The 2007 edition of Humana Festival of New American Plays (back for year 31) ran between Feb. 25 and April 7. The festival is recognized as a major event in the theater world, the place where a half-dozen new plays are premiered annually. It has become a magnet for producers, journalists, critics, playwrights and theater lovers from around the world. Over 350 Humana Festival plays have been added to America's dramatic literature. Three Humana plays have won Pulitzer Prizes: The Gin Game by D. L. Coburn (1978), 'night, Mother by Marsha Mason (1983) and Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies (1998).
Again this year, the festival offered six new full-length plays, presented in rolling repertory. Between March 30 and April 2, all are presented in multiple performances, creating a "Visitors Weekend," attended by hundreds of theater professionals, critics and others. The weekend always offers extras -- panel discussions, a bill of "Ten Minute Plays," a showcase of acting interns in newly commissioned scripts -- and more. It's a fascinating assemblage of art and people -- who spend most of the weekend talking about what they've seen.
Here are my thoughts on what I witnessed during the weekend:
WHEN SOMETHING WONDERFUL ENDS by Sherry Kramer is a one-woman show about a woman named Sherry, played by actress Lori Wilner. The set looks like a bedroom in a suburban home, and Sherry is a woman who is packing up the contents of her family home; her mother passed away five years earlier and she's just getting around to dealing with the final details. In fact, we're in her bedroom, which still has 59 Barbie dolls and a multitude of Barbie outfits. That might sound like this could be kind of trite and nostalgic, but Something Wonderful is far from that, although there is genuine emotion and a sense of loss regarding her mother's death. (She was clearly a strong woman -- bright red was her favorite color -- who Sherry's childhood friends remember vividly some 40 years later.)
But the Barbies actually provide an extended metaphor for other issues she discusses: Traveling to her family home in Springfield, Mo., she has listened to an audiobook about the history of conflict in the Middle East, especially how the United States alienated itself from populations there, dating back to 1964 and S.O.F.A. (Status of Forces Agreement whereby, according to her analysis, the U.S. began to alienate the population of Iran and beyond) -- coincidentally the year she acquired her first memorable Barbie dress, called "Enchanted Evening." It seems unlikely, but the piece, which includes maps of Iran and the Middle East presented on a rear screen and simple explanations of politics and the philosophy of the U.S. governmental relations in that part of the world and their heritage today, increasingly makes sense with a kind of internal logic from the world of Sherry.
There is humor in this script to be sure (we learn that if Barbie were human, she'd be six feet tall with the dimensions of 40-18-32), but the impact of this piece reminded me most of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. The evidence presented (in simple and reduced form, much like Gore's) is increasingly persuasive that American has gone off course. The "something wonderful" that has ended is not just the positive and safe world epitomized by Sherry's mother, but a nation that has lost its way and needs to get back on track. The idealized dreams of Barbie and America, have not panned out, it seems. We need to learn again to find our graves -- as she visits her mother's and leaves flowers regularly (more slides for us to see -- and to honor them she, tells us, by "making a miracle" and finding a new course.
When Something Wonderful Ends has a kind of optimism in the midst of despair that's truly heartening in the midst of sadness. Grade: A-
THE UNSEEN by Craig Wright is a very simple situation. Two men, Wallace (Richard Bekins) and Valdez (Gregor Paslawsky) are imprisoned by a nameless state. They've been there for more than a decade, so long that they can hardly remember anything beyond their predicament. They are in cells across a hallway; they have never seen one another. In fact, there are moments when they each wonder if the other's voice is perhaps a figment of their own imagination.
First one and then the other imagine things about their environment: Someone is in a cell nearby, sending messages to them by code. Their guard, Smeija (Richard Furlong who makes two dramatic appearances) , will play a part in releasing them. They pass the time playing mind and memory games. They are caught in a never-ending circle of desire for connection and communication, their minds filling in gaps when they have no verification that there is any truth to the visions they share.
Valdez is more of an innocent optimist, while Wallace is a cynical pessimist. But both never quite give up the belief that they'll find their way out, despite the brutality with which they are treated and the mindlessness with which they are questioned. (Valdez wonders at their captors' motivation: "They torture you and don't want to know anything," he bemoans.) Bekins and Paslawsky turned in the finest acting performances of the 2007 Humana Festival in this production.
The two play word games to retain their sanity: "I went to the ocean and I brought an apple," taking turns and adding to the list in alphabetic order. Valdez is bemused that Wallace can always come up with a new word for "X," one more indication that things will go on as long as there are more words to be listed.
