This week marks the opening Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 37th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. First up is Meredith McDonough’s The Delling Shore, about two rival authors and their daughters, a work in which words become weapons. Next week, two more new plays enter the rotation: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate and Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom. The former sets a tale of inheritance, memory loss and the art of repression at a crumbling plantation in Arkansas; the latter happens in Haiti in 1964, where an artist yearns to escape the repressive political regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.
In mid-March, three more works join the repertory: Will Eno’s Gnit, described as “a faithful, unfaithful and willfully American misreading” of Henrik Ibsen’s 1867 play Peer Gynt; Mallery Avidon’s Oh Guru Guru Guru, or why don’t I want to go to yoga class with you, with a central character seeking to escape the experience of growing up in an ashram; and Sleep Walk Thy Brain, with Actors Theatre’s apprentices performing scenes by playwrights Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn about the science and symbolism of sleep.
The festival culminates in late March and early April with all six productions in rotation, capped on April 5-6 with a set of ten-minute plays, including Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes by Sarah Ruhl. Several of her plays have been on Cincinnati stages in recent years: The Clean House, Eurydice, Dead Man’s Cell Phone and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play).
The Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has a remarkable record of new works.
In mid-February, the Mount Adams theater’s stages both offered world premieres, the 66th and 67th to be staged by the Tony Award-winning regional theater. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Abigail/1702, a riff on the villainous Abigail Williams from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible a decade after her deadly accusations of witchcraft in Salem, was on the Robert S. Marx stage, while Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Leveling Up was playing in the Thompson Shelterhouse. The latter play continues through March 10.
Laufer is an increasingly visible playwright whose End Days was at Ensemble Theatre two years ago; it’s had more than 40 productions nationwide. Leveling Up is an in-the-moment slice of contemporary life about twentysomethings caught up in video gaming, a 20-hour-a-day obsession that has stalled their post-college lives. Their social skills have deteriorated in the rubble of a basement game room in Las Vegas. The divide between their world and being IRL (“in real life,” as they shorthand it) is hard to distinguish — sometimes comically, but increasingly and distressingly so as the story unfolds. Leveling Up is a story that connects with young audiences — although its larger theme is about growing up and connecting with the larger world.
Abigail/1702, which closed on Feb. 17, appealed to audiences familiar with the iconic play from 1953. Aguirre-Sacasa’s script stepped beyond Miller’s thinly veiled allegorical attack on McCarthyism to delve into a story about personal regret and redemption.
New plays present different perspectives and help us understand new attitudes. Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati’s stock-in-trade is premieres of shows not seen previously on Cincinnati stages. Next up (March 13-31) is Frank Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings!, a story of music, scholarship and social growth during the Great Depression. A Folk music researcher locates an African-American woman in prison who recalls music with roots in distant Africa. Their relationship digs into issues of being black in a white world and a woman in a man’s world.
New Edgecliff Theatre is premiering Slow Descent from Heaven, a script by its own playwright-in-residence, Catie O’Keefe. It’s the story of a frustrated scientist who once aspired to be an astronaut, but her tangled relationships with two men — as well as shuttle disasters — have affected her own flight path. The four-actor production is onstage in a converted classroom at the Clifton Cultural Arts Center through March 2.
Know Theatre also presents very contemporary scripts. They’re offering a bang-up staging of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling through March 16, about parents and children and the impact of one generation on the next. Know just announced the regional premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Cock (April 12-May 11), only the show’s second American production. (It premiered in London in 2009.) It’s a comedy about sexual identity, the story of a man who takes a break from his longtime boyfriend and unexpectedly falls in love with a woman. New plays open new vistas. We’re lucky to have so many of them readily at hand.
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