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Sunday, July 27, 2014

CATF's 'North of the Boulevard' is a hit north of the Rio Grande

From left, Brit Whittle is "Trip," Jamil A.C. Mangan, "Bear," Michael Goodwin, "Zee," and Jason Babinsky is "Larry" in North of the Boulevard by Bruce Graham. CATF 2014. Photo by Seth Freeman.

The next station for North of the Boulevard at the Contemporary American Theater Festival at Shepherd University might be, New York?  The script is drop dead funny, the audience howls throughout, but it's got a serious side, too.  

The dialogue is fast, clipped, and delivered just like you'd expect, if you've ever visited an auto repair shop.  At Trip's, four blue-collared men sift through life's pieces, trying to make sense of them all. They strive to be North of the Boulevard, a safer and richer world since theirs is falling apart.
They examine choices. Where do we go from here?  One route suddenly presents itself which may quickly solve everything.  Or most everything.

Or can it?

It's a December afternoon in 2008 at Trip's shop where the owner (Brit Whittle) is tormented by the recent bullying and beating his son, Kevin, took at the hands of area black youths.  Trip agonizes about his old, decaying neighborhood which is slowly draining his family of its wellbeing and safety, a deterioration matched by the people's.

Zee (Michael Goodwin) pops up.  This stereotypical nasty, elderly, negative mouthpiece criticizes everybody and thing which enters his mind or sight, including his offspring. Perhaps he is too old to hope any more since all he really has going is a red bandana.  He frequently naps in the back seat of a car on stage. 

Soon another boyhood pal, Bear (Jamil A.C. Mangan) arrives, followed by Zee's son, Larry (Jason Babinsky who also stars in repertory in another 2014 CATF production, One Night). 

Larry is a middle-aged loser, and despite Trip's warnings to Zee to stop his bullying, Larry is a target of his father's mean remarks.  You yearn to smack Zee and shake some sense into his final days.  

One of the funniest scenes occurs when Larry spews his pent-up wrath at his father and "gets it off his chest." Let it all out, Larry! The sincere and passionate hate is likely shared by many present.  With his mannerisms, delivery, and lines, he almost steals the show.  

Larry's costuming (by Therese Bruck) includes a woolen cap and ear covers which he never removes. The others are dressed in contemporary flop, except for Bear who wears his work uniform. 

The set is realistically and meticulously crafted by David M. Barber, based on the shop of playwright Bruce Graham 's cousin. High opaque windows line the back of the space, giving it an "industrial feel" with old tires, hanging lights, grease, bottles, car parts, and another junked car's back seat used for a couch.

The set shop hints at so much dust, you almost cough. Or sneeze.

On the wall is a campaign poster of Barack Obama so you can guess the comments Zee makes, proudly claiming membership in the "politically incorrect" club. (Time out for a message about art:  The poster is a copy of the artwork most associated with President Obama's first presidential campaign, the one which makes you think Andy Warhol was still living in 2008, a gift to the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery where the portrait is "not currently on view." Shame.)

Shepard Fairey, b. 1970. National {Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Heather and Tony Podesta Collection in honor of Mary K. Podesta. Copyright: ©  Shepard Fairey/
On the right side of the stage is a glass-enclosed office with door which Trip frequently uses for private phone conversations about his injured son (who never appears).  When Trip is in the office, he is visible to the audience who only hears portions of his speech, usually the shouts as he becomes increasingly agitated by the unpleasantness he hears on the phone.  

North of the Boulevard is superbly directed by Ed Herendeen, the festival's founder and producing director.  All the actors delivered impressively, just like those I saw in Dead and Breathing, another of this year's presentations, and like that ending, North's finish was unexpected. 

In both I found myself at the end crying out silently to those on stage: Don't do it!  We witness the human need to seize temptation which can upend lives and send participants right out the door.

In a playwrights' roundtable on opening weekend, Mr. Graham said "I've killed so many people I hate in my plays." Hmmmmmm, does that mean...?

Mr. Graham called himself "an audience whore," who, he said, inserts "things in plays just to get a reaction." At the roundtable, he thanked the audience for showing up and "investing in plays you've never heard of....our hats are off to you."

The production fulfills CATF's goals to be a daring story of diversity which embraces innovation and links to the audience. All five new productions on this year's festival playbill have been written in the last year or two and, to mention the obvious, contain contemporary, harsh and coarse language like you hear on the street nowadays. (We ain't got no class either.)

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 much more are part of the festival.

For more reviews of North of the Boulevard and other CATF productions and area performances, click DC Metro Theater Arts.

What:  North of the Boulevard by Bruce Graham

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

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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