Shepherdstown 2012 and the Rise of the Rolling Premiere

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Shepherdstown 2012 and the Rise of the Rolling Premiere

Published in the Hopkins Review, Winter 2013, New Series 6.1


Take a healthy organism, deny it the environment in which it grows, and it may seek a new environment and new ways of propagating. Serious American theater has negotiated that kind of change.

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time, plays were nurtured to maturity in a system of tryout houses in places like New Haven and Philadelphia. But those showcases largely disappeared over the second half of the last century.[1] Even for musicals, the tryout theater system has largely been replaced. This does not remotely mean that most new plays are, out of the box, “ready for their closeup,” i.e. the Broadway or Off-Broadway production that garners a review in the New York Times, a sort of stamp of approval that then makes the play marketable for production in regional theater. Rather, new plays are apt to run through a more complex system of developmental venues that seems to be still evolving.

One sort of venue that lends itself to this purpose is the theater festival (for example the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville each year). Another is regional theater itself, although regional theaters are more apt to be the places where new plays are transplanted, after having successfully blossomed in the nursery of New York. It is uncommon, however, for seedling plays to pop up just once in one of these locations and then go direct to New York. Rather, the tryout seems to have been replaced by what Ed Herendeen, Producing Director of the Shepherdstown (West Virginia) Contemporary American Theater Festival, described to me as a rolling world premiere.

Rolling On

The rolling premiere differs from tryouts because the former involve a single creative team (playwright, actors, directors, tech people) honing a play, whereas the latter typically involves different productions of the same play at different places around the country, timed closely together. The creative teams may be collaborating to some degree, but the productions will remain separate. However, the playwright and the play benefit from being able to build on what works and what does not.

Shepherdstown, which this last summer presented its twenty-second season over four July weeks, typifies the “rolling premiere” approach. Five new plays appeared there, all of major league caliber, unexceptionably acted and directed. This was the first production of Johnna Adams’ Gidion’s Knot, the second of Bob Clyman’s The Exceptionals, the second American production of Neil Labute’s In a Forest, Dark and Deep (after a 2011 West End production), the second of Evan M. Wiener’s Captors, and Bess Wohl’s Barcelona, which premiered here, will go next to People’s Light & Theatre in Malvern, Pa. It is likely that each play will end up in New York, but equally unlikely that most if any of them will go there directly.

At Shepherdstown, the plays are timed so that a theatergoer can take them all in over one weekend, and experiencing the plays that way is highly recommended. As we shall see, a picture emerges, not only of the plays chosen, but perhaps of the state of serious American playwriting at this point.

Barcelona: Lost Souls Inching Toward the Light

The strongest of this year’s entrants was Barcelona, which takes two characters from completely different worlds and frames of reference, united only by a hollow core in each of their lives. In little more than a stage hour, each has put a name to the other’s problem, has challenged the other to surmount it, and has met the challenge received in return. At the end of this luminous play, the stage is, fittingly, flooded with light. The miracle that each has wrought in the other’s life is tiny and deliberately underplayed, it is interesting, and it is believable. At the same time, it is quite possible to believe that by forcing the other to make an important alteration in plans, each has fundamentally saved the other. A playwright who can pull off something this wonderful deserves all the stagings I predict this play will receive.

The two initially lost souls are Irene (Anne Marie Nest), a Colorado real estate agent who has come to Barcelona to have a destination bachelorette party, and Manuel (Jason Manuel Olazàbal), a Spaniard whose family was destroyed by the loss of one of its members in the March 11, 2004 terrorist attack at Atocha station in Madrid. Irene is a fascinating character, raised to embrace a world view of stupefying superficiality, but, it emerges, bright enough to own it in her own peculiar way.


No, I’m fucked up, that’s obvious, but, I mean, part of what my life depends on is that the other people around me not, like, sink to my level.


That’s not a good thing to depend on.


Apparently not.

Manuel’s despair has congealed into hatred and disdain of Americans, whose feckless and dishonest military adventure in Iraq occasioned the terrorist attack, as he sees it. Having deposited his grief, as it were, in the vessel of distrust, he can only stand a chance of fixing it if the vessel is shattered. As he phrases it: “I just think it would be nice, for once, to see an American tell the truth.” Surprisingly, and at some personal cost, she does, and the vessel is shattered. And so he lacks justification for not moving on, and is just honest enough himself to realize his justification is gone.

Barcelona, then, is a beautifully well-made play. Whatever contrivances make it so neat do not detract from its power or the cautious optimism with which it ends. It is ready to go (albeit the last six pages were heavily rewritten and expanded two days before previews).

