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 A CurtainUp DC  Feature
The Contemporary American Theater Festival Turns 10

by Terry Hong

Welcome to Shepherdstown, West Virginia's oldest town, home of liberal Shepherd College, a gorgeous view of the Potomac River, a few good B&Bs and restaurants with surprisingly toothsome fare. And every July for the past ten years, it's been home to the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF), a distant cousin to the better-known Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky or the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts. With world premieres of works by such renowned writers as Joyce Carol Oates, CATF is attracting both audiences and artists alike. 

Founded in 1990 by producing director Ed Herendeen, CATF is "dedicated to producing and developing new American theater," which means not only finding good scripts, but commissioning them as well, which CATF has done since 1998. Out of the 100 to 150 scripts CATF receives each year, Herendeen must choose four for the summer's repertory season: "I'm not a cerebral director. I look for works that hit me in the gut," he says. "I want the audience to leave the theater debating the issues raised by these plays … these are works that raise questions, not give simple answers." Indeed, past productions have been about such heated topics as racial hate crimes (Cherylene Lee's Carry the Tiger to the Mountain, 1998), abortion (Wendy MacLeod's The Water Children, 1999) and the death penalty (Bruce Graham's Coyote on a Fence). 

This year, of course, is no exception. 

The star in this 10th anniversary showcase is Joyce Carol Oates' world  premiere of Miss Golden Dreams, a play cycle, directed by Herendeen, which dissects Marilyn Monroe's life in vignettes that examine her relationships with the powerful men in her life. "It's something of a mystery," says Oates, "why some individuals become icons. It has to do with genuine talent, physical beauty and personal destiny -- in this case, dying young under mysterious circumstances." Indeed, Oates herself could not escape the platinum icon's lure. After she finished her latest novel, Blonde, a fictionalized account of Marilyn's life, Oates found she could not let her go. So Oates started writing a few scenes which, with Herendeen's urging, quickly turned into a full-length play. Miss Golden Dreams is Oates' third outing at CATF, following Black in 1993 and the world premiere of Bad Girls in 1996, both about domestic violence. She credits Herendeen -- "Ed is a director of exceptional skill and imagination" -- as the reason she keeps coming back, not to mention the Shepherdstown setting, which she calls "fantastic." 

Another third-time returnee is Richard Dresser (Gun-Shy in 1998 and Below the Belt in 1997). His latest, also directed by Herendeen, is Something in the Air, about a desperate man who hits rock-bottom and gets duped into the latest sure-fire investment -- buying the life insurance policy of a dying man. "I wanted to write about the maniacal obsession with investments that has narcoticized the entire country," Dresser says. "The culture seems obsessed with how to make a killing in any way possible (except working)." Dresser insists that this play is first "a comedy" and he hopes that audience members "will laugh their asses off." After that, he's adamantly hopeful that they will then "wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, heart pounding, seized by an ominous, overwhelming feeling that something has gone terribly wrong." Herendeen couldn't have said it better himself. 

Another one of Herendeen's questioning plays is Sheri Wilner's Hunger, directed by Greg Leaming, resident director at Connecticut's Long Wharf  Theatre. The play is about a newly engaged woman who literally cannot get enough to eat, who meets a mysterious stranger who promises to fill every one of her needs. Wilner says her play was inspired by the selchie woman (a seal in the water, a woman on land) from the film The Secret of Roan Inish, who finds her other skin and returns to the water she so longs for in spite of her loving family on shore. Wilner explores that search "to live other lives, to live in other places and find a deeper source of happiness." Her goal is to "start a dialogue amongst  audience members that allows people to start discovering such things about each other." Great marriage counseling in disguise. 

Dialogue is what is at the core of Catherine (pronounced Ka-treen) Filloux's Mary and Myra (an intentional palindrome, per the author), directed by Lou Jacob, an Off-Broadway director. The play explores the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln, who was committed to an insane asylum by her only living son, Robert, and Myra Bradwell, America's first woman lawyer who was literally written out of history by Susan B. Anthony, due to a disagreement in the woman suffrage movement. Although based on fact, Filloux adds that the play is "not realistic as much as it is the poetic essence of Mary and her confinement at Bellevue Place." By imagining the relationship between the two women, Filloux examines "how much shock can one tolerate before it changes the inner makeup? And where does human compassion enter in when regarding  people who have endured massive trauma, such as the death of three sons and a husband shot in front of them?" 

Undoubtedly, Herendeen's goal "to create dialogue and debate" is inherent in each of this year's four plays. Certainly Shepherdstown may not be the first town one thinks of for intellectual stimulation, but rest assured, Herendeen is changing that. Not surprisingly, he's got the help of one excellent woman (isn't that always the case?), newly appointed managing director Catherine Irwin. In the next 10 years, Herendeen sees CATF as a six-show, six-week, three-theater fest, but it till take Irwin's strategies to make that happen. The town's experienced an economic boom with the growing success of CATF. But while they work to make CATF nationally renowned, they don't mind keeping Shepherdstown their own pastoral secret. So most certainly, go for the theater … then in Herendeen's eloquent words, "Go home." 

CATF runs July 7-30, 2000 on the campus of Shepherd College. Call (800) 999 CATF or check All four plays can be seen over consecutive two or three day-periods. 
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