- Messy and Tidy
It is tempting to pass off one’s impressions of this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, as a take on the Current State of the American Play. But they aren’t. When you compare this season to past seasons, two of which (2012 and 2014) have been discussed in these pages, it’s clear that CATF changes each year. Artistic trends change, too, but not that quickly. In reality, those differences are just results of the new golden age of American playwriting in which we live. With golden ages, you get lots of talent and lots of diverse work. And that’s the only generalization I care to offer this year.
No racial diversity this time around, though. I remarked, a year ago, on how the Festival had featured three black playwrights among the five showcased, and on the large number of African American performers. This year, all the plays were by white authors, and there were no African American performers at all. This had the secondary effect of taking race completely out of the thematic interplay among the works on display.
But that left plenty else: mental illness, creativity, repression, rebellion, the twisted bond of parent and child, extreme fashion, and the nature and durability of marriage. And we had a wide range of genres and emotional temperatures. Not quite the range of the players in Hamlet (“tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral” etc.) but close.
Two of the shows were about artists—of sorts.
One concerned artists of the imagination. This was Johnna Adams’s World Builders: A Love Story. Adams is hardly the first playwright to experience at firsthand the connection between mental illness and creativity. She acknowledges her bipolar disorder but says she would not have had a playwriting career without it. She is hardly alone; O’Neill, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Williams were all bipolar. Nor is she the first to suggest that madness may be inspirational to an artist. DeQuincey, Poe, and Coleridge, among others, have drawn that connection. But surely few have painted the connection in quite the bright colors that World Builders does.
Both the characters in World Builders, Whitney (Brenna Palughi) and Max (Chris Thorn), have been distracted by their disorder from the real world and the actual human connections available to them with friends and family, and obsess instead about imaginary worlds of their own making. Whitney’s world is a dynamic, bustling science fiction epic with, as she brags, “seven colony worlds that Earth’s survivors fled to,” which now contain “seventy-two alien-human hybrid races.” Her fantasy embraces “forty-seven major characters and one hundred and thirty minor characters.” In particular, she revels in the love story of Mikor and Selestina, a prince and princess who meet when his pirate flagship encounters her intergalactic space yacht. In other words, in her mind Whitney is helming a fictive universe even more complex than that of Game of Thrones (a comparison Adams herself draws in an interview in the program), though it seems a happier and more swashbuckling place than Westeros. [End Page 124]
Max’s fantasy world is quite different and far more ominous, clearly owing much to the disturbing material of Silence of the Lambs.
But their worlds, however artistic and creative, are also places of some danger, because for their creators they have supplanted the real world, to the point where mere human contact is of next to no interest to either of them. Hence their families have forced them into a locked ward at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where they are on a controlled trial of a medicine that will rid them of, in Whitney’s words: “[O]ur schizoid personality disorders. Anti-social tendencies. Brief reactive psychoses. Autoerotic fixations. Dissociative and narcissistic behavior.”
The trouble is, the medicine is working, simultaneously freeing them up to fall in love and sundering them from their fantasy worlds. Thus the second half of the (intermissionless) play is taken up with a number of questions that boil down to comparing the value of a sane life with love but without creativity and an insane...