Humana Festival of New American Plays

Theaters, Actors, Etc.

Harlan Taylor

Tamilla Woodard and Palestinian actor Sami Metwasi portray journalists in Moot the Messenger in Louisville.

I spent April 1-3 at the 29th annual HUMANA FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN PLAYS, presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville. Six full-length plays, an "anthology" by a half-dozen playwrights and four 10-minute plays — it's both a marathon and a labor of love. It's especially exciting to attend the "Special Visitors" weekend, bringing together theater critics, directors, producers and others from the entertainment industry. Actors Theatre has three theater spaces, so two plays are often presented simultaneously. Sets are quickly changed during the weekend because most guests are scheduled to see anywhere from two to four productions daily. Between shows, audiences mill around in the theater's spacious lobby or grab a drink or a bite to eat in the casual bar/restaurant on the theater's lower level. Mostly they talk about the shows. Actors' Artistic Director Marc Masterson disavows any overt theme for the festival. But he acknowledged that this year's plays are more outwardly oriented, following several festivals — perhaps influenced by the tragedy of 9/11 — in which scripts were more introspective. Masterson's literary staff reads approximately 700 plays annually; they narrow the field to 150 and, with Masterson's involvement, read and discuss each work to choose the annual set of shows.

Several plays also arrive via commissions that Actors Theatre pays to playwrights — this year's production of Moot the Messenger by Kia Corthron was such a work, as was Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence, based on a true story about a jockey. But many plays are by writers whose first shot at national awareness happens at the festival. Each Humana show receives a top-notch production with an excellent cast, so you seldom wonder what a play would be like if it were well staged. That means each script can be judged on its own merits. There were no clinkers in this year's festival (although I found the satirical anthology piece, Uncle Sam's Satiric Spectacular, overlong and only sporadically funny), and perhaps no break-out pieces — in the vein of last season's After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo, currently running in New York, or Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies, which went on from the 1999 Humana Festival to a 2000 Pulitzer Prize. Nevertheless, each play had its merits and its adherents. I was most affected by Brown's witty drama about an African-American horse jockey in the 1860s and 1870s, and by Corthron's political indictment of the media's erratic coverage of the war in Iraq. If you'd like to read extended commentary about this year's Humana Festival plays, go to for additional coverage. ...

On the evening of April 2 in Louisville, as chair of the executive committee of the American Theatre Critics Association, I handed out several awards for playwriting. The Steinberg Prize of $15,000 went to Craig Lucas for Singing Forest, which premiered at Seattle's Intiman Theatre last year. Citations, each valued at $5,000, went to Gionfriddo's After Ashley (from the 28th Humana Festival) and to The Clean House by Sarah Ruhl, which originated at Yale Repertory Theatre and will be part of the Cincinnati Playhouse's 2005-2006 season. On April 4, Ruhl's play was named a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for drama. The winner of that recognition for this year is John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a tale about a priest suspected of child sexual abuse, which recently opened on Broadway. ...

If you were hoping to see the Cincinnati Playhouse's production of Steve Martin's THE UNDERPANTS, you better have your ticket already in hand. Word has it that the entire run of the show, from Thursday through May 1, is virtually sold out. Maybe a few tickets will free up when people realize that Martin is not personally appearing. The hilarious comedy, adapted from a 1911 comedy, was a hit in New York in 2002, and has been popular at several regional theaters this season. Tickets: 513-421-3888.

Rick Pender

RICK PENDER has written about theater for CityBeat since its first issues in 1994. Before that he wrote for EveryBody’s News. From 1998 to 2006 he was CityBeat’s arts & entertainment editor. Retired from a long career in public relations, he’s still a local arts fan, providing readers (and public radio listeners)...
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