Their guard's pain at feeling the pain of others leads to a horrendous moment that changes their fates. It's hard to listen to (a graphic description of torture), but it provides the meaningful set-up to the play's hopeful if not upbeat conclusion. The Unseen is a powerful work that will surely see many more productions on stages around America. It would be a good choice for Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Grade: A
DARK PLAY OR STORIES FOR BOYS by Carlos Murillo is a good example of the ripped-from-the-headlines kind of story that typically finds itself onstage at Humana. Humana playwrights are often young and on the cultural edge, so their material is very current. dark play is about the world of the Internet, where people play roles beyond who they are. In this case, it's teenage boys, and their world goes disastrously astray.
The play opens with Nick (Matthew Stadelmann) telling us, "I make shit up." That's an operative message for the entire play. In bed with his new girlfriend, he is asked about some scars on his abdomen. The rest of the play is a flashback recollection -- or perhaps a total fabrication. Nick, you see, is not what you'd call a reliable narrator.
In a chat room, he's encountered Adam (Will Rogers), who signs on as firstname.lastname@example.org, indicating that he wants to be in love. Nick is attracted by Adam's naiveté (he offers a lengthy dissertation on the GT -- "gullibility threshold" -- of various people), and eventually poses as "Rachel," a young woman who is calculated to become the girl of Adam's dreams. But dreams turn to nightmares: Since they can't actually meet, Nick coaxes Adam into acts of cybersex using a Web cam, and then convinces him through another elaborate ruse that he (Adam) is Rachel's brother, so they can get together. Layering elaborate lie upon elaborate lie, the play's story becomes increasingly far-fetched, which might have been Murillo's point, but at 105 minutes without interruption, it became tedious.
When we come back to the "present" at play's end, Nick having told Molly (played by Liz Morton, who doubles as the image of Rachel in scenes when Nick and Adam are communicating online) the story, she says to him, "You are so full of shit." That's more or less the way audiences seemed to feel after this show -- manipulated without a satisfying payoff.
The show is well cast, and especially Rogers and Stadelmann are completely believable as adolescent boys yearning for deeper connections. Two other actors, Lou Sumrall and Jennifer Mendenhall, play a variety of "netizens," that is people who are part of on online community -- and by implication in this play, might be totally fabricated. From Adam's lesbian drama coach (who encourages her students to do things that are "dark" and "dangerous") to his alcoholic mother to a squealing girl (the bulky, shaved-head Sumrall was hysterical shifting in and out of these roles) and Rachel's fabricated incestuous stepfather, they provided some interesting moments of onstage relief. But not enough for me. Grade: C+
THE OPEN ROAD ANTHOLOGY (pieces by Constance Congdon, Kia Korthron, Michael John Garcés, Rolin Jones, A.
But most would not have much opportunity to be seen if it weren't for the annual showcase which typically plays to a completely full house in the Bingham Theatre on Friday during the Visitors Weekend. For several years, Actors has commissioned a group of playwrights to create short pieces around a theme. This year a half-dozen writers each wrote two works, and those dozen became The Open Road Anthology.
It appears that this year's intern company is more musically talented than in past years: They formed together in various configurations for a musical opener and a finale, in addition to various transitional melodies between the sketches. The music was all drawn from the eclectic repertoire of GrooveLily, which blends classical music, musical theatre, jazz and rock -- a perfect mix for this entertaining set of tales, most of which involve two or three actors. The musical highpoint for me was a rendition of "Rewind" by Mark Stringham, a performer with an incredible range and emotive delivery. Each theatrical piece is simply staged, with a few props and some costumes pulled from Actors Theatre's storage. All this year, of course, had some element of hitting the road or traveling. As the leader of the band invited the audience, "Lean in, join up and enjoy the ride!"
Michael John Garcés the ride has two guys (Zdenko Slobodnik and Sean Andries) arguing over one's seemingly misguided purchase (using the other's money) of a 1965 Mustang V-8. When a hot babe (Eleanor Caudill) shows interest in the vehicle -- which isn't even running -- their perspective changes dramatically. A. Rey Pamatmat's Ain't Meat is a funny piece about a California vegetarian (Loren Bidner) trying to order a meal in a Kentucky diner from a surly waiter (Jake Millgard), who ultimately reveals a more sensitive side. Dunkin' Amerika, by Kathryn Kalat, gives us two young women (Katie Barton and Emily Tate Frank) operating a cart in a transit hub; one yearns to hit the road, the other is self-satisfied with her new role as assistant manager.
