SHEPHERDSTOWN, WEST VIRGINIA — Given the number of world premieres that UTBA has reviewed, it’s clear that Utah audiences have an appetite for new plays. So, when the American Theater Critics Association (of which I am a member) announced that they were meeting this year at a festival—the Contemporary American Theater Festival—that produced only new plays, I knew that I had to visit and report to UTBA’s readers about new plays being created in other parts of the country. So, below are short synopses for the 5 new plays of the festival’s season, my brief reaction to each script, and my suggestion for which theatre companies might be best situated to give each script a home in Utah.
Can Americans laugh at terrorism? That’s the question that playwright (and staff writer for The Simpsons) Jon Kern raises with his black comedy play Modern Terrorism, or They Who Want to Kill us and How We Learn to Love Them. Most of the play takes place in the an apartment inhabited by Qalalasse (Royce Johnson), Yalda (Mahira Kakkar), and Rahim (Omar Maskati)—three Islamic terrorists who are planning to detonate a bomb on the observation deck of the Empire State Building. Things for the three get more complicated when their upstairs neighbor Jerome (Kohler McKenzie) stumbles upon their plot.
Modern Terrorism is most successful when it draws audience members to focus on the big questions: What turns a normal human being into a terrorist? What is the thought process of terrorists as they plan to kill Americans? I found it fascinating to listen to a terrorist plot from the “other” side, and I think that the human traits of the terrorists were enlightening. But Modern Terrorism‘s biggest failure is the fact that it’s not terribly funny (much like a post-1990’s episode of The Simpsons). Moreover, the mechanics of play writing were executed sloppily. Some of the dialogue is also telegraphic (such as when Yalda outright tells her companions how she feels about Americans—which they must already know) and peppered with words like “hegemony” and “patriarchy” that sound much more like they came from a college professor than a terrorist. Finally, the tone is remarkably inconsistent. Some scenes feel like a sitcom; some of the first act is reminiscent of Seinfeld with the focus of the dialogue on trivialities of daily life. Other scenes feel terribly serious.
The attendees of the American Theater Critics Association were sharply divided about this play. I think that this play has its audience, but it’s a small audience. That audience is daring, willing to have conventions challenged, but isn’t interested in shock value for its own sake. Recommended for: Salt Lake Acting Company. Daring choice for: Westminster College.
Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah
From Mark St. Germain, the writer of Freud’s Last Session, comes another play about two historical figures meeting to discuss their personal philosophies and pasts, Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah. F. Scott Fitzgerald (Joey Collins) is finishing a screenplay at a hotel named the Garden of Allah when his friend Ernest Hemingway (Rod Brogan) stops by ostensibly to discuss a film adaptation of one of his stories. An interesting psychological exploration ensues when the two discuss their families, their childhoods, and their literary careers.
Scott and Hem is surely the most literary script at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Apparently, St. Germain (who also directed this world premiere) incorporated some of Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s exact words into the script. I found many lines to be eminently quotable, such as Fitzgerald saying, “Hollywood is a place where men get stabbed in the back while climbing the ladder,” or his assistant (the only female character in the play, portrayed by Angela Pierce) saying, “Every good story is a war story.” The script is intimate and provides two male actors with nearly the entire array of human emotions to explore in just 85 minutes. It truly is an actor’s piece.
Other American Theater Critics Association members felt that Scott and Hem was too reminiscent of some of St. Germain’s other works. However, because his work is largely unknown in Utah, a production of this play would feel fresh to most local audience members. Recommended for: Pioneer Theater Company. Daring choice for: The Echo Theatre.
A Discourse on the Wonders of the Invisible World
Ten years after the Salem witch trials, Abigail Williams (Susannah Hoffman) encounters Mercy Lewis (Cassie Beck), both of whom accused many of the citizens of Salem of witchcraft. Abigail wishes to find closure in order to ease her guilty conscience before leaving the colonies. Mercy, however, still believes that witches and demons did vex the citizens of Salem in 1692.
