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Review: Contemporary American Theater Festival and Sam Shepard play make for great pairing

July 14, 2011|By GEORGE OLIVER | Special to The Herald-Mail
  • John Ottavino as Byron and Anderson Matthews as Ames star in Sam Shepard's "Ages of the Moon" currently playing at Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, W.Va.
Photo by Ron Blunt

The Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., has been introducing new plays for 21 years — middle-aged by theater festival standards.

Plays by the well-known actor and playwright Sam Shepard have been a part of the lineup in previous festivals, and his newest play "Ages of the Moon" is one of the offerings this year.

It's a one-act tragi-comedy about two long-time, 60-something crotchety male friends, Ames and Byron, who come together for an evening. Ames is having a marital crisis due to an infidelity (a "minor" sex act as he describes it) and needs advice and comfort; Byron has traveled a far distance to be with his friend, but is carrying his own need for comfort.

"Ages of the Moon" is directed by CATF founder Ed Herendeen, and features veteran actors John Ottavino as Byron and Anderson Matthews as Ames. Matthews has appeared in previous CATF productions.

During their 70-minute dialogue, Ames and Byron review their lives, argue and accuse, and drink too much; their memories get confused, they banter about women and sports, they come to blows — two aging friends doing their guy thing, Sam Shepard-style.

I suspect that the play reflects Shepard's own aging process — he's almost 68 — because like the straight-up Woodford Reserve bourbon the two men drink throughout the play, it's pretty straightforward in the telling, at least for Shepard. There is little of his earlier plays' absurdity or chaos or bizarre characters popping in and out.

We laugh with the two men and at them for their (sometimes puerile) antics. We cry at their grief and confessions. If the dialogue sometimes seems puzzling, like their talk of horseracing days, it's because we're listening in on two men who've been friends for decades.

Fortunately, "Ages of the Moon" is still a play with lots of Shepard humor, but if the playwright here is short on craziness (although there is some), he's long on character and heart.

Under Herendeen's seamless direction, Matthews and Ottovino do a wonderful job making the characters believable and distinct, a kind of buddy odd couple you've almost seen before. Ames is more volatile and emotional, almost nerdy; Byron is taller and handsomer, a bit more pretentious verbally, and more physically fragile, as it turns out. At times, they seem to be on the edge of sanity.

They clearly love each other, but like all long-time friends, they see each other's weaknesses more easily than their own and now have little reason to be polite about it. They bicker and banter in ways that make them sound sometimes like rival siblings, sometimes like George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Matthews and Ottovino create characters that are so sympathetic, you quickly feel a bond with them. Herendeen does little things to make their time together a humorous and hapless man-date, like when they drink their whiskey in sync; we feel the weight of their lives as friends and the grief they carry, which makes the moments of laughter even more affecting.

The staging is stripped down to the basics. The two men sprawl and talk on unpainted Adirondack chairs on the porch of a generic old brick cabin in some unidentifiable rural setting. The set is static, the lighting is spare. Only a ceiling fan is moving (sporadically), becoming a third character in the play. The one-day action, such as it is, takes place in anticipation of a full eclipse of the moon during the evening.

Like in other Shepard plays, fights break out and scenery is destroyed, but it all seems believable for the characters and the setting. Even the sometimes raw language never sounds gratuitous.

Shepard does have the characters saying words and phrases that occasionally sound incongruous. Byron can sound like a bumpkin saying "crazier than a box of squirrels" one minute and uttering the overeducated "I'm talking about the whole milieu" the next. Credit Shepard's skill as a playwright and humorist, Herendeen's direction, and the actors' skills for making it all work so well.

Ultimately, the play is about memory, longing and regret. The dialogue and staging are all a metaphor for the timelessness the characters feel and the spacelessness they exist in. They're aging and losing control of their lives, and they don't know what to do. When toward the end Byron looks at the eclipsing moon and asks "Isn't that us up there, throwing a shadow?," he seems to be speaking a fear that we all have as we grow older but maybe not wiser.

In the end they sit wrapped in a blanket together watching the moon darken and pondering the moment. It's a poignant end that feels both sad and perfectly satisfying.

Baby boomers will connect instantly with Byron's and Ames's characters. Younger theater goers will enjoy the humor and the pathos as great theater. I hope Sam Shepard keeps writing plays and CATF keeps staging them. Shepard's aging voice and Herendeen's maturing CATF direction seem to be a winning combination.


The Contemporary American Theater Festival runs five new plays in rotating repertory through July 31. For more information and for tickets, go to www.catf.org or call 800-999-CATF (2283). The reviewer can be reached at golivergo5@frontier.com.

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