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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Martyrs & Magicians Play Review by Ethan Fischer

CATF Continues: Martyrs & Magicians
by Ethan Fischer for The Shepherdstown Chronicle
c 2007
Darkness Before Delight --- Delmore Schwartz

CATF continues with cool, stunning performances. You have perhaps heard about “I Am Rachel Corrie” and the attendant controversy. Rachel Corrie was a bright young woman from Washington state, who was killed in Gaza trying to help Palestinian families. Her own writings have been adapted by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner to fashion a play.

After a run in England, a production of “I Am Rachel Corrie” was canceled in New York due to protests by big theater subscribers. Interpretations aside, young Rachel worked to the end as a peace activist, a non-violent resister. Naturally the story composed of her words presents the Palestinian perspective of an ongoing tragedy.

Since theater isn’t journalism, plays often give us just one side of history, past or present. The real English King Richard the Third differed from the sly monster Shakespeare makes him. In The Trojan Women, Euripides creates sympathy for the defeated of Troy and skirts the Greeks’ motives for a mythic war. Drama needn’t aim for some imagined news balance. Adroitly directed in the round by Ed Herendeen, and performed by the wonderful Anne Marie Nest, “I Am Rachel Corrie” becomes quite an experience. The Studio Theater audience witnesses a witty gradeschool girl growing up, with discoveries and contributions to make in the wider world. She’s full of mischief and fun at first. But as she engages the audience with her teen dreams, Rachel seems always to be packing, preparing to travel emotionally all over the map. Her parents have encouraged her to explore, so she tells them and us: “I’m sorry I scare you. But I want to write and I want to see. And what would I write about if I only stayed within the doll’s house, the flower-world I grew up in?”

Ms. Nest (poignantly real as the child in last year’s Mr. Marmalade) prowls the stage here with winsome, adolescent zeal. You cannot help loving Rachel’s half-baked brilliance and how she handles, with shy assertiveness, boys and authority figures. Later the grown Corrie, in danger, fends off pleas to come home from Palestine as she defers her desire for romance and family. She’s driven by a dream. First she must help humble people survive.

Inevitably, as with Greek Tragedy, the audience endures change as a fate foretold plays out. After the play the “The Peace Cafe,” held Under the Tent, moved us toward conversational catharsis.

Anne Marie Nest and her parents joined our sub-group. In a measure of this artist’s transformative powers, she had to identify herself as the actor just seen in I Am Rachel Corrie. Nest stressed the “heart connection” (over the political) in preparing her part. Soon various viewpoints mingled with love in the warm, unwounded air.

* * *

Another meditation on the Middle East occurs in Jason Grote’s play 1001, directed too by Herendeen. Historians say 1001 was an interesting year, but Grote’s script trades history for narrative entropy. Here The Arabian Nights and Scheherazade meet Jorge Luis Borges and Sue Grafton, among others. For chaotic completeness the playwright might have thrown into the melange Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, famed for stories within stories within stories.

Yes, chapters of our lives can interweave, grow convoluted, but 1001’s script never gets traction on the road of reflection or reverie. Program notes say the playwright intended a “trunk show”--presumably something like close-up magic, not big stage illusions. But big stage illusions come, smoke and mirrors held up to the unnatural at Shepherd’s Frank Center. Most memorably, a genie (Ariel Shafir) rises upstage to grant wishes. We can only wish that Mr. Grote’s work to layer reality with mystery might have jelled. As it is, only sound and fury meld. But gorgeous brides lose their heads and an ancient Arab potentate (Jonathan C. Kaplan) becomes a Jewish gentleman before our eyes. Erotic plots abound and bellies dance. This magic carpet ride proves Grote a magic carpetsweeper.

There is no intermission and characters multiply.

Giving some moral grounding in varied roles (including Borges, author of
the classic “Garden of Forking Paths”) is solid actor Marc Damon Johnson. As
Scheherazade, Zabryna Guevara succeeds in seeming old and new, though her tales
give way to tech titillations by sound and lighting designers Sharath Patel
and D. M. Wood respectively. Margaret McKowen’s costumes stir wonder, confer a
timeless childhood.

Indeed 1001 works for something different, a Postmodern past, stereotypes reborn to enchantment.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival, now in its 17th season, does enchant and spin off artistic riches (like Goose Route Dance) across Shepherdstown through July 29th. Next year perhaps local playwrights may appear. CATF is on the map whose cutting edges etch vast themes--through lives playing out in a our places.