- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The 2006 Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) is off and running.

Now in its 16th year and with a growing national reputation, the monthlong event — held on the campus of Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va. — opened during the weekend with four new plays, three of them world premieres.

Two productions, Kim Merrill’s “Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby,” and Keith Glover’s “Jazzland” — both world premieres with the latter commissioned by CATF — explore the uncomfortable topic of unhappy and neglected childhoods in contemporary society.

However, each script could have been judiciously edited to trim needless bits of exposition and pontification.

The most original of these plays is Mr. Glover’s “Jazzland.” The playwright employs the novel technique of having his characters speak their jazz riffs instead of playing them, writing his dialogue in prose-poetry tumbling with run-on metaphors in the manner of solo improvisations.

“Jazzland” focuses on the difficult and largely posthumous relationship between young jazz artist Roderigo Gehrig and his late father, Ram, a jazz legend in his own right but a controversial figure in his time famed for his pioneering crossover work with rock bands.

Unfortunately, straight-arrow Ram is pranked by one of the rockers who surreptitiously slips him some bad acid. Ram flips out, losing his touch, alienating the young woman, Rhiannon, who bore his child, and threatening his young son with death during paranoiac episodes. The protective Rhiannon promptly guns Ram down while his son gradually embarks on his own jazz career, while wrestling with his father’s memory.

Mr. Glover’s play is infused with remarkable language, faithfully rendering the questing intensity of improvisational jazz wizards, while deftly exploring their nomadic lives and lonely inscapes.

As Roderigo, Marshall Elliott is outstanding, inhabiting his character’s contradictory poles of youthful arrogance and well-masked fears. As the bigger-than-life Ram, Joseph Adams also excels in his compelling portrayal of a musical genius deprived forever of his unique gifts by a savage stroke of fate.

Yet another strong performance is turned in by Scott Whitehurst as Twist, Ram’s musical partner and friend, who serves as an omniscient narrator and a witty and wise Greek chorus. Less well developed are the characters of Roderigo’s mother, Rhiannon (Sara Kathryn Bakker), whose inner workings never quite seem to gel, and Chilli (January Lavoy), a music teacher who tries to help Roderigo regain his groove after a bizarre accident deprives him also of his musical memory. Both actresses, though, do their best to breathe life into the cyphers of their characters.

“Jazzland” still needs some work, including the aforementioned trims. Nonetheless, it’s promising new stuff, penned by a dramatic talent with a brilliant ear for musical language abetted by a deep understanding of human emotion and by a powerful comprehension of the essence of jazz — whereby the artist’s instrument channels his deepest inner narratives.

Less successful is Miss Merrill’s “Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby,” in which a young woman named Clara returns to the beach-side community where she was raised after being abandoned on the beach some 25 years earlier. A budding scholar, she has complicated her life by falling into an affair with an artist, Ronnie, the husband of Ruth, who had originally discovered her on the beach.

Further complications include Ronnie’s mysterious death by drowning and the appearance of Darren, a rich retiree who claims to be Clara’s father. Add to this Clara’s casual sexual encounter with Ruth’s and Ronnie’s son, Zane, and it’s little wonder that Ruth doubts the sincerity of Clara’s attempt at reconciliation.

This beautifully staged production has an unfinished quality about it.

Problems include Miss Merrill’s quirky compulsion to cast Ronnie’s ghost in the unrelated character of an early 20th century British soldier. In an interview appearing in the program, the playwright attributes this to her own fascination with Middle Eastern history. But grafting this onto her contemporary play doesn’t work — nor does the Dickensian plot device involving the discovery of those precise set of pages of a mostly missing diary that shed light on Ronnie’s demise. Likewise, some chronologies and motivations seem as though they haven’t been fully worked out, giving the play an unfinished workshop feel.

As in “Jazzland,” the cast does a fine job with this material nonetheless, making “Sex” better on stage than it is on the page.

Anne Marie Nest turns in a fine portrayal of the intelligent but impulsive and confused grown-up foundling, Clara. Andy Prosky is hale and hearty as Clara’s could-be father, Darren. Michael Borrelli does his level best as the confusing character of Ronnie. And Matt Unger energetically fleshes out the undeveloped Zane. But as Ruth, Carolyn Swift is a bit too hysterical, often delivering her lines at such a frantic clip that they’re lost in the sands of time.

WHAT: “Jazzland” ** 1/2 and “Sex, Death, and the Beach Baby”

WHERE: The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at the Frank Center and the Studio Theater Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Showtimes vary as the plays will be performed in repertory. The festival continues through July 30.

TICKETS: $26 to 33 per play. Packages also are available.

INFORMATION: Ticket purchases, accommodations and directions to Shepherdstown and the theaters may be obtained by calling 800/999-CATF (2283) or through the Web site www.catf.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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