The 90-minute programs best moment was The Mercury and the Magic by Rolin Jones. Mike (Michael Judson Pace) and Joe (Zachary Palamara) are possums, and proud of it: Joe thinks they rule the road (playing dodgem with cars, he shouts, "We are possums!" with both arms upraised.) Mike yearns for the comforts enjoyed by domesticated mammals, but Joe is disdainful. The pair wore street clothes with long ropy tails. The audience cheered wildly for a sketch that was worthy of Saturday Night Live.
A few pieces fell flat, but that's the nature of young performers. Grade: B
STRIKE-SLIP by Naomi Iizuka is set in Los Angeles, where eventually the big one will shake everything up -- not if, but when. Of course, no one knows when, not even Dan Morse (Tim Altmeyer), who is a seismologist. And that uncertainty is part of the energy that drives Iizuka's play. (Strike-Slip is, in fact, her fifth Humana Festival play.) The characters live in a curiously distilled and interconnected L.A. with multicultural population of 8. Despite varied socio-economic genealogies, everyone crosses paths with everyone else. The script's structure is reminiscent of the episodic but linked stories told in films like Babel or, especially, Crash.
There's a Korean family; Mr. Lee (Nelson Mashita) owns a small market; son Vince (Hanson Tse) and daughter Angie (Ali Ahn) work there, but have their own aspirations. Angie's boyfriend Rafael Gutierrez (Justin Huen) works in a body shop, where he meets Frank Richmond (Keith Randolph Smith), an African-American cop on the verge of retirement. Frank is extracting information from Vince about drug selling; Vince has had casual sex with seismologist Dan, who's estranged from his wife Rachel (Heather Lea Anderson). The Morses have purchased a home using Rafael's mother, Viviana Ramos (Romi Dias) as their real estate agent. The entanglements spread and interconnect -- like fault lines in the earth.
At the opening of the play's second act, Dan is lecturing about "strike-slip" faults and how they move in unpredictable directions. Lest we miss the geological analogy, he reminds us that such faults are often "radically and fatally" misunderstood. The comparison is apt, and seems to be leading to something more dire. (In fact, we end the first act with a shooting of an unidentified victim -- and everyone is guessing through the intermission which character it might be.) The surprise in the second act is that things aren't as bad as they seem and don't get worse. Oh, the Morses get divorced, and Mr. Lee goes in prison for shooting. But things are definitely on an upward path toward better places for most everyone: Rafael and Angie escape financial ruin in an unlikely way, Frank and Viviana cross paths and seem destined to find a kind of romance. Finally, Dan (he's moved to Alaska and is openly gay) and Angie (with her six-month-old baby) meet on the beech beneath a beautiful sunset, and he gives her a mezuzah -- one Rachel had intended for their new home.
The uncertainty of the narrative current keeps this play interesting, as does its staging by director Chay Yew. (He directed the powerful Low, written by and featuring Rha Goddess at last year's Humana Festival; Low was on view for Cincinnati audiences at the Playhouse in the Park in January 2007.) Presented on Actors Theatre's expansive Pamela Brown stage, there is no set: You can see all the way out to the walls of the building. Pieces are rolled into place by the actors for various scenes, and characters walk purposefully from one encounter to another, further emphasizing the "fault lines" binding them together. The play keeps you guessing where it's headed. I wish Iizuka had delved a bit deeper and offered people who were less stereotyped. But Strike-Slip makes its point loud and clear: Our lives are bound up together, for better or worse, whether we like it or not. Grade: B+
BATCH: AN AMERICAN BACHELOR/ETTE PARTY SPECTACLE (conceived by Whit MacLaughlin and Alice Tuan; created by New Paradise Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based experimental theater company) struck me as something worth seeing when I read about it -- a look at a peculiarly American pre-marriage ritual, enhanced with cutting-edge video by New Paradise Laboratories. This is the second in a series examining rites of passage in America (the first, produced in collaboration with Children's Theatre of Minneapolis, explored high school proms). Working with playwright Alice Tuan, the piece had some promise.
I also liked the idea that it was being presented in a night club: several past Humana shows that used the approach of a site-specific location have worked especially well. This one used a theater space in a gay club, replete with mirrors and disco lights. However, other than providing some for entering audiences, the surroundings didn't mean much: Batch could just as easily have been staged in Actors Theatre's Victor Jory space. The performance area was rather like a prize-fight ring, an elevated, square platform, surrounded on four walls with video projection screens. Sometimes these showed pre-recorded videos of the actors; other times a hand-held camera onstage fed live video to the screens.
