Hunkering down at Humana, the nation's premier
is a ritual reaffirmation or self-examination of our cultural values" is
not a conversation starter you hear in many bars; nor is it common to see a
playwright juggling pins in a theatre lobby. But disarming scenes are to be
expected at the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival, where perhaps
the strangest spectacle of all is an overflowing international crowd of press,
theatre pros, alumni, locals, and just-plain theatre junkies who descend on a
city block of this courtly, urbane Kentucky city to binge on eight programs of
nothing but new plays by living American writers.
week they spilled into Encore, the downstairs restaurant/bar, to argue about
what they'd just seen, postulate theatrical theorems, or talk about the war;
they clustered in lobbies and stairwells to hear slam poets deliver short,
intense bursts of word jazz; they caught playwright Russell Davis and performer
Jon Held rehearsing some of the juggling that figures into Davis' opaque new
play The Second Death of Priscilla, among the fare at last week's 27th annual
fest. And whether they loved or hated the plays--there was a striking lack of
consensus, except that Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck's
topical dinner-party discourse Omnium Gatherum was the festival's
must-see--audiences seemed to lap up this heady cocktail of schmooze, gossip,
playgoing, and Southern hospitality.
for the health-services foundation that has generously supported the festival
since 1977, Humana has been waggishly compared to the town's other spring
tourist attraction, the Kentucky Derby, and certainly, like the Derby, the Humana
Fest also showcases Louisville's warmly welcoming sense of occasion. But it's
really more like the theatre world equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival: a
place where new works receive high-profile premieres on their artistic merits,
and the marketplace--in this case, playwrights, publishers, theatre companies,
and funding organizations--takes notice. And while Sundance may be habitually
rapped these days for letting commerce drive its programming rather than the
other way around, the Humana Fest stubbornly retains the artistic independence
that has given it its unique influence. Indeed, under its new artistic
director, Marc Masterson, who succeeded festival founder and all-around
lightning rod Jon Jory in 2000, one might argue that Humana is taking an
aesthetic course that's overly rarefied and non-commercial--favoring plays with
supernatural layers, idiosyncratic perspectives, and knotty language over
slick, New York-bound confections.
Lead or Follow?
as Masterson put it to me, this artistic direction may simply reflect the
theatrical times--as, he explained, Humana has always done.
its nature, the festival is changing every year," said Masterson, a
congenial, diffident-seeming man with a kind, smiling face and wide eyes that
alternately express wariness, determination, curiosity, consideration.
"It's always been responsive to what's in the field more than to my
personal stamp, or Jon's personal stamp."
back over the impressive roster of 27 festivals, Masterson said one can trace
trends in American theatre: in the 1980s, for instance, social issue dramas
like Getting Out and Talking With. While social and political plays are still a
part of the Humana diet--this year's Slide Glide the Slippery Slope addresses cloning and
genetic engineering, Omnium Gatherum tackles the post-9/11 zeitgeist head-on--the
trend of more recent years has been, Masterson said, toward plays that are
"inherently theatrical, which means a lot of different things to different
people, but to me means an awareness of the form, and how it's different from
TV and film."
Humana appears to lead as much as follow such trends, Masterson chalks that up
to the Actors Theatre's essential strategy. "This institution decided long
ago that the best way to develop new plays is to produce them fully," said
Masterson, contrasting this approach with the workshop/reading model of most
play-development programs. "It's brilliant, it's so simple, and I have no
interest in changing that."
fantastically compressed schedule--the festival announces its picks in November
for the following March, casts quickly in January, then puts up its half-dozen
full-lengths and various other shorts with a month of rehearsal or less--cuts
no corners in production values, mounting the plays in three state-of-the-art
venues and in various non-traditional spaces. It's a considerable production
feat, essentially cramming a whole subscription season into a month, and it
takes some adjustment of expectations, both for its makers and for audiences:
Forget the comfort of tried-and-true classics or proven critical hits, this is
all new work, all the time. One director confessed to me that after the
uncertain and exhausting process of taking a new play out on a limb, often with
the playwright in the room, she guiltily longed to direct The Glass
And I'll confess a similarly queasy feeling, an occasional gut resistance, to
confronting such a wide load of unfiltered new theatre, like continually
entering rooms full of total strangers.
may simply be that audiences, critics, and artists are so unused to the often
thankless challenges and fleeting rewards of doing all-new work that they don't
know exactly how to respond to it. Still, after a few days of this
total-immersion approach, I'll say it's a habit that started to grow on me. For
critics like myself who routinely lament the dearth of exciting new American
plays, and of major theatres willing to take a chance on living writers, Humana
Fest can sometimes have a cautionary, be-careful-what-you-wish-for feeling. By
the end of the whirlwind, though, I would qualify that lesson: Be careful what
you wish for, you may just get hooked.
