Last weekend I traveled to Louisville, Ky., for the 37th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre. I’ve attended regularly since 1998 and thoroughly enjoyed these doses of new, ambitiously conceived and professionally presented works. I was especially intrigued to see the impact of Actors’ new artistic director Les Waters. He arrived about 18 months ago, so this was the first festival he’s fully orchestrated. (The British director was recruited from Berkeley Rep in California where he built a reputation for nurturing new, sometimes avant-garde works.)
I started my experience with a panel discussion featuring Waters and other directors discussing the challenges and joys of staging new works. They cited the advantage of having a playwright available during rehearsals: Waters staged the festival’s most unusual work, Will Eno’s Gnit, demonstrating that he’s eager to be adventurous. (Eno’s enigmatic Thom Paine (based on nothing) was produced at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati in 2006.) Gnit is a contemporary riff on Henrik Ibsen’s 19th-century play Peer Gynt. Both works tell an episodic tale of a romantic soul who pays little heed to others while fecklessly seeking his own identity, reacting more often with fear and avoidance rather than a desire for growth. Eno’s script uses lots of droll linguistic and situational humor; settings change abruptly and characters are surreal: “Town,” played inventively by Danny Wolohan, was repeatedly a multitude of characters simultaneously bickering and joking with one another. Waters’ production of this script maddened some theatergoers and pleased others, but it had everyone talking.
Mallery Avidon’s O Guru Guru Guru or why i don’t want to go to yoga class with you led some attendees to wonder if it was even really a play: The story had three “movements” — a monologue/lecture by Lila (Rebecca Hart), a young woman raised in an ashram; a class of meditation and storytelling (audience members were invited to join the class) led by smiling, sari-clad women; and a return to reality (or something resembling it, including an “appearance” by Julia Roberts).
This unusually constructed piece about a young woman discovering who she is turned my head around twice, and I liked it better with each twist.
The Festival wasn’t all experimental: Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom was set in Haiti in 1964, the story of an artist hiding in anonymity to escape political repression. But he’s forced to re-examine his choices by his sensuous, politically active wife and a young man who is building a boat to flee to America. Beautifully written and performed, this piece explored themes of dreaming and survival, expanding the immediate tale to universal relevance.
The Delling Shore by Sam Marks was the story of two writers, once friends turned rivals, and their respective daughters one 19, one 25. Their jealousies (one has succeeded immensely, the other struggles to get by) poisoned their onetime friendship, affecting their parental dealings with their daughters. Appropriate by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins was another high-pitched drama about dysfunctional families with a father damaging his children. Appropriate’s story swirls around an Arkansas family as three adult children convene to deal with his estate. His legacies, some shocking and some sad, have caused despair and anxiety in his offspring. The characters in this and Marks’ plays were not particularly likeable, but both productions were wonderfully cast and beautifully executed, a predictable feature of the Humana Festival: Every script receives a full and thoughtful staging on one of Actors’ Theatre’s three stages.
Humana annually showcases its apprentice acting company in an original work, this year offsite at a nearby arts elementary school. Sleep Rock They Brain employed technology by ZFX Flying Effects, a Louisville-based company. With newly commissioned scripts by Rinne Groff, Anne Washburn and Lucas Hnath, the young actors created stories about a surreal sleep lab, the mind of a disturbed dreamer and sleep-deprived astronauts. Each was interesting, but the effect was gimmicky.
Another popular festival feature is an annual program of 10-minute plays. Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes by Sarah Ruhl was darkly humorous; Halfway by Emily Schwend offered a vignette about a woman in a halfway house visited by her sister for a tense conversation; 27 Ways I Didn’t Say “Hi” to Laurence Fishburne by Jonathan Josephson was a hilarious string of blackouts portraying approaches to the actor during a break at a movie shoot, each one a failure to communicate.
Les Waters has made the Humana formula his own. Since his arrival, Louisville’s regional theater has cosmetically upgraded its facility, and Waters’ own stamp is evident.
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