The cast of six (three men and three women) portrayed both the bride and her bridesmaids and the groom and his entourage. That, of course, meant some cross-dressing, which was initially amusing and eventually tedious. That proved true for much of this show: after 15-20 minutes, many in the audience had gotten the concept. It went on for about 100 minutes, and seemed to draw to a close several times. Not only did we see the bachelor and bachelorette parties, but also a long abstract interpretation of the wedding and then a brief frenzied finale at the reception.
Along the way there was much spectacle derived from the traditions of such parties, include strippers and dildos. But there were other more mystifying elements, including some of the players wearing boxing helmets and gloves, plus the horns of rams, and sequences where the entire company danced in rhythmic and percussive formations onstage. This was a talented company of performers, but the point of this muddy piece was lost on me -- and apparently many others, based on my conversations.
In past seasons I've watched performances conceived by avant garde director Anne Bogart and struggled to understand them. But with each of those, I could see a strong intelligence at work behind the performance. Batch struck me as pretentious silliness exploring trivial debauchery. Hey, I'm all for a good time, but this wasn't one of them. It's a party I'd have preferred to miss. Grade: D+
THE AS IF BODY LOOP by Ken Weitzman brings together two unlikely worlds: sports and alternative healing. At first this collision, which occurs within a family of disparate kooks, seems unlikely -- perhaps a concept most likely in a situation comedy. And Weitzman's play is indeed funny: Aaron (Marc Grapey) is the eldest of three adult siblings and a success in the world of NFL films. Football is his life, and he can draw sports analogies for almost any situation -- which leads to some odd but amusing observations. His sister Sarah (Kristen Fiorella), a social worker, is behaving strangely -- a Jew singing Christmas carols and inexplicably freezing to death. Their much younger brother Glenn (Josh Lefkowitz) has been tutored by their New Age mother (who Aaron calls "the evil Attic Lady") as a healer, but he's also agoraphobic and trying to develop the notion of being a "healer by proxy." And the whole family is dysfunctional in terms of family interrelationships.
So offbeat laughs seem to be the order of the day, but for the fact that Sarah's condition is dire. The best explanation offered by Glenn and mother is that she's a "Lamed Vavnik," a Yiddish term describing 36 people ("lamed" and "vav" are letters in the Hebrew alphabet that correspond with numbers) -- who bear the pain of the world at any given moment. They conclude that Sarah is one of those, but she's unable to cope, and the colder she gets, the more their home (and perhaps the world) seems on the verge of some kind of apocalypse. Aaron decides he must try to lighten Sarah's load, so he finds one of her clients, Martin (Keith Randolph Smith) via a bizarre search that involves sports wisdom and, yes, alternative healing. And things begin to change.
As unlikely as this sounds, the play becomes a strangely pleasing mélange of metaphors that begin to make sense. The Lamed Vavniks are the ultimate team players, so Aaron understands them; and another theory, the "as if body loop," which suggests that witnesses suffer as much victims, perhaps more if their empathy quotient is highly sensitive, has a curiously meaningful application to the world of these characters and beyond. Grapey is especially enjoyable as a recognizable sports nut who suddenly feels totally out of his element; Lefkowitz gives the quirky Glenn an endearing if out-there presence; and Smith is an angry guy with a secret so painful that it ultimately brought tears to many in the audience. The story wraps itself up neatly in a script that drew the most positive audience reaction of any production I saw during the 2007 Humana Festival. Grade: A-
One of the most anticipated components of the Humana Festival's Visitors Weekend is a Saturday evening bill of ten-minute plays. It's the theatrical equivalent of short stories: A few characters, one situation, sometimes a twist (a la O. Henry) at the end. More are comic than not, but that's not a prerequisite.