If this year's crop of new plays had one thing in common,
more or less, it was a kind of tweaked realism, a supernaturalism, if you will.
Most had a straightforward, accessible premise or setting, layered to varying
degrees with the unreal, the dubious, the metaphysical. Dei ex machina got a workout,
in other words.
festival's topical, crowd-pleasing centerpiece, in the exquisite in-the-round
Pamela Brown Theatre, was Gersten-Vassilaros and Rebeck's long one-act Omnium
staged winningly by Will Frears around a slowly rotating dinner table, as eight
guests representing diverse points of view discuss the world and its
discontents. Within the context of a basically idealized "ultimate dinner
party," the playwrights have a lot of fun and strike convincing sparks,
giving a pulse and sharp human shadings to characters who could have been
two-dimensional speechmakers. Ultimately it's not as bold or tough-minded as I
would have liked--unsurprisingly the moderate Arab and the New York firefighter
come off best--but it's as satisfying, involving, and articulate a play about
the world's political situation as I've seen, as if Wallace Shawn's The Fever
had added seven more characters.
production that most successfully navigated the real/unreal continuum was a
play that addresses it explicitly: Rinne Groff's sleek, sexy Orange Lemon
Egg Canary (A Trick in Four Acts), about a magician and his female assistants.
With the setup of a slight, formulaic plot, Groff--abetted here by director
Michael Sexton and a sinuous cast--pulls a theatrical sleight of hand that's no
less enjoyable for its being teasingly obvious, no less thrilling for showing
us the seams. It's also almost sinfully funny and spectacular.
real-time naturalistic is Bridget Carpenter's sharp, corrosive The Faculty
though it, too, is shot through with a melancholy strain of woozy apocalypse.
The stars here were Paul Brown's grim, ugly set and a quartet of fiercely
detailed actors--Michael Laurence, Rebecca Wisocky, Greg McFadden, and William
McNulty as teachers at a Middle American school not far, in spirit at least,
from Columbine High. In its free-flowing venom and blase assumption of the
worst, it reminded me of Eric Bogosian's subUrbia, though it's ultimately
a tighter, less sentimental play.
Corthron's Slide Glide the Slippery Slope (slated for the Taper, Too in June) is
an ambitious mess ostensibly about the ethics of cloning, adoption, and genetic
engineering; Valerie Curtis-Newton's plodding, overly literal direction did the
play's baffling tonal shifts no favors. The festival's most divisive,
love-it-or-hate-it offering, Russell Davis' Second Death of Priscilla, has no realistic
reference points at all, operating instead on its own impenetrable internal
logic; under Masterson's stylish direction it managed some haunting moments
worthy of David Lynch, but for me it played like two hours of leaden,
portentous whimsy--a language play without the language. And Timothy Douglas'
straight-faced production of Quincy Long's "play with music," The
Lively Lad, worked as a kind of elaborate put-on melodrama, though by the
end I still wasn't sure of the satirical targets.
"grouped" shows, an anthology called Trepidation Nation featuring 16
playwrights' takes on the theme of fear or phobia and a trio of Ten-Minute
Plays (by Dan Dietz, Lee Blessing, and Jordan Harrison), showcased the breadth
of Humana's tastes and talents. For Trepidation, director Wendy
McClellan got fine, shaded work from 22 ATL apprentices--youngsters who learn
by doing through a year's service and training at ATL--with standout work in
pieces by Richard Dresser, Glen Berger, Bridget Carpenter, Sheila Callaghan,
and Gina Ginofriddo. And among the invariably funny, pleasing 10-minute plays,
I most admired Jennifer Hubbard's circumspect mounting of Dietz's jokey Trash
hip-hop poets of Rhymicity, who did their thing in the lobby pre- and
post-show, were also festival favorites, though I was only able to catch a few
of Regie Cabico's dishy, diverting arias. I must have been otherwise occupied
when the others--including Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk star reg e.
gaines--were holding forth. Most likely I was down at the Encore bar, arguing
about plays and politics with colleagues, friends, and acquaintances before
heading off to the next show.
are worse ways for theatre folks to spend a long weekend.