The Contemporary American Theater Festival’s 5 Plays Reviewed by Mike Spain

The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) is celebrating its 22nd season at Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. Those seasons have created a history of 90 new plays produced and 34 world premieres. This season the festival is producing five plays, including two world premieres. Over the weekend, I was able to catch all five plays.

Bess Wohl’s Barcelona

Most shows for the world premiere run of Bess Wohl’s Barcelona at the CATF are sold out. I was eager to see if the show was worth all the buzz and fortunately it was! The Studio Theater was set so the audience was looking into Manuel’s apartment. Set Designer Luciana Stecconi did a tremendous job using boxes to enhance the story about moving out, and offered up a few more surprises. Stecconi also leaves in the expected apartment furnishings including rugs, chairs, tables, and couches as one would expect. The cast was stellar;  Anne Marie Nest (Irene) gives a wonderful  performance in The Exceptionals. I was familiar with Jason Manuel Olazabal’s work on television, and he is also a veteran Broadway actor with lots of stage experience. Director Charles Moray had all the tools to make Wohl’s script come alive.

Anne Marie Nest (Irene) and Jason Manuel Olazàbal (Manuel). Photo by Seth Freeman.

Irene is an attractive and well-to-do American girl who is in Spain for her bachelorette party. In a drunken state she goes home with Manuel (Jason Manuel Olazàbal. The play starts with them entering the apartment. Irene is missing a shoe, the couple is lustfully kissing, and it looks like a wild night of passion. Then the conversation starts and you can tell things are taking a wrong turn from Manuel’s facial expressions. The play goes from Irene and Manuel lusting one another, to Manuel wanting her to leave, to perhaps a rescue  – as Wohl’s well-crafted story unfolds.

Manuel hates Americans. His hate is why Irene only had one shoe on, and it is revealed before they make it to it the apartment that she had thrown the shoe at Manuel. Hearing Irene ramble on one could blame her for Manuel’s deep hatred towards Americans.  Irene’s rambling just sabotages the lustful night. Manuel is coming to grips with his daughter he lost in a terrorist attack. He blames the attack on America and their wars. The interaction between Manuel and Irene also makes Irene come to grips that marrying her fiancé would be a huge mistake.

I could go on about the terrific story but I don’t want to spoil it. If you get a chance to come out to the CATF you won’t want to miss this play. If you can’t make it, I have the feeling Barcelona will be playing in another theater soon! Bess Wohl takes the audience on a 90-minute ride of lust, human discovery, world view hate and the reasons behind it. It is a play loaded with laughter, sadness, realization, and suspense.

Running Time: Approximately 90 minute, with no intermission.

Bob Clyman’s The Exceptionals

Most parents want the best for children. Bob Clyman’s The Exceptionals is about two mothers who compete to get their exceptionally gifted children into a new super school.

The setting is an experimental fertility program which is opening up a new school for exceptional children. Woman who have exceptional genetics pick the platinum level sperm to create the “exceptionals.”

The mothers prove genetic makeup is in the inside. On the outside the two mothers are nothing alike. Gwen (Rebecca Harris) plays the intelligent scientist. Allie (Anne Marie Nest) is perhaps an underachiever who is a simple high school graduate, who reads Danielle Steele instead of something intellectual. They both meet Claire (Deirdre Madigan) and think they are competing for their child to have a slot in the super school. There is humor through the stereotyping and the cattiness of both moms.

Rebecca Harris (Gwen) (left) and Anne Marie Nest (Allie). Photo by Seth Freeman.

Director Tracy Brigden draws out the best from him talented cast and allows Bob Clyman’s futuristic script to shine. The humor helps the viewer to get sucked into the excitement and the suspense. Throughout the meetings with Claire and the talks between the moms – their faults are revealed. Allie is married to an ordinary, flawed husband named Tom (Joseph Tisa). He’s dyslexic  and a simple man, and he desires a  more ordinary child. Gwen’s parenting skills are not the best and she has many insecurities. In the end it comes down to this question: “How far would you go to give your child the best opportunity?”

