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Monday, July 21, 2014

CATF's 'Dead and Breathing' is alive and kickin'

Lizan Mitchell is "Carolyn," the patient, and N.L. Graham is "Veronika" in Dead and Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson at CATF/Photo by Seth Freeman

At the Contemporary American Theater Festival underway at Shepherd University in Shepardstown, West Virginia, every single attendee I spoke with enthusiastically praised the acting in each of the five new plays of the 2014 season, which would definitely include the portrayals in Dead and Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson.

Two actors, a hospice nurse and her patient, consumed by her dying days, make up Dead's cast. Not a particularly uplifting subject but comedy was promised in the promotion, and it delivered that, and more.  Too much in some instances. 

The production fulfills CATF's goals to be a daring story of diversity, innovation, and one which links the audience with the work.  All five plays have been written in the last year or two.

The new nurse, Veronika (craftily acted by N.L. Graham), arrives at the home of the negative and bitter, sarcastic and unsmiling, humorless and old (she would have been old at 28) rich patient, Carolyn, brilliantly acted by Lizan Mitchell.  Veronika is a nurse, after all, whose mission is to nurture her patient and live happily ever after?

Any sunshine in Carolyn's life disappeared long ago, and she greedily waits for approaching death which will extinguish the lights of her sorry existence. Her frowns become lines in concrete, permanently etched upon her dry face. She is tightly coiled, from her covered head to her mean spirit, ready to strike fast at anything which impedes her goal to die now and get it over with.  She scowls often, turning her mouth upside down.

The characters sling it out with all the obscene language we have grown to expect in contemporary theatre.   They are not of the same school, you see.

Their lines are biting. You may think these things, but civility demands restraint, and aren't we glad?

The play opens with a full frontal nudity scene of Carolyn stepping in and out of the bath tub with Veronika's help while we have to witness another nude scene when Veronika steps away momentarily to answer the door. The patient disrobes again and attempts suicide with a hair dryer in the bath tub filled with water. Right.  (That must have been b-r-r-r cold water, but if so, Ms. Mitchell covered her shivers with aplomb.)
While Veronika tidies up the patient and the surroundings, wipes her clean after Carolyn urinates in the toilet (please), Veronika preaches the Gospel to her patient, urging Carolyn to adopt the Gospel, too. 

The exchanges present opposing viewpoints, and if the Almighty and hereafter are not enough, other contemporary issues are thrown in for good measure. 

The two set up an exchange (you scratch my eyes out and I'll scratch yours): Rather than an eye for an eye, how about an exchange of murder and Jesus for cash?  I told you it was a comedy.
"Veronika" (N.L. Graham) gets ready to stick it to the patient in Dead and Breathing at CATF/Photo by Seth Freeman

Carolyn calls her attorney to make Veronika the beneficiary of Carolyn's $27 million estate if Veronika will just agree to murder Carolyn with a nice shot to the neck and get the damned life over.  If you'll accept Jesus Christ in your heart, I'll kill you.  As simple as that. 

Makes sense, no?  What would you do? 

The dilemmas presented are excellent, and the audience wrestles with self-doubt. Don't do it! I found myself imploring her.  (Which her?)

My ending differed from the playwright's.  I fully expected the stage to darken with answers left to the audience to determine. 

The age of the playwright, 34, comes as a shock, for the dialogue suggests experience far beyond someone so young, someone who knows about the closing of life. Ms. Hutchinson has multiple sclerosis who cared for her own mother, ill with cancer.

Congratulations to the director, Kristin Horton. The set (by Luciana Stecconi) was nicely divided into a full bathroom (with real tub, toilet and sink) and the patient's sitting room.

(In the program the playwright complains about repetitive plays about married white women contemplating divorce. Well, you know what? I am tired of seeing naked white/black/ brown/orange women on stage. Where are the naked men? That a man could have played this part, and we could have seen a full monty male nude twice might help dispel the notion that all old women are bitter, uncompromising, hateful creatures. I know a few old coots. Give us naked men.)

Shepherd University is just a little over an hour's beautiful drive from D.C. in the delightfully "quaint" town of Shepherdstown, West Virginia, founded in 1762, where free lectures, discussions, late-night salons, workshops, and more are part of the festival.

For another review of Dead and Breathing and other CATF productions and area performances, click DC Metro Theater Arts.

What:  Dead and Breathing by Chisa Hutchinson

When: The five new plays in the Contemporary American Theater Festival are staged in rotating repertory, Wednesday through Sunday afternoons and evenings through August 3, 2014.

Where:  Shepherd University, Shepardstown, WVA

Tickets: $59 for single seats with discounts for military, students, seniors, families, those under age 30, and West Virginia residents, plus four and five-show discount packages starting at $100. The 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday shows are $30. Use Code CATF20 to save 20% on single ticket purchases.

For more information: 800-999-2283 or 304-876-3473

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