34th Humana Festival of New American Plays

I recently spent three days in Louisville at the 34th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Actors Theatre of Louisville annually assembles a lineup of productions that offers a fascinating cross-section of contemporary American theater.

I found this year’s array to be an especially pleasing collection of works: It included two excellent comedies, a thoughtful drama, two experimental performance pieces from creative ensembles and an inventive piece to showcase interns (and a Louisville hotel/museum showplace). A bill of 10-minute plays was clever and creative, and only a musical play was a disappointment.—-

Everyone in attendance seemed to agree that the comedies, Sirens by Deborah Zoe Laufer and Phoenix by Scott Organ, will find subsequent productions. Both have small casts (which make them affordable to produce), amusing conceits and characters who audiences can relate to.

Sirens is about a “mature” couple marking their 25th wedding anniversary. The zing of their marriage left a long time ago, and Sam, an erstwhile songwriter who wooed Rose Adele with a one-hit wonder Pop tune, is struggling to recapture something that’s missing. He literally goes overboard on a cruise and washes up on a Mediterranean rock with a latter-day siren nearby. Of course it’s a fantasy, but it’s a very funny one, and the appeal to Baby Boomer audiences makes this work a likely hit.

(See a video clip from the show here: www.youtube.com/user/ActorsTheatre-p/u/7/Gv98MLL9y24.)

Phoenix gives us another couple, this one in their mid-thirties. Tightly wound free spirit Sue is a bit flighty, while dorky, domestic Bruce is oddly sensitive and just plain quirky. But a one-night stand turns out to be the catalyst for an unexpected entanglement as they follow an on-again, off-again path to an abortion clinic in Phoenix and then life beyond. It’s not what you might expect, and their “plight” is more a fact than a diatribe about contemporary values.

The mythical phoenix is a beast that rises from its own ashes, and that seems to be what happens with this couple. It’s another show that’s easy to produce with two likable characters, clever writing, a few unexpected plot twists and an ending that fits.

I’m less certain about Lis Dillman’s drama Ground, although I liked the show. It’s set in southern New Mexico and focuses on a tragedy that results from the gray issues that seep out of the black-and-white arguments over immigration. Carlos (now calling himself Carl) grew up in the town; his Anglo girlfriend Zelda moved away at age 16 when her parents divorced.

Now her dad has passed away, leaving her his struggling pecan farm, run by Chuy, a dedicated employee who feels a sense of ownership. Carlos has a job with the Border Patrol that puts him at odds with Angie his feisty wife. When these lives intersect, bad results are inevitable. Dillman’s script is a solid one and the issues can be extrapolated to other locales, but I suspect this show will not have as much afterlife as the comedies.

That could be said for Fissures (lost and found) by six writers and The Method Gun, created by The Rude Mechanicals, an experimental company from Austin, Tex. Both works were fascinating to watch, but the scripts are rooted in the work of specific ensembles. Fissures, a poetic and evocative piece about memory and perspective, could be presented by another set of actors, I suppose, but what I saw in Louisville was very much the product of Dominique Serrand (founder of Theatre de la Jeune Lune, a much admired Twin Cities company that folded in 2008, not long after earning a Tony Award as an outstanding regional theater), who appeared in the piece’s final moments.

As a work of poetry made all the more powerful by a cast that conveyed a dreamlike sense of how we recall people, places and experiences — piecemeal and fragmentary, a house we once lived in, an argument we fought, a love we lost — Fissures has lingered in my memory. The show was performed by a cast of five on a totally white set, platforms and a floor with a stairwell descending below the stage, that the actors wrote and drew on with erasable markers, leaving a “memorable” record of their specific performance that was wiped away after each time onstage.

The Method Gun (pictured) was a more manic work, very much about the world of theater, yet exploring how we are shaped by teachers, mentors and gurus. The show explores a group of actors from the 1970s involved in an avant garde production of A Streetcar Named Desire that eliminates the four major characters. The company’s director deserts them, but they continue to rehearse (for nine years!) toward a one-night performance, fanatically dedicated to what they thought Stella Burden wanted them to do.

But now it’s years later, and another group of actors is trying to learn from what the earlier company did by researching and reenacting the roles of their predecessors. So it’s like an artichoke with layers to be peeled away and explored as we try to get down to the juicy heart of the matter.

The Method Gun (the title refers to an actual gun that Burden used to heighten the actors’ sense of danger, making their performances more real) is full of zany humor (check out this video link: www.youtube.com/user/ActorsTheatre - p/u/1/WAsfAhn2Ano) — from crazed acting exercises, wild dancing and helium balloons tied to the anatomy of naked men — but also poignant moments. At the outset, audience members were asked to write down the name a teacher or mentor who had affected them; the names were collected and at the show’s end, credits were run, listing all of them. It was a simple but evocative tribute that engaged everyone present.

Every year Actors Theatre finds a way to showcase its company of roughly two dozen acting apprentices. This year it was a piece called Heist! conceived and created by director Sean Daniels and writer Deborah Stein. Staged at Louisville’s 21c Hotel (which is also an art museum), it was an Ocean’s Eleven-styled art theft that kept groups of attendees moving from gallery to gallery to see scenes that elaborated on and advanced the tale. I found it all a bit contrived, but it was an opportunity to give the young actors opportunities to show off their skills, and several of them did great comic work.

The one disappointment for me was a musical play, The Cherry Sisters Revisited by Dan O’Brien with music by Michael Friedman. Based on a real set of five untalented sisters from Iowa who tried to establish themselves as vaudeville performers in the 1890s, the work had some fine performances, especially Renata Friedman as Effie, who narrates the piece, and Donna Lynne Champlin, as pragmatic Jessie. The act was roundly unappreciated during their brief career and proved to be the object of scorn — to the point that they had to perform behind a mesh screen to protect them from being pelted by vegetables, fruit and other objects.

The play has its oddly amusing moments, but it was such a negative commentary on human cruelty that I (and others) simply didn’t enjoy it.

One of the special attractions of the Humana Festival is the annual presentation of a selection of 10-minute plays, and this year’s batch seemed especially entertaining. Let Bygones Be by Gamal Abdel Chasten blended Bluegrass, Folk and Zydeco tunes in a poetic essay about progress and its price. Post Wave Spectacular by Diana Grisanti (a Louisville native and onetime literary intern at Actors Theatre) brought together a rakish charmer’s three former girlfriends who try to convince his current interest to forsake him. Lobster Boy was a solo piece (it featured actor Trey Lyford, who played Sam in Phoenix) about a man who, as a child, played a role in his younger brother’s death, an act that had a different intention but which haunted him relentlessly.

The program’s hilarious highlight was An Examination of the Whole Playwright/Actor Relationship Presented as Some Kind of Cop Show Parody by Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Urinetown. Kotis performed the work as a beleaguered playwright who's being questioned by two actors in the vein of good cop/bad cop.

I always return to Cincinnati from the Humana Festival with a sense that theater is a place where there’s great energy to be harnessed and fascinating ideas to be brought to light. This year my gears are still turning a week later.

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