The Exceptionals: A Big Brother Moment?

Bob Clyman’s The Exceptionals is also sturdily constructed and ready out of the box. I guess it could be called science fiction, though the technology central to it, artificial insemination, already exists. What does not exist yet, evidently, is the use put to it in the play, what amounts to eugenics. The action takes place in an institute that inseminates the wives of childless couples with sperm from geniuses, and then studies the resulting children and the families around them. Clyman is quoted in the program note as commenting that this experiment was tried once, as chronicled in David Plotz’s book The Genius Factory (2005). Apparently, that effort failed in large measure because artificial insemination is tricky. But there is nothing in that story that would render the concept unworkable if the trickiness were overcome and, more important, if the concept’s unproven premise (nature over nurture, i.e. the principle that giftedness truly is inheritable) turned out to be true.

And as the play begins, the institute is ready to take the concept to the next level, schooling a few of the children together, the better to turbocharge their genetic advantages. The play then considers what the human impact of such activities might be. Would there simply be more super-bright, happy kids, or would we be heading for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) where eugenics defined social classes and reinforced totalitarian social control? The play cannily provides evidence to support both sides, and leaves the question ultimately unanswered, though it does convincingly show that, if the program were effectively administered, there surely would be takers.

Three representative parents are on display: Allie (Anne Marie Nest again) and her husband Tom (Joseph Tisa), a lower middle-class couple (so identified by his insecure job and her reading habits) and single mom Gwen (Rebecca Harris), a research scientist. The unnamed institute is represented by Claire, the Director of Parent Services (Deirdre Madigan). The couple and the scientist are all in the “Platinum Program,” with superior sperm that has produced superior boys, one for each family. In order for the institute’s plans to be realized, each family will need to give up part of normal parental control over its situation. The couple, looking to have another child, must set aside the idea of pleasing the average-guy husband by conceiving that second child with “normal” sperm, so as to wind up with a child he might relate to better. The single-mother scientist must allow the institute to take over the raising of her child.

The evidence that this is a sinister undertaking is subtle but unmistakable. There is double-talk: “Try not to think of this as a competition. I mean, in a way it is … in a way that’s exactly what it is … but …” or “I really don’t mean this as a threat, although I suppose you could take it as one…” There is spying on the communications of the parents with the sperm donors, which is supposed to be done in such a way as to assure anonymity on both sides. There is economic compulsion exercised on the couple, taking advantage of the husband’s having lost his job. And there is a carrot rather than a stick held out to the research scientist, in the form of a position with the institute, and a chance to restart her botched doctoral oral process.

At the same time, however, the desirability of what the institute has to offer is real. In sharply-etched dialogue, Claire exposes the inner eugenicist in all mothers, simply by asking about hookup fantasies. (The object always turns out to be George Clooney.)


Can anyone guess the point of my exercise?!


Every woman needs a man to father her child, but how does she know which man? The one who writes beautiful sonnets to her on her birthday but has blotchy skin? The one who pulled her out of a half-frozen lake once and made soup to keep her warm but showed pictures of her naked to his friends? Whoever she chooses, he will be flawed, which is how it should be. She may even truly love this man, and I say thank God for that. It won’t do her any good to mope around waiting for George Clooney to send her flowers, because he won’t, and she knows that, and yet whenever I ask a woman to try this, she almost always pictures him, but … and here’s my point … she doesn’t want George Clooney. She may think she does, but she really wants his genes.

An argument that goes back at least to George Bernard Shaw, and probably to Much Ado About Nothing, but nicely delivered.

In similar fashion, the super-boys turn out to need each other. The play closes with a revelation of why the institute is trying to get them into its school, a computer simulation of the two of them playing together. Claire’s comments:

[T]he problems that lie ahead of us will be far too complex for any one person … we’ll need great collaborators to solve them. We spent hundreds of hours … every combination of children, and there were only a handful of pitch perfect moments like this one. Neither of your boys ever came close with any other child, but when they were together … I wish you could’ve been in the room with us, because when it happened a second time … I don’t think anyone breathed for more than a minute.

In other words, not only are the mothers eugenicists, but the whole society is too. Seeing the bliss of the two sons simulatedly playing together and giggling excitedly, all the parental resistance melts away. Parental objectives, the demands of evolution, and social utility merge and blend into blissful acceptance. So is this really a good thing, or is this a “He loved Big Brother” moment? Impossible to say, but certainly this play poses the question piquantly and without unnecessarily taking sides.

