April 17, 2003 


THE WICKED STAGE and the gag reel


by Rob Kendt


I finally put two and two together: I've got relatives in Louisville, Ky., whom I've never visited, and there's that annual new-play orgy every spring, the Humana Festival, at Actors Theatre of Louisville, to which I've sent correspondents in the past (mostly Jennie Webb--and when I say "sent," I mean I paid for a story from someone who was already making the trip on someone else's dime). My visit, then, was doubly overdue. I found a warm welcome, not only from my relatives but from ATL's new apprentice-and-intern director, Wendy McClellan, whom I knew only vaguely when she was here in Los Angeles, working for Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theatre and directing such fare as Antigone. Tertiary. Sexxx. (which I saw and admired) and Steel: John Henry & the Shaker (which I didn't see). A newcomer to Louisville who lives in a charming old house near Butchertown with a lovable mutt named Joe, Wendy gave me--and her house guest, Long Beach-based sound designer extraordinaire John Zalewski--the lowdown on the town and ATL. No dirt, mind you; while she admitted that she often misses L.A. (especially the Mexican food), she seems to be both inspired and productively challenged by her work at ATL, which requires her to manage a company of 22 unpaid acting apprentices and interns throughout the fall-to-spring season. For the festival, she directed the young apprentices in an anthology show called Trepidation Nation, for which 15 hotshot playwrights, from Glen Berger to Bridget Carpenter, wrote short pieces on the theme of phobias; the piece held its own with the full-length, professional-cast programs, all the more impressive given the range of the playwrights' tones, voices, and styles.


I was pleasantly surprised to see that Shannon Holt--an L.A. actress whose work I enjoyed with Empire Red Lip (in Murray Mednick's Tirade for Three) and in Michael Sargent's Washington Confidential (I missed his other "porn" plays with her)--was starring in Humana's production of Quincy Long's The Lively Lad as the strait-laced Miss McCracken. Holt will stay in town after the festival to star in ATL's revival of Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart (which premiered at Humana back in 1979). I also ran into Joe Haj, an actor/director from L.A. whom I saw in Peter Sellars' The Persians at the Taper back in 1993 and have run into since. (I heard great things about his post-9/11 workshop of Ionesco's The Bald Soprano with the Classical Theatre Lab.)


Among the many well-known actors who've worked at Humana are Julianne Moore and Kathy Bates; neither were based in L.A. when they worked in Louisville, and indeed it's quite rare to see L.A.-based actors there. ATL's Zan Sawyer-Dailey, who heads up the Humana Festival's compressed casting process, told me that while she knows there's a wide and deep acting talent pool in L.A., she casts for Humana almost exclusively out of New York (using such CDs as Jerry Beaver and the Orpheus Group), not only because of the distance to Louisville but also because L.A. actors' ambition--especially during pilot season--tends not to be to work in regional theatre for a few months. Holt was there because playwright Long, a friend of hers, wrote the part of Miss McCracken for her and recommended she be hired. Holt also turned in a definitive bit as a horridly pretentious dance critic in Jordan Harrison's light 10-minute play Fit for Feet. Other Angelenos I hooked up with, unexpectedly, were TV writers Meredith Stiehm (who did some tours of duty on Beverly Hills 90210 and ER) and Tom Smuts (The Guardian), who treated me and Alabama Shakespeare Festival's urbane artistic director Kent Thompson to dinner at D. Marie, a nautical-themed restaurant that rotates scenically over the Ohio River.


The Iraq war wasn't on many lips--I did see more flags on lawns than one does here in L.A., along with the over-reaching exhortation, "Support President Bush and Our Troops"--but it did bubble up at the edges of conversations. Zalewski and I debated whether we're all about to enter the Fourth Reich, American-style. And Douglas Langworthy, the literary director from Oregon Shakespeare Festival, upon hearing about a small play-publishing house closing down (I didn't catch the name, but it apparently folded immediately after printing Berger's Underneath the Lintel), said to a colleague, "I told you, this war is bad for the theatre."


Critics were crawling all over Humana, as could be expected in such a hospitable tourist town, and at a theatre with press comps in the offing. At the Saturday night performance of the 10-minute plays, the American Theatre Critics Association presented its annual play awards, underwritten generously by the Mimi Steinberg Memorial Trust and specifically recognizing premieres outside of New York City. The $15,000 first-prize winner was Nilo Cruz, for Anna in the Tropics--a commendation that was almost lost in the shuffle of the next Monday's news that he'd won the Pulitzer for same. I guiltily enjoyed one moment when ATCA vice chair Rick Pender, presenting a $5,000 runner-up award to Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues, said that the playwright is "well known for his plays Death of a Salesman and All My Children." Pender quickly corrected himself. The other runner-up was Craig Wright's topical comedy Recent Tragic Events.


I also ran into Michael Phillips, now at the Chicago Tribune; he seemed as baffled as I why the L.A. Times hasn't hired a lead critic to replace him (he officially left the Times--let me get it right this time--in January 2002). Among the other press I saw there were Bruce Weber of the New York Times and a large Liverpudlian whose name I didn't catch but whose Uzbeki wife works for the BBC World Service, and whose attitude about Americans, particularly Kentuckians, was matter-of-factly sneering, as he opined to anyone in earshot at a press reception: "Americans are so deferential to authority--I've never understood that." (Though not, thank Christ, to British authority. Wanker.) By that point ATL artistic director Marc Masterson had already excused himself from the gaggle of press nerds; he departed at roughly the time one crank from an Indiana paper started to vent about actors incorrectly accenting the pronouns in Shakespeare. Call me compromised, but I much preferred hanging out with the actual theatre folks--like the ostentatiously gray-bearded Jeff Stone of Man Bites Dog, a theatre company from Durham, N.C. The company name sounded familiar, I said--maybe because that was the troupe that brought its well-received production of Last Train to Nibroc to Santa Monica's Powerhouse Theatre in 2001. They say the theatre profession is a small world; it's nice to know that L.A. is at least a small part of that small world.


Composer/drummer Jef Bek, late of Zoo District, had good news recently: He'd flown to Florida to meet childhood idol Evel Knievel, who picked up Bek at the airport in his white "signature edition" Ford F150 truck and drove while the two listened to the 20-minute demo of a new rock opera Bek has been writing about the 1970s motorcycle stunt star. It was a meeting Bek had been trying to set up for a long time, and he admitted that the experience of meeting an icon, and having the icon listen to a score about him in his car stereo, gave him a bit of a headache. The headache went away when it turned out that Knievel likes the material, enough to sign a letter of exclusivity about the project and open up to Bek about his storied life. "He's in a lot of pain," said Bek of Knievel, who's broken most of the bones in his body, including his back, more than once. "But his spirit is so strong." Bek hopes to mount a workshop this coming fall, with a full opening in mind for next spring in--where else?--Vegas.


And the lead singer on Bek's demo? The ubiquitous, polymathic choreographer/actor/director/Renaissance Man Ken Roht, doing his best Bowie wail. Incidentally, Roht's next piece, He Pounces, to open May 4 at Evidence Room, is billed as a "non-linear music theatre odyssey, exploring the nature and ramifications of the need to conquer and be conquered." No word on whether the piece will include any images of statues being pulled down.