On March 28 and 29 I traveled to Louisville for the 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Over the years — I’ve now attended 11 festivals — I’ve come to expect a high level of professionalism from the Humana Festival, but also a certain category of play that seems intriguing in the moment but which fades fairly quickly. There’s a tendency among some playwrights to create works that are so in the moment that they lack lasting power; in 2008, there seemed to be less of that, although there were a few prominent exceptions.
Here are my observations on the shows I saw, starting with five full-length plays:
Great Falls by Lee Blessing was the script I enjoyed the most. It’s the story of a former stepfather and his one-time stepdaughter, about five years after he and her mother were divorced. He still has issues he wants to address; she doesn’t want to hear about them, but she agrees to go with him for a car ride that turns into a road trip across the Great Plains and on to the mountains of Montana and Wyoming. The show was well cast: Tom Nelis played the flawed but earnest adult, and Halley Wegryn Gross was the full-of-attitude almost adult (the character is one week shy of 18), and their story felt very real to me as a onetime stepfather. He has regrets about the way he split with her mother; she is resentful about almost everything. But it turns out she needs his help: She’s pregnant and needs an adult to accompany her to an abortion clinic. There is some very human humor and poignant drama in this script that I found most appealing. Great Falls reminded me and others of the recent film Juno, although Blessing’s humor is not so overt and Great Falls’ conclusion is much more ambivalent. (Blessing’s work has appeared at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati on several occasions, and this would be a good work for that theater to consider for a future season.)
(Halley Wegryn Gross (left) and Tom Nelis in Great Falls.)
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo displayed the same verbal wit that characterized After Ashley, another Humana script by the same writer in 2006. (That play was produced locally in Cincinnati by Know Theatre in 2007.) Becky Shaw, played by Annie Parisse, is a catalyst character; she’s hardly present in the show’s first act, which is dominated by a thirtysomething woman (Mia Barron) and her sardonic adoptive brother (David Wilson Barnes, playing the role that everyone in attendance seemed to agree was the best performance of the festival). He’s a cold-hearted manipulator who’s found success as a financial advisor, but the odd Becky — who first appears over-dressed and wearing too much makeup for a casual fixed-up date — proves to be his match in a feckless way. Is she as manipulative as he is, or does she simply have a way of getting under people’s skin? The show evoked the biggest laughs from audiences, but I missed having one character I could really care about. Nonetheless, Gionfriddo is a formidable writer, and I suspect this show will find an audience in New York and elsewhere.
((L-R) Davis Duffield, Annie Parisse and Mia Barron star in Becky Shaw.)
Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom by Jennifer Haley was the show I expected to hate, premised on teens and video games, to the point of visually creating a game environment onstage. It used just four actors — John Leonard Tompson and Kate Hampton played a collection of parents and other adults, while Robin Lord Taylor and Reyna de Courcy were various teens caught up in an engrossing and violent gaming world premised on the neighborhood in which they lived. The sinister threat of games to erase the boundary between reality and fantasy was the play’s driving force, but it was cleverly written in a way that also offered a world in which there actually isn’t much difference between a suburban neighborhood and a world populated by zombies. The show had some very clever moments and a riveting pace, but it turned so melodramatic and violent at the end — I suppose that was part of the point — that it lost my admiration. Still, it demonstrated to me that a play that’s super timely can still have a message that’s meaningful.
(Robin Lord Taylor (left) and Kate Hampton in Neighborhood 3.)
the break/s by Marc Bamuthi Joseph is a one-man performance piece about his personal evolution through the world and ethos of Hip Hop. “Bamuthi,” as he calls himself, performed the piece with DJ Excess and percussionist Tommy Shepherd aka Soulati. He’s a great dancer, and he used his voice and his physical presence to tell an interesting personal story about finding himself through music and culture. The show also used pre-recorded video of people commenting on various themes and issues that arose; they were so over-amplified as to be impossible to understand, so their presence seemed somewhat useless. But when Bamuthi used silence and his eloquent voice to tell stories about his own evolution, including several very amusing anecdotes, this piece became very engaging.
(DJ Excess and Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the break/s)
This Beautiful City by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis featured music and lyrics by Michael Friedman. It’s a collaborative piece about Evangelical America, assembled by interviews conducted by The Civilians, a group of New York theater artists who traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., to create a portrait of contemporary religious values. Their visit to Colorado in 2006 happened to coincide with the fall of minister Ted Haggard, the founder of a 17,000-member mega-church, New Life Church — he was revealed to have spent time with a male prostitute and done drugs. The script reflects many perspectives, but I found it rather tedious and obvious and too rooted in a particular moment in time. The music, modeled on the kind of New Age Pop that seems to be stock-in-trade at these hip places of worship was bland and uninformative. Nevertheless, the cast had some fine performers who excelled at playing multiple roles.
My schedule did not afford me time to see the sixth full-length Humana play for 2008, All Hail Hurricane Gordo by Carly Mensch.
As it does annually, the festival commissioned a set of playwrights to write short scenes to be performed by the intern company at Actors Theatre in two performances, one late on Friday evening and another at 10 a.m. on Sunday. There’s always a theme — this year it was sports, and the work was called Game On. (This year’s creators were Zakiyyah Alexander, Rolin Jones, Alice Tuan, Daryl Watson, Marisa Weigrzyn and Ken Weitzman, plus composer Jon Spurney.) The 90-minute showcase how felt very miscellaneous, but it was rendered with a lot of energy and good humor. Most of the work felt like audition material for Saturday Night Live: I was especially amused by two ultimate athletes who eventually snowboarded with other performers running by them with slalom gates and tree branches to simulate downhill action; in another funny piece, three young women played a set of 10-year-olds who terrorized the playground with their dominance of a tetherball game (their devices included extortion and pepper spray).
One of the calling cards of the Humana Festival are 10-minute plays that are rounded up into a set for a Saturday evening performance. In Paris You Will Find Many Baguettes But Only One True Love by Michael Lew was a little comedy about two young women and a mime in Paris, a bit too predictable, but eventually charming. In One Short Sleepe by Naomi Wallace was the one serious piece, in which a young Lebanese student digs a grave and spins a web of connections between his own observations, what his sister saw and a war that has threatened both of them. Dead Right by Elaine Jarvik featured Dori Legg and veteran actor William McNulty (he’s also performed in Cincinnati for both the Playhouse and Ensemble Theatre) as a long-married couple who fall into a funny argument after reading the obituary of an acquaintance; the piece felt natural and real, but with a kind of warm humor that was very pleasant. Finally, Tongue, Tied by M. Thomas Cooper was a hilarious fantasy about two people (Emily Ackerman and Stephen Plunkett, from the cast of This Beautiful City) with sock puppets on each hand, adding four more oddball characters to their two-person encounter. The script was funny and the actors quite adroitly shifted from character to character.
(All photos by Harlan Taylor)
— Rick Pender