What Is Gidion’s Knot Really About?

Gidion’s Knot, by contrast, is not a well-made play, or at least not yet, and from the comments I am about to make, it might seem that I liked it less than I did. In fact I found it almost as absorbing as Barcelona and maybe more so than The Exceptionals. Johnna Adams’ writing is strong and keenly observed, but it still cannot be denied that the play needs work. In this tale of a teacher, a mother, two boys and a girl, it is very hard to figure out what actually happened, what to make of it, and why all the parts are there.

Set in a suburban Chicago classroom (and performed at Shepherdstown in an actual college classroom decked out as if for and by fifth-graders), it starts out as a parent-teacher conference. However, it quickly emerges that Gidion, the fifth-grader whose mother is there to talk to the teacher, is dead by his own hand, and that, in light of that, Heather, the teacher (Joey Parsons) had reasonably assumed the conference moot and abandoned. Yet there Corryn, the mother (Robin Walsh), stands, insisting on the conference, one that must, in light of what has gone before, rapidly degenerate into a post-mortem.

Over the next hour, secrets emerge that explain – sort of – why Gidion did what he did. Corryn blames it on Heather for suspending Gidion over a graphically-worded tale Gidion wrote (and Heather is forced to read aloud) in which the school’s students massacre the teachers and use their intestines as art supplies. Heather blames it on Corryn, who filled Gidion’s head with Ossianic dreams of glory and de Sade-ian valuation of art over conventional morality and empathy. Neither, it seems, turns out to be right. Instead, the truth apparently lies in the conflicted behavior of Gidion and his sixth-grade friend Jake as they struggle with emerging homosexuality in one or both of them. But in reaching that conclusion, I am drawing on clues that leave it very unclear which rejected the other’s advances or whether that rejection was tinged with ambivalence; all we know for sure is that it did not end well.

Part of the problem is that if Heather and Corryn are both wrong, and the true explanation is garden variety teen angst (gay division), that is actually far less interesting than it would have been if the suicide really had been over the story Gidion wrote. Truly transgressive art (and this disgusting if interesting story certainly qualifies), raises an important problem: can esthetic values either trump or simply ignore social ones? And even if we believe they can, what rights should conventional society have to defend itself? In concrete terms, if Gidion is indeed a budding de Sade, is it right or wrong to suspend him from school in response?

Conversely, if this is fundamentally a story about emerging gay identity, where is the opposition that made Gidion a casualty? True, we see glimpses of peer pressure (e.g. the heterosexual interest in Gidion by Seneca, an artistic girl who sits near Gidion in the classroom, and Facebook accusations against Gidion of being a “faggot”). But to have produced such a story in the first place, Gidion must be of such strong mettle that he would predictably be next to impervious to such pressure. So rather than the suicide being over sexual identity as such, it may simply have been over disappointed love. For my money, that is just not an interesting enough motivator. The Sorrows of Young Werther may be a classic, but there’s a reason they’re not writing plays or books like that today.

Finally, as would ordinarily be fitting in a two-character play, playwright Adams attempts to give Heather, the teacher, nearly as much attention as Corryn and the deceased Gidion receive, but the back story (advertiser turned teacher, whose cat is about to be put to sleep) hardly seems necessary or compelling. The play would lack for nothing if Heather’s interior life were ignored, if she were presented simply as an authoritarian who (for narrative purposes if none other) were also honest enough to spill beans as the plot required them to be spilled.

I hope that the play will continue to develop, and that as it does, these issues come to be worked through.

Who the Captor? Who the Captive?

Evan M. Wiener’s Captors is a more finished work, although I am of two minds how successful the product under the finish is. It focuses on a short period in the life of Adolf Eichmann, chief implementer of the Final Solution, between May 11 and May 20, 1960, respectively the date Eichmann was seized in Buenos Aires by agents of Mossad and the date he was spirited out of the country to Israel on an El Al flight that had come ostensibly to take home a delegation of Israeli diplomats honoring the 150th anniversary of Argentinian independence. The primary source is the memoir Eichmann In My Hands, by Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein (1990). Malkin was, at least on the evidence of the play, the primary interrogator though not the planner, and, on that same evidence, the man who persuaded Eichmann to sign a paper submitting himself to trial in Israel. The paper later became central to the Israel’s claim, in the face of widespread international outrage at the kidnaping, that the proceedings were legitimate.

