April 10, 2003



Shock of the New


Hunkering down at Humana, the nation's premier world-premiere showcase.


by Rob Kendt


"Theatre 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.


Last 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.


Named 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?

Or, as Masterson put it to me, this artistic direction may simply reflect the theatrical times--as, he explained, Humana has always done.


"By 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."


Looking 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."


If 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."


The 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 Menagerie. 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.


It 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.


Magic Realism

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.


The 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 Gatherum, 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.


The 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.


More real-time naturalistic is Bridget Carpenter's sharp, corrosive The Faculty Room, 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.


Kia 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.


The "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 Anthem.


The 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.


There are worse ways for theatre folks to spend a long weekend.