- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

THEATER COLUMN:

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The Contemporary American Theater Festival is having its strongest season in the past few years, featuring plays from good to great that focus on key issues for our time. The festival opened during the weekend on the Shepherd University campus.

The last two of this year’s five plays opened Sunday: Neil LaBute’s dramatic monologue “Wrecks” and Greg Kotis’ Grand Guignol eco-satire “Pig Farm.”

“Wrecks” starts working on audience members as they walk into a large rehearsal room in the university’s new Center for Contemporary Arts. As the door opens about 15 minutes before the performance and members of the audience shuffle in by ones and twos, they are greeted by a somber person in a black suit who offers them seating in chairs or on couches.

They find themselves at a wake in a funeral parlor, with a casket in the center, seating all around, and flowers and mementos scattered on side tables.

A man in business attire enters and begins to speak. He is Edward Carr (Kurt Zischke), a boomer in late middle age. His late wife is in the casket. For about 70 minutes, Carr rambles on about his beloved spouse, gradually filling in the story of their strange and passionate relationship.

Aside from occasional profanity we have come to take for granted, Carr, portrayed with elegant, understated brilliance by Mr. Zischke, is an upper-middle-class Everyman, a self-made man who is down to earth and in many respects would be indistinguishable from the rest of the audience. Mr. Zischke becomes Edward Carr to a remarkable degree, and it’s easy to identify with him and his plight.

The trick is to listen carefully to Mr. LaBute’s subtle dialogue. Clues to a deeper story are revealed at the last moment, transforming “Wrecks” into an odd whodunit that packs a big surprise for complacent theatergoers who aren’t hanging onto Carr’s every word.

This drama’s reliance on the accumulation of minute detail to gradually reveal its story distinguishes it from much contemporary drama that relies on noise, violence, vulgarity and special effects to compel the audience to listen. It also is remarkably literary in the British “Masterpiece Theatre” sense and will greatly reward the theatergoer who deplores the lack of adult material in today’s theatrical and film productions.

Mr. Kotis’ “Pig Farm” is a rowdy, boisterous satire that relies on the violence and vulgarity that “Wrecks” avoids. “Pig Farm” is lots of fun if you’re the kind of person who won’t get squeamish over the buckets of blood that drench the play’s finale.

The surreal world of “Pig Farm” is not too far in the future, when Environmental Protection Agency enforcers pack the kind of heat and authority heretofore limited to G-men like Eliot Ness and the Untouchables.

Tom (Lee Sellars) and Tina (Andrea Cirie) run a factorylike pig farm, supporting up to 15,000 porkers and the waste products they produce. Because of federal regulations, they have to cheat a bit around the edges to stay solvent, surreptitiously increasing the size of their herd while occasionally dumping truckloads of surplus fecal sludge into the nearby river. This attracts the attention of EPA agent Teddy (Anderson Matthews) who decides to try to shut them down.

Things are complicated by the oversexed Tina’s desire for a baby - a desire not on Tom’s agenda. She looks toward young hired hand and supposedly reformed juvenile delinquent Tim (Graham Powell) to provide the necessary contribution - attracting the interest of Teddy, who wouldn’t mind serving in that function, either.

The result is wild, sometimes highly offensive slapstick, mayhem and violence that satirizes the rapaciousness of small-business owners painted into a corner by seemingly capricious government regulations and pillories the government for its increasing intrusion into people’s daily lives. The cast delivers an energetic, over-the-top-performance, rounding out, with dark comedy, an extraordinarily robust 2008 season for the festival.

WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival: “Wrecks” ★★★★ “Pig Farm” ★★★

WHERE: Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Through Aug. 3; matinees and evenings in repertory with three other plays

TICKETS: $26 to $36

PHONE: 304/876-3473; 800/999-2283

WEB SITE: www.catf.org; www.catf.org/planyourexperience/ directions.html

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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