Wiener’s model seems to have been Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon. It follows two historical individuals in a protracted duel of words in which the roles of quarry and game become jumbled. In both plays, even though what the world at large would deem a clear winner and a clear loser emerge, there remain senses in which the personae have switched. (In this regard, there are also echoes of the mano-a-mano of Hannibal and Clarice in Silence of the Lambs.) The title Captors is nicely ambiguous, since Eichmann’s unspeakableness looms over his nominal captor, Malkin, and commandeers his imagination in a way that suggests that in some obscure way Eichmann has the upper hand.

This Eichmann (Philip Goodwin) is not the silky monster television viewers of a certain age may recall Milton Johns portraying in 1988’s miniseries of Herman Wouk’s War and Remembrance. This Eichmann is a frightened fugitive run to ground. Even when he acknowledges his identity, he is evasive, nearly impossible to pin down.

Yet Malkin (Joey Collins) needs two things from him, and in the end secures both. One is the previously-mentioned written submission to the Israeli court’s jurisdiction. The other is the secret of what made him tick. The secret to getting Eichmann to surrender both is to allow him to talk. Like Peter Morgan’s Nixon, Wiener’s Eichmann has things he is actually bursting to share. In Nixon’s case, it’s the self-vindicating theory that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. In Eichmann’s, it is the religion he has made of following orders. He tells Malkin because he is made to think – and it may be true – that: “We — you and I and those of similar… yes? — we understand, value, heed orders…” And there is a way to do it: “It was extremely arduous work, requiring an extremely rigorous sense of responsibility. Few could have done it as I did. Proper, always proper.”

So in the end, Wiener’s Eichmann is somewhat different from the essence of Arendtian banality. In his world-view, even years after the fact, he remains a hero. What brings him down may be a failure of imagination in one direction (he cannot admit and seemingly cannot grasp the horror of liquidating one set of children while nurturing his own, and he cannot quite see how he is being seduced by Malkin), but in another sense his whole life has been an exercise in imagination, a self-apotheosis as a hero of military obedience to orders. He finally agrees to cooperate with his captors because he wants the world to appreciate him, and to bring that about, he must stand trial. And when he has his trial, this is a kind of success for one who chafed at living in the shadows. Malkin says, looking back:

Yes, we bought him to justice, and he died for his sins. Which is what I wanted. But he escaped anonymity, found his place in history. Became… bigger. Which, as you say, is what he wanted. So maybe that’s why he thanked me. I don’t know.

This is a bit more nuanced a psychological portrait than Hannah Arendt’s. Yet I’m not sure that Herman Wouk did not have the better of it, both historically and dramatically. Wiener gives us an Eichmann without overt anti-Semitism, with barely a trace of monstrosity. When Malkin points out that all that distinguished the children in his own family wiped out by the Holocaust from Eichmann’s children was that the former were Jewish, Eichmann skates right past it. He sees it, but his reaction is not hatred, only lack of empathy.


My sister’s boy… He was blonde, blue-eyed. Like your son. Haasi. Who likes trains. (flat) You murdered him. Yes?


No. No, I told you… I never killed…


You know what I mean. Your people. (A pause.)


(common-sense, as if this explains it)

Yes. But he was Jewish, wasn’t he?

If all that drove Eichmann was an overdeveloped sense of military hierarchy and not an inner identification with the modern era’s most devastating campaign of ethnic cleansing, this is not truly banality, but as dramatically unsatisfying as if it were. As Malkin himself remarks: “There’s nothing to be gotten from him.”

I don’t buy it; while I am no Third Reich expert, I find it hard to believe that there was not something more theatrically compelling in the real Adolf Eichmann’s heart. Naturally he was not going to share it with the Jewish man who was his captor and interrogator for nine days. But there is so much observable hateful bigotry out there – read the user comments after almost any posted article on any news website and there it will be. To accept that the COO of the Final Solution was free from all that, and just motivated – even in his own mind – by nothing more than the desire to be a good soldier, takes more credulity than I can master.

That said, Wiener has rolled his dice with this approach to the subject, and to make it otherwise would not be to tweak the play, but to write a whole different one. For what it is, it is quite well done.

In a Forest, Dark and Mechanical

Neil LaBute is probably the best-known and most esteemed of the five playwrights on display at Shepherdstown this season, which makes it surprising that his contribution, In A Forest, Dark and Deep, was both the least finished and the least interesting. To say almost anything significant about it requires a spoiler alert, because unlike the preceding plays, in which the revelations and plot developments are merely in the show, and not the show themselves, that is not the case here. So the reader is hereby officially alerted, and can skip the next eight paragraphs if so desired.

