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Shepherdstown's homegrown harvest: A healthy serving of 'dangerous' theater

July 23, 1999

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - Ed Herendeen insists that theater is - must be, in fact - a "dangerous" art form. And were he speaking of the 1600s, when "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" is set, he would be accurate. Then, a king-affronting utterance on or about the stage could land a poor soul in the stockade with his ears lopped off, like William Prynne, who lost meaningful audio equipment to the cutting room floor.

But much of theater in this area today is safe, particularly the delightful summer seasons up and down the I-81 corridor from Allenberry to Wayside. Entertaining, lively, fun - and safe.

Enter the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd College, which is entering its final week with productions through Aug. 1. Herendeen founded the theater in 1991 and has raised it to be quite an astounding and, oh all right, dangerous beast.

At a couple points in "Compleat Female Stage Beauty," you may sense your neck muscles tighten with discomfort - and it's a comedy. I think. With CATF you're never really certain whether you're viewing a funny drama or a brow-furrowing comedy.

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"Coyote on a Fence" is a play about death row that gets you laughing at Bobby Reyburn, a mentally ill child killer played by Paul Sparks, until you remember that you've been brought up not to laugh at the mentally handicapped. And just when you've spanked yourself for that, Sparks beautifully peels away the layer of pleasantly goofy brainlessness to reveal a glint of 14-karat evil, and mentally you have to change gears and attitudes again.

And if you wish for the CATF plays to settle these questions and conflicts for you, forget it. CATF is famous for opening cans of worms and then sitting back with a grin to watch both you and the worms form a mutual squirming society.

At one of "Coyote's" most poignant moments, the execution-witnessing prison guard reposes in a barroom and muses over what she feels when she looks at an inmate who is about to die. The glass is thick she says, and when she peers into the chamber for a glance at the condemned, all she can see is her own mug staring back.

Oh thanks. The ball, it seems, has been returned to our court, heavy with spin. But then where but in a CATF production would it ever be suggested that the prison guards could possibly suffer more internal struggles over the death penalty then even those about to die?

I've never asked Herendeen, but I wonder whether he ever gets flak from more traditional theater dudes. The stereotype is the play that makes a statement against the death penalty, or in favor of abortion rights. CATF makes every statement, shows all sides. And at the same time it makes no statement, forces the viewer to personally become part of the plot. CATF performs the autopsy, but files no report.

Frustrating? Can be. I've read several reviews where the writer appears to emerge rather flummoxed over not being handed the answers on a silver director's chair.

"CATF does not and never will promise easy solutions. We offer only the well-conceived question," Herendeen writes in an introduction to a unique program that contains everything from a passage from Samuel Pepys' backstage journal to dueling pro-and-con death penalty essays from W.Va. Del. John Overington and Martinsburg attorney Larry Schultz.

Of course answers and right answers are two different things. And no matter what your conclusion about, say, the death penalty or abortion, there is bound to be something in the play that will needle you - a dramatic point that makes you wonder whether long-held notions are correct.

On the other hand, it will almost certainly validate a notion you may long have held, but feared to speak. CATF will make you believe you might not be so crazy after all.

And on top of it all, these plays are marvelously entertaining, even if you firmly resolve going in to do no premeditated thinking whatsoever. Along with being an innovative and impish theatrical troublemaker, Herendeen is a splendid director, who for example can take the saucily foul Elizabethan "Compleat Female Stage Beauty" and hump it for all it's worth, filling the stage with color and luscious, face-reddening fun.

This play is the second CATF has commissioned. The first, last year's "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" went on to Pittsburgh and is now in Los Angeles. Plays that have premiered in Shepherdstown routinely find their way to Off Broadway.

Heady stuff, this. And right in our back yard. There's one last week to partake, by calling 1-800-999-CATF or visiting www.catf.org. Along with the first garden tomatoes, the CATF schedule is among the very best things to come along locally each July.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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