Set Designer Luciana Stecconi builds a set where the office and the waiting room are transparent for the audience. It works splentidly with the play as the viewers can see the interactions in the office and in the waiting room. The set has a modern look to it. Nothing on the set is really catchy but more important –  it never distracts you from the story.

The acting is superb. It amazes me how actors can play in two different plays on the same day, but  Anne Marie Nest (who also performs in Barcelona) pulls it off flawlessly. Joseph Tisa also appearing in Captors. Rebecca Harris and Anne Marie Nest are at their best in the catty scenes. Deirdre Madigan is stellar as the hard-nosed program director. All and all this a great play to catch at the CATF  – and I am sure this play has a bright future!

Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission


Neil LaBute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep

WatchingRebecca Harris and Anne Marie Nestat The CATF I quickly found out the festival was more than a celebration of contemporary American playwrights. This show could be a preview of a Broadway production. Director Ed Herendeen has a wonderful cast to work with – including Tony Award nominated actress Johanna Day and Broadway veteran Joey Collins.

The first thing I noticed was the set design. Walking into Shepherd University’s theater I was not expecting a set that was ready for Broadway! Award-winning Set Designer David M. Barber did a brilliant job creating a cabin in the forest. It was complete with a loft, a spiral staircase, a living room, and a kitchen. He included lots of details like the kitchen bar stools, cabinets, and coffee tables.

Johanna Day (Betty) and Joey Collins (Bobby). Photo by Seth Freeman.

In a Forest, Dark and Deep premiered on London’s West End at the Vaudeville Theatre. The play premiered in the United States in Chicago in April, and this is the second American production. If the play was good enough for London’s West End then I would not be surprised to see it in New York soon. The play was written by Neil LaBute, who is a film director, screenwriter in addition to being a playwright.

The play uses siblings Bobby (Joey Collins) and Betty (Johanna Day) to deliver the story. They have a rocky relationship and both characters have issues. Betty calls her brother to help her pack up a cabin in the woods. Sibling rivalry fuels the conflict between the two and LaBute masterfully uses the conflict to reveal Betty’s secrets.

Betty is a successful dean with a family, and everything appears fine in her world. Bobby is a carpenter who has gone through some failed relationships and roughed times. It is easy to see Bobby’s flaws. However, the audience finds out that not everything is fine in Betty’s world. Her relationship is not what it appears to be and her job and family could be in jeopardy. Will the two siblings tear each other apart until there is nothing left – or will a bond of love prevail? As they say in the play “the truth hurts and stings like a bitch.” LaBute shows us just how much it hurts and stings while he unveils one new twist after another.

Alcohol and drug use are portrayed in the play which is also  filled with a lot of colorful language. This makes the characters real. The audience gets to see the good, the bad, and the ugly. There were some slow spots in the play, and it lost some momentum closer to the end.

In a Forest, Dark and Deep at The Contemporary American Theater Festival is a Must See play!

Running time: One hour and forty five minutes with no intermission


Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot

When I walked into the makeshift stage at Shepherd University’s Center for Contemporary Arts to watch a world premiere performance of Gidion’s Knot – I felt like I had just walked into a fifth grade classroom. The seating surrounded the classroom in a layered studio theater style. Slightly below were the classroom desks, a teacher’s desk complete with an apple, and a brightly color play floor. On the walls hung posters of Greek Gods, maps, a chalk board and shelves with school objects. Everything looked like a typical classroom in a typical elementary school. Set Designer Margaret McKowen had done a tremendous job. However, director Ed Herendeen went the extra mike to include actual fifth graders sitting in chairs behind the desks.

Joey Parsons (Heather) (left) and Robin Walsh (Corryn). Photo by Seth Freeman.

Sound Designer Jamie Whoolery even added the sounds of school bells and hallway noises when the door was open, which added so much authenticity to the production. It was slightly awkward at the beginning to tell when the play started, but when the bell rang and the children walked out – we see Heather (Joey Parsons) struggling with things in her mind and on her cell phone. After a few humorous entrances Corryn (Robin Walsh) stays for the rest of the drama and the conflicts build.