In form, Forest resembles a number of noir thrillers. There is a femme fatale, a series of revelations that show us her schemes, a murder, and a patsy, whose dawning understanding of the femme fatale’s schemes comes one step behind his developing patsy-dom. But this is – at least I think it is – an attempt to use the noir format to do something slightly more ambitious.

The play takes place in a cabin in the middle of a forest in the middle of the night in the middle of a storm, and the owner of the spookily-situated cabin is a professor named Betty (Johanna Day), who has called on her ne’er-do-well brother Bobby (Joey Collins again, in a stunningly different role from Malkin) to come over and help her clean the place up. Gradually we learn, piece by piece: a) Who lived there; b) What his relationship with Betty was; c) What this means about her marriage; d) What happened to the missing resident; e) Betty’s role in what happened to him; and f) Why Betty chose Bobby to help her. For each revelation, Bobby plays detective, sorting through his sister’s lies, and forcing retraction after retraction. Ultimately he finds himself turned into an accomplice after the fact.

This sounds noir-ish all right, but it isn’t entirely, because Bobby’s involvement – helping his sister take steps to cover up the murder she committed – isn’t the usual patsydom of the sap who’s been in la fatale’s sexual thrall. He is not really trapped into it, just reluctantly willing to help, apparently because even semi-decent guys like Bobby help out their sisters.

And the killer sister is too knowable for noir. For comparison, think of Kathleen Turner’s Mattie, in Lawrence Kasdan’s classic Body Heat. We cannot miss, by the end, that she is a consummate liar and user; we do not, however, have the faintest idea what else she is. We do not know what makes her tick, or if she ever had the slightest genuine feeling for Ned, her patsy. Like Lillian Hellman as described by Mary McCarthy, every word Kasdan’s creation utters is a lie, including “and” and “the.” Betty, by contrast, finally, after lying repeatedly, does tell the truth about herself: she did what she did because she could not resign herself to the loss of youthful sexiness:

[I]t’s not so easy to give that up. For it to pass you by. And so later, you’ll do almost anything to keep it, to [be whistled at] again just once. And from whomever. Kid down at the pharmacy. Some old man getting his coffee in Dunkin’ Donuts. That’s how pathetic ya get. Shit. (BEAT) But it does pass. Yes, it does and one day you are transparent. People walk by and don’t see you, they say, “excuse me, Ma’am” and you just want to scream, you wanna grab them and shake them and yell, “I am a fucking beautiful, desirable woman” but you don’t. You don’t do anything like it because you’ve started to know, inside somewhere you’ve begun to recognize the truth. You are not that anymore. You’re just normal now and, and middle-aged and tired most of the day and everyone, from your husband on down, has begun to see right past you. Through you. As if you’re no longer even there.

It may not be profound as LaBute probably hopes, but there is a there there. It is not very noir. But this is not a good thing. Forest lacks the frisson and the scariness of noir.

And it offers little of greater artistic weight by way of recompense for not being a true genre piece. Betty is not a 21st-Century Hedda Gabler, if only because her monstrosity is not quite as believable. She is not even an instructive exemplar of the destructive banality of sexual boredom like Emma Bovary. Because she only works as a character if we believe in her, if we can see how her frustration with no longer being a sexual player could lead her to kill a younger lover who was using her. The rules of the game for this play call for us to take it quite literally: it is set in a world of shopping-cart corrals, Dunkin’ Donuts (as we have seen) and Priuses. A critical clue picked up by Bobby as he irons out his sister’s lies is the vintage of a model of Apple laptop. And in the midst of all this literal-mindedness, LaBute wants us to believe in a psychological makeup of Betty that just does not ring true.

And this contradicts the structure of the play.  It can be said that the whole movement of the play is towards a revelation of the truth. The keynote is an oft-repeated early remark by Bobby: “The truth hurts, don’t it?” Allegedly hurtful skeletons hurtle out of the closet at the rate of about one every twenty minutes. They pile up like the bodies in the final scene of a Jacobean bloodfest. There are too many of them, and their serial presentation consequently turns unintentionally comic.  Of course there’s going to be another revelation, we say to ourselves; it’s been twenty minutes since the last one. What will the playwright have dreamed of next? It becomes about plotting, not character or philosophy. And certainly, certainly, not about truth or whether it hurts.

If this were not enough, there is an utterly gratuitous secret that Bobby brings to the table, his sexual yen for his sister. It accomplishes nothing, since it has nothing to do with why he brings himself to help her with the cleanup. (It hardly makes of Betty more of a belle dame sans merci that she never played along with Bobby’s forbidden yearnings, and from a plot standpoint there is no indication she was ever aware of them before.) And, as noted, the play already features too many secrets.

