Review: CATF Touches Down Brilliantly with innovative TORNADO TASTES LIKE ALUMINUM STING

On stage through July 28th, 2024.

By: Jul. 09, 2024
Review: CATF Touches Down Brilliantly with innovative TORNADO TASTES LIKE ALUMINUM STING
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One of the most exciting things about the Contemporary American Theater Festival, now in full swing in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, is the way that Artistic Director Peggy McKowen has opened the door to entirely new approaches to the stage, with plays that allow us a rare glimpse of the world through others’ eyes.  Not only do we have deeply moving experiences, we come away with our minds and senses expanded well beyond what we thought possible.

With Harmon dot aut’s semi-autobiographical play, Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting, audiences at CATF will have that rarest of encounters—a play that reveals the world as it is experienced, and processed, by a profoundly autistic, synaesthetic pre-teen who can only communicate with the outside world through their first love, the world of film.  Oliver Butler has created an intensely intricate evening, demanding logistically and dramatically, which holds together in truly remarkable ways.

Set in today’s rural Kansas we meet a child who, in addition to declaring themselves non-binary, informs their parents that they now wish to be known as Chantal Buñuel, their new name combining two of their favorite directors (Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman and Spanish-French surrealist Luis Buñuel)—you can just call them ‘CB.’   Jean Christian Barry’s turn as CB here is charmingly charismatic, and from the moment they introduce themselves to you, you’ll follow Barry (and CB) anywhere.

Because the play is told from the perspective of someone we would classify as neuro-divergent (dot aut much prefers that we call them ‘neuro-fabulous’), The first thing that goes out the window is any concept of a traditional narrative arc; the story here resides in seemingly random, emotionally intense encounters that CB has with their parents.  And as we soon learn, CB’s love of film facilitates much of their interactions with their mother (a kindergarten teacher) and father (an Afghan war veteran). 

Conversation for the profoundly autistic can be a challenge—CB compares it to picking glitter from the carpet with a pair of tweezers.  So what at first glance we might interpret as film-metaphors coming out of the blue, actually turn out to be the only way CB can put their thoughts into words.  The intensity of CB’s communication gap is only heightened when CB’s mom and dad let CB direct them in a movie, in scenes that seem to zig-zag between documentary footage and an ‘acting for film’ workshop.

As CB’s mother Sherri, Jasminn Johnson provides the anchor for CB’s family; a Kindergarten teacher who manages both her child’s developmental issues and her husband’s PTSD.  It is Sherri who suggests a place where CB can get the best education—and the sequence for this pivotal moment is, typically, staged and re-staged, with film references that will be both familiar and seen anew.  Roderick Hill is affecting as Joseph, CB’s father, haunted by his tours of duty overseas, and just as CB finds a home in film Joseph finds a refuge in poetry, which is movingly revealed.

Movie buffs take note: for their age the breadth and depth of CB’s knowledge of film is astonishing, and the production will touch you all the more deeply if you’re familiar with works by Akerman, Buñuel, along with a helping of Golden Age Hollywood classics (the Kansas location is only one hint among many).  Caite Hevner and Paul Lieber have created film projections which, significantly, wash over the scenes onstage, reminding us that film is how CB processes everything. 

Meanwhile, working with Britton W. Mauk’s amazingly modular set, Stage Manager Paulina “Pau” Tobar and her hard-working crew manage a series of scene changes which open up CB’s house, literally—creating a truly no-holds-barred performance that will leave your senses tingling for some time afterwards.

There are many productions that should draw dedicated theater-goers to Shepherdstown this July; Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting is one of the most innovative shows I’ve seen in many years, and well deserves a good look.

Photo:  Jean Christian Barry, Roderick Hill, and Jasminn Johnson. Photography by Seth Freeman.

Running Time:  90 minutes without Intermission.

Tornado Tastes Like Aluminum Sting runs as a part of the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, through July 28 in Studio 112, 92 W. Campus Drive, at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

For tickets visit .  You can also email the box office at or call them at 681-240-2283.


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