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CATF: 20 years of dark delight

By Staff | Jul 16, 2010

Lee Sellars on guitar and voals, Michael Pemberton on lead guitar, Joe Rosenfeld on bass, and Danny Tait on Drums. CATF photo by LaBrell Guy

As we all know from the local festive airs, Shepherdstown’s Contemporary American Theater Festival has returned, and this summer marks its 20th season. My spouse saw the political play “Inana” and reports it’s a fine production about a statue come to life.

But together we saw and heard CATF’s opening night happening called “The Eelwax Jesus 3-D Pop Music Show.” Eelwax does not lend itself easily to being reviewed. It’s a kind of rock opera for our frightened yet languid new century of chaos. Paradoxically, Shepherd University’s vast main stage venue somehow confines this show, which I can envision unfolding in a sprawling caf with a crowd able to dance and drink and address the actors in some shared, convivial space.

Still, in the Frank Center space, the play comes across as amusing and amiable (instead of carving a new consciousness of how unconsciously we seek to consume entertainment). Nevertheless there’s plenty of spirited toe-tapping here, excellent songs performed by Lee Sellars fronting a kicky band right on stage.

In between songs, various actors bemoan how meaningless seems their group house existence in a near future ravaged by global flu and a comic return to American 1950s dcor. Multimedia staging has us watching motel lobbies and bedrooms from way back or seeing screen clips from ancient explosions, burlesque, or pep talks for postwar hopes rising like Wonderbread (a time wherein members of CATF’s audience were being born or being reared in our vacant landscape of plenty).

Yet the play seems strangely static, unblocked, in that actors seldom leave their chairs, and by play’s end they and we the audience may be meant to feel a bit like furniture. The play embodies exuberant stasis; it presents a dystopia as culture jam.

At stage right a woman named Esme (Margot White) irons clothes interminably until a phone call brings deeper boredom fraught with fright. For her the year is 1957. For the other characters, more than a half century may have elapsed to no purpose. The play allows an intrusive bagman (Ernie S. Smith) and a man in a gas mask (James Rana) to meander far upstage, where some of the action seems far away. Despite body mikes, some lines are meant to be inaudible or sound like outtakes from Samuel Beckett. A man with a halibut becomes at last a mute fumigator (well-played by Shepherdstown’s Steve Pritchard).

Eelwax was co-created by Max Baker (who also directs here) and by the versatile Lee Sellars (returning again to delight us). Look forward to Mr. Shine (Kurt Zischke shivers with an apt, smarmy urge to emcee an apocalypse in slow motion). Admire Mrs. Worthington (the excellent Helen-Jean Arthur), a batty yet lithe elder with zinger lines and a laughable link to Sarah Palin. A dorky denizen of the group house is James (Jonathan Raviv plays him as real, repressed but representing some lost moral quest). From a distance he tries to engage Meredith (credible Clare Schmidt) in halting conversations. But she is riled, really stuck in her armchair downstage and appears in profile throughout, a petulant teenage presence whose spirit is disabled by the times.

These characters, however, and we the Eelwax audience enjoy many wonderful, gently satiric or despairing songs that constantly enliven the inaction of the script. “I Want Everything” will have you, almost against your will, wanting to sing along! Lee Sellars can sound like David Bowie or Neil Young or Jim Morrison or, best of all, himself. His voice insinuates meanings which seem sweetly hopeless yet somehow make us want to hum along.

Memorable as well is the song “You Get What You Pay For” as performed by CATF treasurer and torch singer Bridget Cohee. Poignant too are “If I Had a Serious Emotion” and “There’s Always More with Less”; moreover, these draw me back to the Eelwax band’s website. Do wish they offered a CD along with the toaster you can win by attending this musical; the show’s a new soup that comes together the next day in your mind. The spoof comes off as cosmic yet world-weary. This play tickles the spirit and suggests where we’re numb.

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