I AM NOT BATMAN by Marco Ramirez featured two players. Phil Pickens plays a boy with a vivid imagination; Zdenko Slobodnik offers sound-effect punctuation played on a drum set made of trash cans, buckets and other found objects (he never speaks). In the monologue, we meet a character who tells us that "Nobody comes between Batman and justice." He describes breaking up a large-scale crime and rescuing a character named Janitor-Man, to whom he sternly says, "Go home." He then races ahead and jumps in bed in time for his "pop" (aka Janitor-Man) to come home from work and look in on him. At that moment -- with the reminder of the short work's title -- we realize we're listening to a kid with an active imagination who loves his father. It was a lyrical piece with humor, vivid imagery and a touch of self-deprecating humor -- an excellent demonstration of how a short play can say a great deal. Grade: A-
CLARISSE AND LARMON by Deb Margolin was the evening's serious piece, although it contained elements of absurdity. The son of Clarisse (Romi Dias) and Larmon (Keith Randolph Smith) has been killed in combat, they learn from a soldier (Timo Aker), who's doing his job, nothing more. Left alone, they have a conversation full of denial that moves eventually to profound grief. The only evidence they are presented is a photo of a knee, shin, ankle and foot -- the only evidence of their son's remains. First they praise its beauty. Then they wonder if it's really his. They recriminate one another, and try to recall the "truth" of his brief existence in the face of his seemingly meaningless death. Dias and Smith acted this piece powerfully, but it felt too long. Perhaps that was because of the tough subject matter. Grade: B
MR. AND MRS. by Julie Marie Myatt might be an alternative finale to Batch (reviewed above). At a wedding reception a bride (Maurine Evans) and a groom (Mark Stringham) dance and smile for photos -- constant pauses and flashes of light onstage when their expressions freeze momentarily. But their conversations are not words of love: He corrects something she said to the assembled crowd, suggesting she meant to use the word "eternity" rather than "entirety." She tells him he's a boor, he says she's shallow. She confesses she married him for his money; he tells her his interest was purely physical. After their funny choreography, she fixes him with a steely eye and tells him that he's witnessed his future -- in its "entirety." Evans and Stringham, both acting interns, handled the choreography and the comic timing impeccably. Grade: A
PRESENTATION AND PANEL DISCUSSION
365 DAYS/365 PLAYS by Suzan-Lori Parks has become a national (in fact, an international) project based on an astounding number of plays written over the course of one year. Parks did this in 2003 and 2003; beginning in Nov. 13, 2006, and continuing until Nov.12, 2007, productions of these are happening in 16 cities and regions -- and in many other ways. Most pieces are no more than 3-5 minutes; eight were briefly presented as part of a program for the Visitors Weekend, followed by a 45-minute panel discussion of people involved in various dimensions of this fascinating project.
Actors Theatre presented a one-time performance of Father Comes Home from the Wars (Part 1) [Nov. 14]; The Great Army in Disgrace [Dec. 18]; 2 Mary's [Jan. 3]; The Birth of Tragedy [Jan. 6]; If I had to Murder Me Somebody [Jan. 31]; [Again] The Butcher's Daughter (For Bonnie) [Feb. 13.]; A Play for the First Day of Spring Entitled, "How do you like the War?" [March 21]; and George Bush Visits the Cheese & Olive [April 1]. These took about a half-hour to present. Some were tragic (Father Comes Home, The Great Army), some satiric (2 Mary's, Murder Me Somebody), some mythic (The Butcher's Daughter, and The Birth of Tragedy, which was more like a joke based on the classics). The longest piece, for April 1 (April Fool's Day, of course), had George Bush searching for Osama and WMDs under tables in a suburban restaurant, based on a prank call made by Laura and the Bush daughters. The script for this piece suggests "a big dance number" finale, and that's what we got -- a cast of about 20 pin-wheeling, kick-lining and watching fireworks go off.
During the panel discussion, we learned from Bonnie Metgzar, the producer who has collaborated with Parks on motivating this project across America, that there are a few guidelines. All performances are to be free, and theater groups and communities are invited to freely interpret the scripts. We heard from the artistic director of an Asian theater in New York City who took several of the scripts and produced translations in Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Korean. An undergraduate from Wesleyan University in Connecticut described how the plays were presented all over campus -- in dining halls and dorms, in bookstores and green spaces -- ultimately reaching or involving 98 percent of the people connected with the university.
Most intriguing to me was the concept of "radical inclusion" which is guiding the project. It embraces the notion that everyone is welcome to participate, inspired by the sense that every idea that Suzan-Lori Parks had during her year of writing was considered fair game for a play. There are monologs in the set that also invite active participation, such as The Art of Peace [May 12], which has virtually no script. Instead, participants are invited to play a game of "Telephone," passing the phrase "the art of peace" by whispering to one another, "until the Last Person says some complicated and impossible-to-achieve version of what the 1st Person began with. The Group of People rests looks to the ground, ashamed that they have been less than successful."
For more information about this project which is offer a whole new way to involve people in theater, go to the constantly updated Web site: www.365days365plays.com
For more information about Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Humana Festival of New American Plays: www.actorstheatre.org/humana.htm
CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender(at)citybeat.com