Exploring American violence Theater: Common thread runs through Contemporary American Festival plays.

July 21, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- Tucked away in West Virginia, the Contemporary American Theater Festival may be a long way from the country's major cultural centers, but the productions at this small, professional festival illuminate some of the larger issues of our times.

In residence each July at Shepherd College, where it presents plays in repertory at the 450-seat Frank Center for the Creative Arts and the 99-seat Studio Theater, the festival draws out-of-state audiences from Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington. The scripts it produces have gone on to be staged off-Broadway and at regional theaters around the country.

This year, the festival commissioned the first two plays in its eight-season history -- Cherylene Lee's "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" and Preston Foerder's puppet work, "Interesting Times." Though "Carry the Tiger" -- which already has an off-Broadway production lined up -- is the more successful of the two, the license to experiment and sometimes fail should be granted to any theater company willing to take the bold risks this one does.

One of those risks is the willingness to confront difficult themes. Three of this year's four plays comment on violence in America.

* In the most ambitious and impressive of the offerings, Lee's fact-based "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain," the violence takes the form of the fatal beating of a young Chinese-American man by two Detroit autoworkers.

* In Tom Strelich's "BAFO (Best and Final Offer)," violence erupts when an employee downsized by a defense contractor returns to the workplace armed and dangerous.

* In the sole comedy, "Gun-Shy," violence surfaces as playwright Richard Dresser explores the relationship of a contentious, but still in love, divorced couple.

"Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" is a powerful commentary on the hate crime that became the country's first major civil rights case not involving African-Americans -- the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin. His killers were sentenced to three years' probation and fines and court costs of $3,780.

The playwright has not written a docu-drama. Instead, she tells a broader story that dramatically demonstrates the clash of cultures by incorporating two motifs.

The first is a car salesman touting the American dream in the form of an automobile. Though Rudolph Willrich's excessively jokey portrayal undercuts some of his impact, from his initial appearance -- announcing that $3,780 won't buy a new car -- to the moment when he reappears in the guise of a judge, the actor offers a reminder of how far the American judicial system can be from the American dream.

The second motif is the Chinese martial art of tai chi, the source of the play's title as well as a source of strength for Chin's grief-stricken mother, Lily. Given an intensely moving portrayal by Beulah Quo, Lily is the heart of the play. She starts out as a quiet, dutiful wife and mother, but, through the encouragement of a civil rights lawyer, she becomes a courageous, impassioned public speaker.

Heartfelt and thematically complex, "Carry the Tiger to the Mountain" is receiving a polished, premiere production, but there are areas that need work. For instance, presenting a silent re-enactment of the fatal beating as part of the play's prologue is more didactic than dramatic.

If "Carry the Tiger" covers a broad canvas, Strelich's "BAFO" -- which premiered at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, Calif., in 1997 -- has a tighter focus. Though the play takes a while to get going, once it does, the situation is charged, as a disgruntled ex-employee of a small defense contractor holds five former co-workers at gunpoint.

After building careers on the ability to identify a potential threat, these four white men and one black woman find themselves facing a threat they never imagined -- one of their own. Lee Sellars is riveting as the gunman, speaking softly one minute and raging the next. Cherene Snow is also effective as a woman who shows more guts than her four he-man co-workers combined.

But while Strelich has a knack for clever dialogue, that dialogue has a remarkably similar ring, whether coming from the mouth of an aging, white, former Air Force officer or a young, hip, black career woman. And the action is far too predictable.

Dresser's "Gun-Shy" -- a 1997 offering at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival -- also suffers from predictability. Like a 1990s version of Noel Coward's "Private Lives," "Gun-Shy" presents a divorced husband and wife and their new significant others. By the end of the evening, allegiances have shifted -- an outcome that can be satisfying, even if expected.

However, Dresser's characters are so broadly drawn -- his approach to women borders on misogynistic -- that it's easy to dismiss them. And the direction, by festival producing director Ed Herendeen, who also directed "Carry the Tiger" and "BAFO," is uncharacteristically static, with too much time spent on scene changes.

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