This year marks the 35th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays presented by Actors Theatre of Louisville. Every year this event draws the attention of theater professionals from across the nation and around the world. Six world premieres are offered in rolling repertory, an amazing feat made possible by Actors Theatre’s excellent physical complex with three stages. The shows can’t really offer a comprehensive or coherent view of the state of American theater, but they certainly provided a sense of optimism that we are in for a strong, bright future.
After a weekend in Louisville when I saw all six new works, I can say with assurance that these plays are not likely Broadway hits — no mega-musicals, no big star vehicles. Instead, they are the kind of plays — thoughtful, topical, amusing — that will certainly find their way to excellent regional theaters like the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Ensemble Theatre. One or two that I saw might be good for an adventurous company like Know Theatre.
Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them by A. Rey Pamatmat received a standing ovation in Louisville. That’s unusual at the festival, but this drama with some good-hearted laughs had a powerful effect on people, and it’s precisely the kind of show that Lynn Meyers has produced with predictable and positive regularity at Ensemble Theatre.
Edith, age 12, and her brother Kenny, age 16, live on a remote Midwestern farm with no parental supervision. Mom is dead and Dad has almost completely withdrawn from their lives. Kenny must be a surrogate parent for his spunky sister, who has an active fantasy life. Edith has honed her skills with minor weapons, including a BB gun and a bow and arrow, and imagines herself quite capable of protecting their remote homestead.
Kenny and his friend Benji, two geeky adolescents who recognize one another as kindred spirits, are awash in a nascent gay relationship. Edith initially doesn’t like sharing her brother, but when she sees that Benji is as isolated as she and Kenny, they become an odd family.
Many people sniffled through Edith’s second act and had tear-stained faces leaving the theater. Pamatmat’s play takes dead aim, and it would be well received on a Cincinnati stage.
A work entirely suitable for the Cincinnati Playhouse would be Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler, the funniest show onstage during the festival. (It reminded me of Michele Lowe’s The Smell of the Kill and Theresa Rebeck’s Bad Dates, two hit Playhouse productions from the past.) Sisters Simone and Devon hope for a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard, but it’s disrupted by the traumas of the ultra-rich and insensitive. Simone looks after Michaela, a trophy wife who unexpectedly invades their getaway. Devon (Cassie Beck) is dismayed to find that little sister has lost track of their Buffalo roots and adopted the lifestyle of her employers. When Michaela flounces in after a major spat with her rich husband there is no chance for anyone else to communicate.
Elemeno Pea runs for a continuous 100 minutes with no scene breaks. Metzler writes witty and swiftly paced comedy. The Louisville cast — especially Cassie Beck as the plain-spoken Devon — kept the laughs coming until the final 15 minutes when Michaela is devastatingly humanized and the story becomes all too real. It’s a dangerous turn for a comedy, from noisy hilarity to painful insight, but Metzler delivers it with such skill that it makes you realize snap judgments aren’t always the most insightful.
If Know Theatre is looking for a good script, I’d recommend The Edge of Our Bodies by Obie Award winner Adam Rapp. Know staged his Red Light Winter to good effect in 2008 (it’s onstage at CCM in May), and a decade ago Cincinnati Shakespeare offered one of his first works, Nocturne, a memorable monologue about a young man who contemplates suicide after causing his sister’s death. The Edge of Our Bodies is in a similar confessional vein.
The speaker for this 90-minute monologue is Bernadette, age 16. Wearing a boarding school uniform, she reads from her precocious diary about cutting class and traveling by train to New York City to tell her self-centered boyfriend that she is pregnant. She has conversations with various men along the way — a grandfather on the train, her boyfriend’s depressed, cancer-ridden father, a guy in the bar who picks her up, all recalled and recreated by the narrator, who might be dramatically heightening her experiences; she is, after all, a 16-year-old aspiring actress. But she’s also on the verge of adulthood, still trailing the vestiges of girlhood. She is trying to shed her own skin. After her trek through the adult world, she sees life more clearly, and that’s what this moving, insightful script is about.Three more plays rounded out the festival. Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison was an intriguing drama about a couple who decide to live in a community where life in 1955 is reenacted. A Devil at Noon by Anne Washburn is a piece that explores a sci-fi novelist whose life and fiction get terribly blurred. And Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Bob is a carnival-like revue about an unassuming guy who spends his life trying to be famous. I was disappointed by the latter, but the others added more depth to the festival. Let’s hope that some of these make their way to a local theater.
For further reviews from the HUMANA FESTIVAL, visit Rick Pender’s Facebook page, Rick Pender’s Theater Stages & Scenes, with extended commentaries on each of the 2011 Humana premieres, as well as the program of 10-minute plays, one of the festival’s annual highlights.