According to Contemporary American Theater Festival artistic director Ed Herendeen, playwright Liz Duffy Adams will be revising this play; I think those revisions are needed, but Discourse is not a new product needing a major redesign (like Modern Terrorism). Rather, it is a new machine that needs some fine tuning. Some scenes could be tightened up, especially the Macbeth recap and the rooftop scene. I also suggest that Adams remove any of the 21st century language from this period piece. It drove me nuts when Rebecca’s (Becky Byers) first or second word was, “OK.” Other anachronistic language includes the use of “hell,” “damn,” and “God” in a nonbiblical sense (something that would be much more rare in a highly religious 18th century society than today), and the sarcastic comments from Mercy.
I liked this piece more than most theatre critics and think that it has the capacity to be produced in the future. In Utah I could imagine it being performed by university theatre departments because of the strong roles for women and the historical setting that many audience members would find interesting. Recommended for: Utah Valley University. Daring choice for: Brigham Young University.
My favorite piece at the festival was H2O, a world premiere play written by Jane Martin and directed by Jon Jory. In Martin’s script, Jake (Alex Podulke), a self-destructive movie star, wishes to star in a stage production of Hamlet to prove that he’s more than a pretty face. His Ophelia? Deborah (Diane Mair), a struggling evangelical Christian actress whom he sees as his hope for both professional and personal redemption.
H2O is so engrossing that for most of the play I could not take my gaze off the action happening on stage, and afterwards my heart felt tired because it had been beating so quickly for most of the play. Martin’s characters are so well drawn that I found both Jake and Deborah profoundly relateable; it has been at least a year since I identified so strongly with a female character on stage. Furthermore, many Utah readers will be pleased that Deborah’s strong religious beliefs were treated with the utmost respect and served as an impetus to much of the action. But H2O is certainly not a religious play; the grittiness of Jake’s life is shown unflinchingly. It also grounds the play in the real world and ensures that Martin’s script never strays into devotional or inspirational territory.
The biggest hurdle for Utah audiences will be the strong language in the play. But it would be tragic for it to be censored because the language only heightens the differences between the two characters. That being said, the language in the final scene seemed aberrant, and I encourage Martin to reconsider it. But I adored H2O and would love to see it again. Recommended for: Plan-B Theatre (if their mission permits them to produce the play). Daring for: Silver Summit Theatre Company or any other company that can tolerate the strong language.
The latest work from Sam Shepard, Heartless, focuses on Sally (Margot White) who received a heart transplant from a murder victim when she was a child. The story is told in a nonlinear fashion, with bits and pieces of characters’ relationships being revealed gradually through dialogue and actions that occur in nonchronological order. If my synopsis for Heartless is short, it’s because the play’s non-Aristotelian structure makes it hard to say much about the story without spoilers.
The non-traditional structure of the play makes Heartless the most inaccessible of the five scripts at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. Many patrons that I spoke to afterwards told me that they did not understand what happened in the play. On a more detailed level, I had difficulty believing that Sally would feel a stigma for being a heart transplant recipient. Sally seemed to think that not having her original heart made her less of a person, but I failed to grasp why a real human being would feel this way. (The symbolism was obvious, but not compelling, to me). Sally did indicate that she was suffering from survivor’s guilt, but this seemed such an implausible psychological reaction to an organ transplant that I had difficulty empathizing for her situation. Finally, I hated much of the dialogue that Sally’s mother (Kathleen Butler) spoke; it was almost all excessively artificial and staid.
As my critiques in the previous paragraph show, Shepard was clearly not trying to write a realistic script. Most Utah audiences would consider the show to be avant garde, and I think the only reason to produce Heartless in the Beehive State would be to capitalize on Shepard’s name. However, the exploration of female psychology was somewhat interesting. Recommended for: Pygmalion Theatre Company. Daring for: University of Utah.