Corryn was scheduled for a parent teacher conference because her son and Heather’s student Gidion was suspended for a paper he wrote. Gidion commits suicide and Heather assumes the parent won’t show up for the conference, and takes it out of her schedule. However, Corryn does show up and the drama continues. I enjoyed seeing how many conflicts Johnna Adams could pack  into her two-person play.

Heather has to deal with of the death of her student, and Adams also weaves in how the character is dealing with a cherished pet cat which is deathly ill. This makes Heather more human. Heather also has the internal conflict of having to deal with Corryn – someone she desperately does not want to meet, and she is forced to come to grips with her feelings about Gidion.

Corryn also has plenty of conflicts to deal with. She blamies Heather for her son’s death. She has to deal with her grief and feelings of parental shortcomings. Gidion was suspended for a paper which Heather forced him to write. To her the paper was threatening and she had a concern for her other students’ safety. Corryn thought it was beautiful and creative art. Was Gidion a victim of bullying, or was he bullying others?

Joey Parsons and Robin Walsh deliver emotional and powerful performances. The play becomes an eye-opening drama about how painful elementary school can be for kids, teachers, and parents.

Running time: Approximately 90 minutes.


Evan M. Weiner’s Captors

Evan M. Weiner’s Captors is a non-fiction, historical drama inspired by a memoir by Peter Malkin. However, Weiner gets creative in presenting the ten days the infamous SS-Obersturmbannführer (Lieutenant Colonel) Adolph Eichmann spent in captivity with  Israeli agents in Argentina. He concentrates on Malkin overcoming his hate for what Eichmann had done in World War II – to actually befriending him to get his signature. In the midst of this, Weiner shows a different side of Eichmann – a human side. 

Michael Gabriel Goodfriend (Uzi) (left), Philip Goodwin (Eichmann). and Joseph Tisa (Hans) (right). Photo by Seth Freeman.

The set design is simple with lots of room. A desk where Cohn (John P. Keller) is working on a book with Malkin is on the far stage right. On the left is the Israeli office and towards the center is  Eichmann’s quarters. The show opens with a classic car on stage and the abduction of Eichmann (Phillip Goodwin). David Barber does a solid job with the set design, which includes a large screen with storm clouds, and some fine sound effects.

During most of the plays Eichmann and Malkin (Joey Collins) play ‘cat and mouse’ games. Collins and Goodwin put tremendous effort into their acting and deliver outstanding performances.  after the exciting opening scenes the script slows down the show, and frankly – I was happy when the intermission came.

The second half of the show picked up as the suspense grew, and the main also grew as Eichmann became more of a person, and we understand more fully what Malkin is going through. Hans (Joseph Tisa) and Uzi (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend) play minor roles and Wiener does not develop them much. They do serve as a sounding board for Malkin – which is important in showing what Malkin went through during this time. Cohn, the ghost writer, is there to question Malkin to make sure his story and memory are is true. Unfortunately, Cohn’s character is also not developed well.

Weiner deserves credit for daring to search for the gray area in Eichmann. He does not forgive him for the evil things he did, but he tries to show Eichman as a person. The play hit home because of the executions of Saddam Hussein and the military operation that killed Osama Bin Ladden. The play is a creative take on history, and is well directed by Ed Herendeen. However, it’s too long and slow at times, but still packs a lot of suspense and surprises.

Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) runs July 6-29, 2012 at the campus of Shepherd University, in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

Captors, In a Forest, Dark and Deep are playing at Frank Center Stage – 260 University Drive.

Barcelona and The Exceptionals are playing in Studio Theater in Sara Cree Hall – 310 North King Street.

Gidion’s Knot is playing in the Center for Contemporary Arts – 92 West Campus Drive

Purchase tickets online or call (800) 999-2283.


Here are directions.

The CATF list of plays.


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