- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 13, 2002

The nationally-acclaimed Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) kicks off its 12th season in Shepherdstown, W.Va., this weekend with four new plays, including works by renowned dramatists Sam Shepard and Lee Blessing.

The festival's home is the campus of Shepherd College, nestled in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle along the Potomac River roughly 90 minutes from Washington.

CATF was founded by current producing director Ed Herendeen in 1991. Now a member of the Shepherd College faculty, he formerly ran the Williamstown Theater Festival in the Berkshires. "The future of the American theater is in the production of new plays," according to Mr. Herendeen, "and that's what CATF is all about." By 1995, the company was offering four new Equity productions per season, a pace it still maintains, augmented now by workshops and musical events. This kind of schedule is usually available "only in large urban areas," says Mr. Herendeen, but the CATF audience "has an adventurous taste, and many of them come long distances to see all four plays." All the new dramas open during the festival's first weekend and rotate throughout the monthlong event.

Shepherdstown once briefly considered as a location for the new American nation's capital has undergone a renaissance in recent years that has only been accelerated by the popularity of the festival. Like a mini-Georgetown without choking traffic, the town now boasts antique shops, music and bookstores, a small museum, and several good restaurants including the venerable Bavarian Inn and the popular Yellow Brick Bank. "As an artist, I find it personally exciting to see the real economic impact the festival has had on the local economy," Mr. Herendeen says.

CATF has established a national reputation for presenting plays by established authors as well as works by relative unknowns. This year's festival is no exception. Headlining the new season is the mid-Atlantic premiere of Pulitzer Prize winner Sam Shepard's "The Late Henry Moss."

Directed by Mr. Herendeen and set in the American West, Mr. Shepard's play concerns the struggle of two brothers to come to terms with the death of their father and with memories of their own volatile past. Mr. Shepard "has often been a critic of the American family," says Mr. Herendeen, and "The Late Henry Moss" marks yet another installment in his ongoing saga.

Memories are also an important element in Lee Blessing's "Thief River."

Written for the Eugene O'Neill Playwrights Conference in 2000, "Thief River" explores the relationship of two men and their families in a rural Minnesota community and their secrets buried for more than over half a century. One of America's most distinguished playwrights, Mr. Blessing's dramas have won the American Theatre Critics Award and the Elisabeth Marton Award. New York's Signature Theater once devoted an entire season to his work. "Thief River" is also directed by Mr. Herendeen.

Rounding out the festival's dramatic offerings are two world premiere plays by relative newcomers to the theater scene. Drafts of both Craig Wright's "Orange Flower Water," and Catherine Filloux's "Silence of God" were given open readings at last year's event, and their full-blown premieres this year offer further evidence of the festival's commitment not only to presenting new plays but to helping develop them, according to Mr. Herendeen. Directed by Leah C. Gardiner, "Orange Flower Water" once again deals with family matters this time, through, the story of an extramarital love affair that proves to be not all sweetness and light.

"Silence of God," explores an entirely different relational theme. Playwright Catherine (pronounced "kath-REEN") Filloux's work focuses on mass murderer Pol Pot and the destruction of the Cambodian people. She imaginatively reconstructs the dictator's thoughts and background through the device of an interview conducted by a fictional female reporter on the eve of his death. Commissioned by CATF, "Silence of God" marks yet another step forward for a playwright who is not afraid of controversy. Miss Filloux's "Mary and Myra" the feminist retelling of MaryTodd Lincoln's commitment to an insane asylum by her son was one of the highlights of the 2000 Festival.

Miss Filloux, in Shepherdstown this week for the premiere, is enthusiastic about her new work. "It's a play of light and dark," she says, "an exploration of how evil can flourish in almost any environment." As if to highlight this point, "the same actor who plays Pol Pot also plays the part of a peaceful monk," showing how the goodness of a character is often not far distant from his dark side.

Of French and Algerian background, Miss Filloux is accustomed to exploring Third World issues, and is passionate about her work's complex topic. She was initially inspired to write the play when she encountered Cambodian women who were so horrified by Pol Pot's butchery that they psychosomatically lost their sight, a consequence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Miss Filloux also traveled to Southeast Asia in pursuit of her story. While there, her earlier play based on the Cambodian holocaust, "Photographs from S-21," was produced in that country. Audience members would come up to her after each performance, "and tell me the saddest, most heartbreaking stories," she says. Her experiences led to her current play, where her journalist-heroine is forced to confront "the question of why evil can still happen at the hands of otherwise ordinary people." "Silence of God" will be directed by Jean Randich.

In addition to its roster of new plays, CATF also features discussion groups after some of the performances, open readings of new plays-in-progress, and performances on campus of contemporary classical music. This is all part of Mr. Herendeen's vision of the festival's purpose as an event that encompasses all the performing arts. Musical events this summer include the Kandinsky Trio performing works written specifically for their ensemble, and a concert featuring new music from the Carnegie Hall Millennium Program. "We hope that one day soon we'll be able to feature world premiere concerts here and perhaps a composer-in-residence," Mr. Herendeen says.

WHAT: Contemporary American Theater Festival. Four plays in repertory plus special events, Tuesdays through Sundays, today through Aug. 4. Includes: "The Late Henry Moss" by Sam Shepard; "Silence of God" by Catherine Filloux; "Thief River" by Lee Blessing; and "Orange Flower Water" by Craig Wright. Matinee and evening performances.

WHERE: The Franks Center Stage and the Studio Theater on the campus of Shepherd College, Shepherdstown, W. Va.

TICKETS: $20-$25 (adults) and $18-$20 (students and seniors) Discounted packages available

PHONE: 1-800-999-CATF or online at www.catf.org Groups and packages, call 1-304-876-3473

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