- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

The weather, save for a late afternoon thunderstorm on Saturday, was lovely. The crowd was in a festive mood. The streets were filled with shoppers, and the restaurants were chock-full of diners. It was opening weekend of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va., and the tiny, picturesque town buzzed with all the excitement of a hot Broadway opening in New York.

One of the nifty things about the festival is that the audience gets to see up to four plays from a mixture of talented newcomers and more famous old hands whose work generally has withstood the test of time. It’s usually easy to see why these veterans have gotten to the top of their profession, too. Their plays are almost invariably more creative and sophisticated than dramas penned by younger playwrights who haven’t quite learned the tricks of the trade.

Unfortunately, CATF’s main event this year, the world premiere of Tony, Pulitzer and Olivier nominee Lee Blessing’s “Whores,” directed by Ed Herendeen, was a major disappointment. Intended at least in part as a satire against capitalists, Reaganites and their Contra buddies in the 1980s, the play may have had exactly the opposite effect on at least some audience members, who might have mistaken it for a conservative lampoon of obsessive liberal pieties.

“Whores” purports to be a fictional re-imagining of the life of a Salvadoran general named Raoul, portrayed by Shawn Elliott, upon whose watch three American nuns and a lay worker were raped and massacred. The real-life general eventually emigrated to Florida, where he lived in obscurity until activists had him prosecuted in a trial that ultimately failed to produce a conviction. This trial serves as the frame for an otherwise free-form evening of Hate America First theater.

Mr. Blessing’s play is no more and no less than an evening-long tirade that blames us rotten Americans for pretty much every evil in the known universe.

Did some really bad stuff happen in Central America in the 1980s? Yes, indeed. Were Americans involved in some of it? More than likely. Yet the Soviets and Fidel Castro were also, of course, deeply enmeshed in these activities, lavishly funding their own platoons of Marxist goons.

The real truth, as Oscar Wilde once said, is rarely pure and never simple. Mr. Blessing thinks it is.

The pungent political mix of “Whores” doesn’t end with the Reaganites. It’s also loaded with anti-Catholicism and smug dismissals of the middle class, flyover country, and people who speak with a pronounced Southern accent. All this is blended seamlessly with stand-up comedy routines intentionally reminiscent of the sainted martyr Lenny Bruce.

The conceit is that our villainous general conveniently doesn’t remember what he did or didn’t do and dwells in a fantasy life where nuns and whores are conflated. The general himself is the real “whore” for America, doing America’s rotten bidding until our corrupt government is done with him, buying him out to live in the lap of luxury in Jeb Bush’s sunny Florida. He settles peacefully into the middle class, happily mowing his lawn like the rest of America’s self-satisfied suburbanites. Oh, the horror, the horror.

There are some bright spots here. Raoul’s stand-up monologues, hilariously delivered by Mr. Eliott, are pretty funny, even if you’re a Bushie. The nutty translation bits in the courtroom are spot-on. Then, too, the acting of the ensemble, which includes Catherine Curtin, Jenny Maguire, Bernadette Quigley and Maryann Urbano, is frantically energetic.

But the dedicated cast can’t rescue a play whose vision has been narrowed to two dimensions by the playwright’s unambiguous anger. The problem with life and politics is that not everyone who disagrees with you is, de facto, an unthinking animal.

“Whores” is a reductionist diatribe that encapsulates everything that is wrong and wrongheaded in contemporary American dramatic writing today. Mr. Blessing is trapped in a 1960s leftist box that does not allow for the complexities and nuances of life and politics. Plot and character, which might have served to interpose some useful distance between the playwright’s raw emotions and his work, are largely done away with in a self-referential postmodernist style. All that’s left is hollow irony and worn cliches.

It gets worse. Back at headquarters, the general spends at least half his time clutching at his genitals and fantasizing about acting in porno films or getting it on with nuns dressed in the latest Victoria’s Secret fashions. The f-word is sprinkled liberally and gratuitously throughout the dialogue, which is, of course, meant to shock the middle class. But, Earth to Mr. Blessing: We’ve been there, done that — been doing that since the late 1960s, to be exact. What once was truly shocking is now boring and kind of kitschy — and somewhat childish.

The saddest thing about this play is that it completely demeans the lives of the nuns who came to such a gruesome end in the first place. The intention here probably is to illustrate how the nuns had lost their humanity at the hands of the general’s thugs. Why should they lose it again at the hands of the playwright? They are passive objects upon which is projected the playwright’s didacticism, much as they are meant to be objects of the general’s perverted fantasies.

It is the 21st century. It is post September 11. It is time for our writers, playwrights and artists to grow up and become adults in this complex world we have inherited.

*

WHAT: “Whores” by Lee Blessing; Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherdstown, W.Va. Four plays in repertory plus special free events.

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

WHEN: Matinee and evening performances Tuesdays through Sundays, through Aug. 3.

TICKETS: $22.50 to $30 (adults), with a 10 percent discount for students and seniors. Group packages available; call 304/876-3473.

INFORMATION: Call 800/999-CATF.

DIRECTIONS: Consult the detailed Web site at www.catf.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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