Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival 2023
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's recent reviews of Cambodian Rock Band and Fela!

The Contemporary American Theater Festival, based at Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, is welcoming its new artistic director, Peggy McKowen, with a season comprising five world premiere plays at three venues on the university campus and the historic Shepherdstown Opera House downtown. Here is a brief overview of the productions.

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction) is a cleverly twisted drama that traces the connections among three longtime friends: Zachary (Tim Decker), a doctor; Miller (Stef Tovar), a musician with whom Zachary performed in a band in college; and Adele (Marika Engelhardt), a scientist who met both men in their performing days. Playwright Jeffrey Lieber focuses on the concept of secrets: who keeps them, who knows about them, and what happens when another person discovers them. Director Susan V. Booth keeps the tension high on Misha Kachman's elaborately detailed mountain cabin set.

Your Name Means Dream, written and directed by José Rivera, radiates warmth within its slightly science-fictional premise. It follows the growing relationship, sometime in the near future, between aging widow Aislin (Anne O'Sullivan) and Stacy (Sara Koviak), an automaton programmed to learn Aislin's needs and meet them. While prickly Aislin first dismisses Stacy as "a million-dollar robotic Barbie," the characters develop far beyond their initial comic odd-couple interactions to form a genuine bond. O'Sullivan inhabits her character with its frustration, anger, and ultimate affection, while Koviak conveys Stacy's uncanny ability to become whatever she needs to be, at times taking on the persona of Aislin's unseen son during his phone calls to his mother.

The Overview Effect, on the other hand, tries to cover too much ground and just becomes frustrating to watch; the best part of the production is Jesse Dreikosen's scenic design, which encompasses scaffolding, smoothly uneven patches of floor, and open space to represent numerous settings. Lynn Rosen's play concerns two tech billionaires (unkempt Triney Sandoval and buttoned-up Chris Thorn) fighting to be the first to send humans to Mars. Meanwhile, reporter Dylan (Sofia Jean Gomez) is researching an article on the catastrophic failure of a preliminary shot at the Mars goal. Director Courtney Sale does her best to integrate several largely extraneous characters, including former wives, voice-over artists, and even a pizza delivery man.

Redeemed, a gripping two-character play by Chisa Hutchinson, brings a Chinese American woman (Elizabeth Sun) together in a prison meeting room with the man (Doug Harris) serving time for killing her brother. Director marcus d. harvey enhances the growing tension by placing the two of them on a turntable, the main feature of David M. Barber's scenic design; as the perspectives clash and shift, so does the way the audience sees the actors. Sun and Harris are both magnetic to watch, as individuals and in verbal combat.

Spiritus/Virgil's Dance, written and performed by Dael Orlandersmith, is an impressionistic piece that integrates dance with spoken arias to follow one person's experience of life, love, aging, and dealing with death. Takeshi Kata's scenic design and Mary Louise Geiger's lighting design evoke locations from the character's lived experience: Virgil's childhood living room, the sound booth where Virgil worked as a disc jockey, the subway tunnels when Virgil travels between locations, and eventually the place where Virgil comes to understand that lives may end but the essence of a person does not.

The Contemporary American Theater Festival runs through July 30, 2023, at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown WV. For tickets and schedule information, please call 681-240-2283 or visit

Fever Dreams (of Animals on the Verge of Extinction)
By Jeffrey Lieber
Directed by Susan V. Booth
At the Shepherdstown Opera House
Adele: Marika Engelhardt
Zachary: Tim Decker
Miller: Stef Tovar

Your Name Means Dream
By José Rivera
Directed by José Rivera
At the Marinoff Theater
Stacy: Sara Koviak
Aislin: Anne O'Sullivan

The Overview Effect
By Lynn Rosen
Directed by Courtney Sale
At the Frank Center Theater
Dylan Marks: Sofia Jean Gomez
Ryker Nielsen: Triney Sandoval
Jim Jefferson: Chris Thorn
Layla Nielsen: Ellis Greer
Barb Czajkowski: Milicent Wright
Tanner Nielsen: Seth Clayton
Pizza Guy/Walt: Julian Remulla
Sandy & Kid: Emily Kratter

By Chisa Hutchinson
Directed by marcus d. harvey
At the Marinoff Theater
Claire Yiang: Elizabeth Sun
Trevor Barlow: Doug Harris

Spiritus/Virgil's Dance
By Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Neel Keeler
At Studio 112
Virgil: Dael Orlandersmith