years can do to them and most of all, the simultaneous wonder and danger of encountering, as Gregory summarizes in the program notes, a teenager's dilemma of having "so many needs" and "so little power."
This heady mix presents its own combination of wonder and danger, a novel's worth of content shrunk to the size of a play, and presented through a single performer. That performer, Kate Udall, does a jaw-dropping job keeping all the characterizations separate, and making us fall in love with her character. It is a tribute to both Udall and playwright Allison Gregory that at the end of the show we do not want to let go of the acquaintance of this sprightly, adventurous, and incredibly true-to-life adolescent and her associates. Director Courtney Sale avoids steering Udall into either the longeurs of extended monologue or the distractions of excessive play-acting as the sole character's yarn unspools.
A tip of the hat as well to set (and costume) designers Jesse Dreikosen and Sam Transleau, for providing a beautifully-functioning space within a theater in the (three-quarters) round. As the audience enters, it encounters not only normal raked seating on three sides, but also a few tables and stools in the middle where some of the spectators sit, and, at the far end, a camper van fitted out as a working refreshment stand serving audience members until the action begins. After Udall's character, identified only as The Woman, enters, the camper becomes a Swiss Army knife of adaptability, serving in turn as basement bar, the side of a house, stash for props, and situs of a wild experiment in driving by the narrator's earlier completely untrained self (see the photo above). Meanwhile, the space between the spectators at the tables becomes a range The Woman can freely roam rapidly changing orientation so that the great annoyance of theater in the round, speakers facing away from spectators, is minimized. And because the play is presented as an act of raconteur-dom anyway, which presupposes an audience, there is no fourth-wall problem when The Woman interacts with audience-members (asking them, for instance, to hold her purse or turning one of them into a quondam steering wheel).
Have any teenager's real-life few hours really been so full of incident? Probably not, and the compression does take a toll on dramatic verisimilitude. One audience member I spoke with on the way out was clearly troubled by this. It did not bother me, because "turning the accomplishment of many years into an hourglass" is what theater does, and shoving some of those accomplishments closer together in the time represented is a traditional way to shove. What matters here is not the strictness of the account (in real life a raconteur putting a satisfying tale together is often apt to take just such liberties with the time-frame). The point is the group portrait of the youngsters (The Woman's younger self, her partners in crime Zabby and Skinny Lynny, the callow young men who pursue them or whom they pursue, and The Woman's big sister, aka The Favorite) in all their confusion, pain, and, most important, their exuberance and their desire to meet life head-on, even if they do not really know what that meeting will demand or entail.
If the compression did not bother me as a dramatic strategy, it did trouble me a bit as dilution of message (a problem I also felt in certain other plays at this year's Festival). With so many themes wandering around in a single play, there are apt to be some underdeveloped issues and some tonal dissonances; the drama in the parents' lives, for instance, seemed a bit too sketchy, lacking explanation or depth. And because of the dominant ruefully comical tone set by the narrator's own adolescent experiences, it was not really possible to assess how we were supposed to respond to the parents' separate trials, which could have been either tragic or not, based on the limited evidence presented. (We get it and can forgive, of course, that a teen's self-preoccupied mind may tune out the pain among adults in close proximity, but a story-teller does not enjoy the same privilege; the audience's curiosity about all the major characters should ordinarily be satisfied.) Likewise, the animal welfare piece came with too few explanations. It looked as if the protagonist and her friends had stumbled on a major piece of villainy, but maybe not, and in any event we did not learn much about the putative perpetrators.
This is the second year, and the second world premiere in a row for Gregory at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. (I admired her show last year, Not Medea, which, though not a solo show, was also something of a monologue delivered by a narrator to an audience, but I thought the purity of this presentation, mediating everything through one performer, worked even better.) Since this show is officially part of a rolling premiere, one can hope and anticipate that the overstuffing will be addressed as the project advances. But even if not a word were changed, the play would not be one to miss.
This year's edition of the Festival, unlike some recent seasons, featured only hits; every single play is worth seeing. Still, this one was my personal favorite.
Wild Horses, by Allison Gregory, directed by Courtney Sale, presented by the Contemporary American Theater Festival through July 30 at Studio 112, 92 W. University Drive, Shepherdstown, WV. Tickets $35-$65, http://catf.org/tickets/, 800.999.CATF or 304.876.3473. Adult language, frank discussions of teens engaging in inappropriately mature behavior.
Photo credit: Seth Freeman