Unlike Captors, Forest looks unfinished enough so a major rewrite would seem possible. My own suggestion: Choose a direction, either noir or tragedy, and go with it. If it’s noir, don’t try to humanize Betty or explain her; instead, unleash the inner monster in her. If it’s tragedy, don’t have Bobby helping out with the cleanup. We need to see him condemning the sin if not the sinner, and, as the audience’s proxy, calling a halt to the madness, like the Prince at the end of Romeo and Juliet, even if the sister then turns on him and kills him too.

Secrets and Small Casts

Based on these five plays, at least, at least a couple of generalizations seem to suggest themselves about the state of contemporary American playwrighting.

First, there is a huge tendency to rely on the gradual revelation of big secrets, leading one to wonder whether playwriting classes today are all teaching their students to do exactly the same thing. Almost all of the action of Forest, Gidion’s Knot, and Barcelona consists of a sort of Dance of the Seven Veils, in which things known to one or both of the principals are pulled out of the shadows, one by one. The sharing and acknowledging of secrets seems to be the entire contents of Forest, the surmounting of them the challenge the characters successfully meet in Barcelona (in the last ten minutes, after the dropping of the veils for the first eighty), and making peace with them is at least arguably the subject of Gidion’s Knot.

To a modern theatergoer, this is commonplace enough that it does not seem remarkable until one is confronted with it repeatedly. Making the revelation of deep, dark secrets the heart of the play seems to have come into vogue around the time that psychoanalysis was placing a similar emphasis upon excavating them, and that emphasis leaked out into the plays of dramatists like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

But at mid-century, there was still a difference. With Miller and Williams, the secrets tended to be both Freudian and one-and-done. Someone’s yielding to avarice had resulted in irreparable damage (think All My Sons) or someone’s sexual hysteria had driven her into a dreamworld (Streetcar). The nature of these secrets was such that, even when they came out, there would be nothing to do about them. They would explain, perhaps, how bad things came to be so bad, and maybe the recognition would seal someone’s doom. But you don’t need many secrets of this type to make a play.

Modern plays, however, are written from a different era in popular psychology, let us call it the Dr. Phil era. At this juncture, confronting our secrets is seen in certain circles as the ultimate cure for whatever psychologically ails us, a form of motion from one place to another, probably better one.  So getting everything, each and every secret, out on the table, and dealing with the herd of elephants that may share the room with us, mostly by screaming and then hugging, seems like the way to make progress towards mental health and happier lives.

There is little Dr. Phil-ish about these three secrets-based plays, I grant, but in them unveiling of secrets still is viewed as transformative, and not merely revelatory.  To appreciate how strange this is in the history of Western theater, one need only compare the role of secrets in, say, the works of Shakespeare. There few secrets have any importance unless the audience is in on them from the start, be it the malevolent motives of Iago or Richard III, the secret gender of Rosalind or Portia, or the fact that Polonius is hiding behind the arras.  The characters may be in the dark, but the audience is not. Surprises stem from character, and do not for the most part illuminate it.

Today’s theater, however, is such that any reasonably percipient audience member is going to be picking up quickly on the tiny signals that something is wrong, something has been left unsaid, there is some hidden agenda, and that all will doubtless be revealed in due course. This trope is becoming overworked, and modern playwrights need to lay off it for a while.

The other thing that stands out in all of these selections is the extremely small casts. This obviously reflects a realistic response by contemporary playwrights to the economics of getting a play produced, and hence of earning royalties. This economic compulsion drives playwrights to a lot of skills and strategies one can admire – for instance figuring out ways to describe absent figures and their activities so vividly they seem as present as if shown onstage, doubling (so that an actor plays more than one role), or making the very absence of a character a driving force of the action (as in Forest and Gidion’s Knot). But it can leave audiences feeling a bit claustrophobic, particularly if presented repeatedly. Three of these plays deployed only two actors, and the other two only four and five.  And I can say that by the end of the process, I was grateful for the plays with the larger casts, and fighting an unconscious feeling at moments that I was stuck in an endless loop of No Exit.

Fortunately, the larger feeling I got was that contemporary American playwriting is a wondrous, dynamic thing, and that the new ecosystem, featuring rolling premieres at places like Shepherdstown is a very good way to capture playwriting lightning in a bottle, and to help it flash its brightest when it finally strikes earth in New York.