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Six Thrilling, Daring Shows to Choose From


It's a new day in Shepherdstown, indeed; after a 2-year hiatus from live theatre, the Contemporary American Theater Festival is returning with a panoply of performances to choose from: six fascinating plays, workshops and coffees with the artists, and a cabaret or two to complement the mainstage events.

Peggy McKowen takes over from Ed Herendeen as the Producing Artistic Director, and on the evening of this season's rollout, she filled the stage at the Frank Center with local and national talent - the invitation of local talent, in particular, is a welcome gesture as the Festival renews its relationships with its far-flung audiences as well as its home base in West Virginia. Rising star Anna Grace offered an interpretive dance, and Adam Booth, West Virginia's Folk Artist of the Year, offered a small sample of his storytelling skills. Eddie Peters, meanwhile, had us clapping and snapping to some hits from Motown, a recent musical production of Shepherd University's Contemporary Theater Studies program.

With the retirement of CATF Founding Artistic Director Ed Herendeen, and the hiatus imposed on us all by the recent pandemic, McKowen takes the helm of the Festival in a transitional time. Offered in a hybrid format, she interviewed key artists who are currently in production for other shows across the country via Zoom. The result was one that should be familiar to many of us by now, who have learned to navigate relationships both in-person and online, together, in real time. The evening went off without a hitch, thanks to the hard work of the Festival production team on-site.

Now, for the shows themselves: for me, the most eagerly-awaited premiere will be on the main stage at the Frank Center-Chisa Hutchinson's Whitelisted. Hutchinson's plays, by turns quirky and downright hilarious, speak to the human condition in ways that surprise, that shock, but which open the heart. Her "Dead and Breathing," which premiered at the Festival and is finally receiving its local premiere in nearby Baltimore, is one of the most memorable experiences I've had in live theatre-in Shepherdstown or anywhere else, for that matter. Whitelisted takes on the issue of gentrification, as an oblivious white newcomer to a black neighborhood wrestles with demons of uncertain origin. It's a tip of the hat, perhaps, to fellow artistic genius Jordan Peele, who has gotten under our skin so deeply with films like "Getting Out" and "Us." More on this, come July-expect fireworks, special effects, and expect to be challenged, deeply.

Accompanying Whitelisted in the Frank Center will be the dystopian thriller The Fifth Domain, by Viktor Lesniewski. With an ex-NSA agent at its center, the play deals with a complete breakdown in the communications network we have all come to take for granted. Director Kareem Fahmy, Zoomed in from an (ahem) fully-disclosed location, talked about how the play addresses the loopholes in the cyber-system and our own security apparatus. The play is set in Washington, D.C., and is likely to be further adapted in response to current events, so be prepared for an up-to-the-minute reading of society and its cyber-vulnerabilities.

Meanwhile in the Festival's in-the-round theatre space, the Marinoff, we will be treated to two plays that address our humanity in different ways, each with its own moments of humor and reflection. Ushuaia Blue, by Caridad Svich, is set in Argentina's southern-most port town, and is at heart a love story-of two people for each other, but more importantly a story of the love these two scientists have for the planet. Marine biologists, and their alarming discoveries in and around Antarctica, will help to set the scene, and the show promises to have some truly stunning visual effects.

Jaqueline Goldfinger's play Babel, the Marinoff's other offering, places you in the not-too-distant future, when expectant mothers must submit their embryos to a battery of tests-including signs that the child, when grown, may exhibit psychotic tendencies. The quest for perfection in our baby-making, taken to its logical extreme, leads to some truly bizarre situations in a world that, on its surface, only wants the best for humanity, but which also risks destroying what's left of what makes us truly human. - Oh, and there's a talking stork; should be an eye-opener! At the rollout, director Sharifa Yasmin gave audiences a glimpse of rehearsal techniques, guiding two actors in a brief scene from the play, but delivered in two very different ways. It acclimated us to the ways in which plays are produced as a result of experimentation but also deliberate choices - in terms of character and context.

Some of the most explosive, provocative plays I've seen at the Festival have been staged in their black-box space, Studio 112, and this year is certainly no exception. Terence Anthony's The House of the Negro Insane, which was given an audio premiere via a radio web-cast last Summer, brings us face-to-face with a legacy we can no longer ignore. Set in an asylum in the 1930's-an asylum designed specifically for blacks-Anthony explores the brutal dynamics of the Jim Crow south, and the attempts of inmates in the asylum to escape. (Any analogy you can think of between this and the world outside the asylum, well, that's hardy coincidental now, is it?).

Rounding out the Festival offerings in Studio 112 is Sheepdog, by Kevin Artigue. Set in today's Cleveland, it explores the wrenching challenges faced by today's police, both as officers and as human beings who joined the force in order to change the world for the better. These two officers find their intimate relationship strained - she's black, he's white-by an officer shooting; there are mysteries here, including most prominently, perhaps, the mystery of whether and how we can get along.

An additional feature of this year's Festival will be weekly Cabarets, where the actors can 'let their hair down' and show you some of their other talents. It will be an especially fine venue for understudies who we might not otherwise realize are present in Shepherdstown, ready to step in at a moment's notice to keep these exciting shows going.

There are small pleasures, by the bucket-load, to be found in Shepherdstown between plays, but the good news is that live theatre is back, and this year's Contemporary American Theater Festival will find America's theatre artists back at the top of their game.

Photo: Producing Artistic Director Peggy McKowen. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The 2022 Contemporary American Theater Festival begins its runs July 8-31 on the campus of Shepherd University in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

For tickets call 800-999-CATF (2283) or visit .

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