Monday, April 3, 2017

THE HUMANA FESTIVAL: Report from Louisville

I have just returned from Louisville, where I attended the 41st Humana Festival of New American Plays. Every year, Actors Theatre of Louisville presents fully staged productions of six previously unseen plays. Recent plays that went on to a New York production include Lucas Hnaths' The Christians, Charles Mee’s The Glory of the World and Colman Domingo’s Dot. Another Humana play, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, will kick off Playwrights Horizons next season. 

Over the years, three plays that originated at the Festival — D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies’s Dinner with Friends — won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While none of this year’s six plays is likely to be up for a Pulitzer, two of them could well make it to New York.

Andrea Syglowski and Jessica Dickey (photo by Bill Brymer)
Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler depicts the emotional, financial and professional difficulties surrounding first-time parenthood for three Long Island mothers — Jessie (Jessica Dickey), Lina (Andrea Syglowksi) and Adrienne (Liv Rooth) — and a dad, Mitchell (Jeff Biehl). The vividly written characters are superbly brought to life by the able cast. Although it has lots of humor, it presents real problems that real people face, without judging their choices. I approached the play with low expectations, because the topic was not of particular interest to me and I had not enjoyed Metzler’s 2011 play at Manhattan Theatre Club, Close Up Space. I was pleasantly surprised when the play turned out to be an emotionally and intellectually satisfying experience. Director Davis McCallum (The Harvest, London Wall) let the play make its case without distraction. I predict that this play has a promising future.

The Cast of Airness (photo by Bill Brymer)
Airness by Chelsea Marcantel is another play with a topic — competitive air guitar — that held little interest for me. Once again I was pleasantly surprised. The characters are colorful and their air guitar routines are exhilarating. The plot, about a new female performer trying to make a breakthrough, is less than compelling, but the air guitar scenes are so vibrant that I was more than willing to overlook any plot shortcomings. Angelina Impellizzeri as Astrid “Cannibal Queen” Anderson, Nate Miller as Ed “Shreddy Eddy” Leary, Marc Pierre as Gabe “Golden Thunder” Partridge and Brian Quijada as reigning U.S. champion David “D Vicious” Cooper are standouts. Lucas Papaelias as Mark “Facebender” Lender aces his touching monologue. Marinda Anderson, in the leading role of Nina “The Nina” O’Neal, tries hard to enliven the least interesting role. Director Meredith McDonough wisely hired the current world air guitar champion, Matt Burns, as a consultant and ended up casting him as the announcer of all the regional contests. Deb O’s set design nails the seedy bar atmosphere. Kudos to movement director Jenny Koons for her fine work. The show is a real crowd pleaser that I can easily see being picked up by other companies. 

Scott Drummond and Sam Breslin Wright
(photo by Bill Brymer)
We’re Gonna Be Okay by Basil Kreimendahl is set in Middle America during the Cuban missile crisis. Two couples, each with a teenage child, live in adjoining houses. Efran (Sam Breslin Wright), the wealthier husband, tries to persuade his working class neighbor Sul (Scott Drummond) to build a bomb shelter under the border of their properties. Efran’s vivacious wife Leena (Kelly McAndrew) is opposed to the idea, but Sul’s fearful wife Mag (Annie McNamara) prevails on her husband to agree. Efran and Leena’s baseball-obsessed son Jake (Andrew Cutler) and Sul and Mag’s moody daughter Deanna (Marie Trabolsi), who can’t abide Jake,  don’t get a vote. As Act II opens, both families are living in the shelter. The stressful situation leads to changes in each character. The satire is amusing, as are the deliberate anachronisms. I was fully engaged with the play until five minutes before the end when, for me at least, it went off the rails. When the teenagers suddenlly decide to act out their sexual identity confusion, it came across to me as ludicrous. The abruptness of the ambiguous ending came as a surprise. The actors are fine and the sets by Dane Laffrey and costumes by Jessica Pabst are excellent. Lisa Peterson’s direction is assured. Were it not for the disappointment of the last five minutes, I would have left the theater quite contented. 

