The 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays, presented annually by Actors Theatre of Louisville, came to its tumultuous conclusion last weekend, capping off ATL’s 50th anniversary season with a weekend featuring five new, fully produced plays, an anthology show featuring the theater’s interns, as well as a set of 10-minute plays. Starting in late February, works are added gradually, building up to the final two weeks when theatergoers can see multiple shows in several intense days. Street banners along Louisville’s Main Street tout the fact that Louisville is the place to find “the newest and greatest in American theater.” For the weekend, Louisville is a mecca not just for theater fans but also producers, directors and agents seeking the next hot script or rising writer whose play might become something everyone clamors to see. The weekend is full of buzz as visitors compare notes about the shows. It’s a heady atmosphere for anyone who loves theater.
Perhaps echoing the theater’s anniversary, a theme of aging and maturity linked several shows. Jordan Harrison’s The Grown-Up was about a 10-year-old boy whose grandfather describes a magical doorknob that enables travel in time — the boy’s own lifespan, in fact, as he becomes an aspiring young writer then a salty old man in a wheelchair. It was a charming work featuring an inventive dose of magic and lots of witty humor, played by six actors in various roles who also narrated action that flowed deliriously from Hollywood to a pirate ship to a retirement community. Encapsulating the challenges of aging, it was my favorite of this year’s festival.
Partners by Dorothy Fortenberry portrays two couples — one gay, one straight. They are all friends; Ezra, one of the gay guys, hopes to engage Clare, the straight wife who’s an amazing cook, in launching a food truck business. But money is tight, and she’s dragging her feet to create a Kickstarter video that could raise funds. When she comes into a big cash windfall, everything changes for everyone — marriage, relationship and business all go off the tracks. Like The Grown-Up, it was another piece about becoming an adult. Partners featured four actors who felt like people I know.
The third play I liked was Steel Hammer, directed by avant garde artist Anne Bogart.
It explored the legend of John Henry, the steel driver who bested a steam-powered hammer in a railroad tunnel but died in the process. Using texts developed by four noteworthy playwrights — Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor — and music and lyrics by Julia Wolfe, Bogart’s SITI Company presented multiple versions of the Appalachian legend, told through movement, song, dance and acting. Eric Berryman played many incarnations of John Henry, delivering an astonishing physical performance not unlike running a marathon, in motion for most of the two-hour, intermissionless performance. Bogart’s ensemble-driven productions are always fascinating, although some audience members find them overly studied, drawn out and abstract. Not me.
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray) stirred up a lot of conversation in Louisville recently because of a central character who’s a promising black teen struck down by senseless violence, a situation reflected in some uncomfortably parallel events locally. (Such parallels are not limited to Louisville, of course; the recent shooting death of 14-year-old Tyann Adkins in Cincinnati is a similar tragedy.) But this play is about how grief and tragedy impact, divide and eventually reinforce family — Tray’s grandmother who raised him and his kid sister, as well as his estranged mother. Lee employs poetic language that captures the world of this family; Cherene Snow delivered a powerfully touching performance as Tray’s devastated grandmother.
Lucas Hnath’s The Christians garnered much attention because it was commissioned by Actors Theatre and staged by Artistic Director Les Waters. The pastor of a successful megachurch veers off course when he announces that he no longer believes in the existence of Hell. His congregation disintegrates and his marriage crumbles. The show isn’t preachy: It’s more about trust and communication than Christianity. But it uses the trappings of a contemporary church service, set in a posh sanctuary backed by a full-voiced Gospel choir and a Hammond B-3 organ. The pastor, his wife and two other spiritual leaders sit in throne-like, blue-upholstered chairs and speak using hand-held microphones with mellifluous, persuasive voices. Even when they disagree about core religious and personal beliefs (we move seamlessly, swiftly and continuously across several weeks from the initial sermon to conflict to a sad conclusion), they continue to speak to one another via microphones, in soothing detached voices. This play didn’t grab me, but it was a piece that will surely get more productions.
Actors Theatre employs 19 acting apprentices; each festival features them in a showcase. This year five rising playwrights were commissioned to create short pieces inspired by iconic pieces from past festivals. Remix 38 felt disjointed but had some memorable elements, especially War of Attrition by Justin Kuritzkes, a wordless piece about two opposing lines of 18th-century soldiers gunning each other down, and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s and now I only dance at weddings, which used all the interns for a piece about a young woman pondering her role as the last woman of her generation in her family to get married.
The festival annually presents a set of 10-minute plays on the closing evening. Rachel Bonds’ Winter Games was a conversation between a guy and a girl on a winter morning just before opening time at a coffee shop and bakery in Scranton, Pa.
The theme of life’s progress surfaced again in Some Prepared Remarks (A History in Speech)
by Jason Gray Platt, a poignant portrait of a man from childhood
through old age, in a series of speeches delivered from scraps of paper,
to his class, on his wedding day, to his daughter on her first day of
school and on his retirement. Capping off the evening was Gregory
Hischak’s Poor Shem, the story of a carnivorous photocopier.
THE HUMANA FESTIVAL OF NEW AMERICAN PLAYS will return to Louisville, Ky., March 4-April 12, 2015. More info: actorstheatre.org.