Alex Trow and Ben Graney (photo by Bill Brymer)
I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon-Solmon describes a wedding party that spins out of control after a sudden death during the ceremony. We meet the rabbi (Ray DeMattis), the bridal couple Adam (Ben Graney) and Nicole (Alex Trow), two bridesmaids — the inebriated Michelle (Clea Alsip) and the amiable Eva (Satomi Blair), two groomsmen — angry Dave (Jason Veasey) and hangdog Seth (Forrest Malloy), and three shrieking flower girls (Carmen Tate, Mary Charles Miller and Brylee Deuser). I should confess that I have a low tolerance for shriekers or drunkards. The dearth of sympathetic characters also presented an obstacle for me. Finally, the production provides an unfortunate example of color-blind casting backfiring. Casting a black actor to play the most obnoxious character in the play perpetuates the stereotype of the angry young black man. I hope that was not the playwright’s intent. For me, the play’s humor was not enough to compensate for its shortcomings. Stephen Brackett directed.

Jon Norman Schneider
(photo by Bill Brymer)
The most controversial offering of the Festival was Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio CortiƱas, which Actors Theatre artistic director Les Waters chose to direct. The play opens with a long monologue by a sullen Puerto Rican teenager named Alvaro (Jon Norman Schneider) during which he analyzes in great detail the 25th episode of The X-Files. He asserts that this episode was tampered with in reruns for possibly nefarious reasons. During the monologue, he repeatedly mentions his ill feelings toward his older brother Nestor. In the next scene which, according to the program, takes place 23 years later, we meet Alvaro’s family — brother Nestor (Rafael Benoit), his ailing mother Olga (Mia Katigbak), Nestor’s wife Ana (Elia Monte-Brown) and their neighbor Beba (Carmen M. Herlihy). Patria (Ronete Levenson), a woman from New York, is visiting the family to obtain their permission to publish Alvaro’s science fiction stories. We soon learn in dramatic fashion what the circumstances were that led Alvaro to seek refuge in fantasy. The long monologue and an extended scene that took place behind a closed door so it was difficult to figure out who was speaking were not to the liking of some theatergoers who left during the first two scenes. There’s also a long violent scene that made me squirm. While I admired the attempt to tell a story elliptically, I was not fully engaged. Perhaps I would have been more involved if I had been a fan of The X-Files. Perhaps not.

The Cast (photo by Bill Brymer)
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield is less a coherent play than a collage of loosely related scenes designed to showcase the talents of the 19 Acting Apprentices of the 2016-17 Professional Training Company — and to give a workout to the many trapdoors in the stage floor of the Bingham Theatre. The four playwrights who created the scenes are Jeff Augustin (Little Children Dream of God), Sarah DeLappe (The Wolves), Claire Kiechel and Ramiz Monsef. Various scenes touched on Kentucky history, the lives of inventors, racial bias, feminism, disco and an attempt to prevent the invention of the cellphone. Like most pastiches, some parts were better than others. I had the feeling that the cast was enjoying it more than the audience. The piece succeeded in showing off the versatility and elan of the young actors, so it accomplished its purpose.

An enjoyable Festival extra was a lecture by Taylor Mac on his philosophy of theater. 

While this year’s Festival offered no blockbuster hits, it provided many enjoyable moments in a variety of works, at least a couple of which seem to me good candidates for further exposure. The bottom line is that I was glad that I attended.

NOTE: I attended the Festival as a participant in a Road Scholar program that included a variety of activities that greatly enhanced the experience. We toured the three venues and costume shop, had sessions with dramaturgs of five of the plays, learned how new plays are marketed, met with the company’s media technologist, and even wrote our own 12-line plays under the guidance of the education director. We were housed in a nearby first-class hotel, provided with most meals, given a wine and cheese party at the theater, invited to a post-performance soiree, taken on a sightseeing tour of Louisville and a visit to the excellent Speed Art Museum. In addition, our fellow travelers were all devoted theater buffs, which made for good conversation. If you decide to go to next year’s festival, I strongly recommend making your arrangements through Road Scholar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent assessment Bob. I agree with all your reviews. Airness was outstanding and has mass appeal, and Cry It Out was a witty, heart tugging delight.