For its 33rd iteration, the Humana Festival of New American Plays offered as many works that were based on ensemble and imagery as it did traditional dramatic plays. By the luck of the schedule during the weekend I recently attended at Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), I saw three works (Wild Blessings, a selection of writings by Kentucky poet Wendell Barry; Ameriville, a piece of performance art by UNIVERSES, a Hip Hope ensemble; and Under Construction, a script by avant-garde writer Charles Mee performed by the equally experimental SITI Company directed by Anne Bogart) that lacked traditional narrative form.
I found myself yearning for a coherent story line, and the second “half” of my weekend gave me that in three plays, Allison Moore’s Slasher, Zoe Kazan’s Absalom and Naomi Wallace’s The Hard Weather Boating Party. In retrospect, the more experimental works were more satisfying. They're also less likely to be exported to other theaters since they're rooted in the ensembles that created them.
That’s a bit unusual for this annual event, which has a great track record, generating several Pulitzer Prize winners and contenders over the years, including D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game (1976), Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart (1981) and Donald Margulies’ Dinner With Friends (2000). Jane Martin’s Keely and Du was also a finalist in 1993.
I don’t think I saw any award-winners this year, but that didn’t diminish the experience. As always, Actors Theatre does a fine job and presents an interesting menu of productions — shows that some people will like and others will hate, shows that reflect particular moments in time. That’s a fine track record for 33 years.
Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry
Wendell Berry’s poetry (he also writes fiction and essays) focuses on themes familiar to another era, in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau. In particular, his poems from more than four decades of writing are reflections on lessons from the world of nature, spiced by occasional rants about the incoherence of the modern world. Director Marc Masterson, working with ATL’s director of new play development, Adrien-Alice Hansel, has framed selections from 35 of his poems with music by one-time Cincinnati folk performer Malcolm Dalglish on the hammered dulcimer and stunning video and still photography designed by Donna L. Lawrence.
Four of the poems are from the perspective of a “mad farmer” who rails against contemporary life: “To be sane in a mad time,” he declaims, “is bad for the brain, worse for the heart. The world is a holy vision, had we clarity to see it...” Another of the mad farmer’s diatribes resonates with contemporary audiences, although it was written years ago: “When I hear the stock market has fallen, I say, 'Long live gravity! Long live stupidity, error and greed in the palaces of fantasy capitalism!' ... I think an economy should be based on thrift, on taking care of things, not on theft, usury, seduction, waste and ruin. My purpose is a language that can make us whole, though mortal, ignorant and small.”
His purpose is magically supported by Lawrence’s imagery displayed on large framed screen and backed by a curtain that expands the images as if painted on the sky. Most are of natural phenomena: close-ups of flowers and leaves or of meadows, forests and streams. Often these latter flow seamlessly through seasonal changes. Lawrence, a Louisville-based video professional whose work is present in museums from coast to coast, has assembled a breathtaking visual experience that perfectly illustrates Berry’s poetry.
The multimedia presentation is also given depth by the music. In addition to Dalglish’s accompaniment (he is the production’s music director), the four actors who recite the poems are also musicians — fiddle, guitar and several percussion pieces — and fine singers, too. The messages of Berry’s poetry come through loud and clear: the importance of simplicity, the lessons we can learn from the world.
New York-based ensemble UNIVERSES brings together artists of different ages and ethnicities: African-American and Hispanic. Their theory is that each of the four performers, co-founders Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp plus two others, brings his or her own universe of experience and modes of expression to the art they create. [Photo from Ameriville above.]
The group’s roots are in New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café, and I’ve seen them perform several times (including a performance of their seminal work Slanguage at the 2001 Humana Festival). But I’ve never been more impressed than with their contribution this year, a collection of poetry, music and spoken word inspired by the havoc Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans. It’s called Ameriville, and it feels as if it were put together about 10 minutes before the foursome came onstage.
I don’t mean that it feels rough. In fact, it feels timely and pertinent to Americans, wherever they are. “Whether you like it or not,” they proclaim, “there’s a Katrina coming to your neighborhood.” Ameriville opens with a stretch of about 20 minutes devoted to stories of Katrina survivors and victims, told hauntingly and sometimes humorously. Much of it is delivered as A Cappella song, other as rhythmic chanting (the word “hammering” is repeated throughout this section, the hammering of the cruel storm, the hammering of efforts to stave it off, the hammering of recovery attempts). Snatches of Pop tunes provide the soundtrack, with new evolved lyrics by the quartet.
The balance of the piece ranges more broadly to the many challenges and injustices wrought upon the poor by human and natural disasters, and it concludes with “The Funeral for America.” But this is not a piece of gloom and doom: It’s rife with the humor of survivors and the energy that keeps people going. And the non-stop energy of UNIVERSES’ performances — constant physical motion, varied vocal delivery, comic impersonation, righteous indignation and clowning humor — keeps the piece powerful and on point. The show evoked the one heartfelt standing ovation that I experienced during this year’s Humana Festival.
Plus-sized Mildred Ruiz is the heart and soul of UNIVERSES, and her impassioned singing — impersonating a voodoo queen or a Latino housemaid — is riveting. William Ruiz is a master of voices, from a cheesy tour guide to a fast-talking commercial announcer. Steven Sapp is the most chameleon of the four, a wiry physical frame with vocal skills to match his storytelling abilities. Gamal Abdel Chasten wears his emotions close to the surface in a way that gets inside your head and makes you feel the power of the characters he creates.
Ameriville is also enhanced by simple physical production in ATL’s Bingham Theatre, an arena-styled venue. The performers work on a square of wooden floor that also accepts projections, some live video of their performance, some still photos of ruined neighborhoods, and occasionally subtitles or factoids that underscore the message of a segment. If you ever have a chance to see this group’s work, don’t pass it by.
Another ensemble that has become a familiar presence at the Humana Festival is Anne Bogart’s experimental SITI Company. This year they performed a work crafted by avant-garde playwright Charles Mee and inspired by two American visual artists, 20th-century painter Norman Rockwell and contemporary installation artist Jason Rhoades. (In 2001 Mee and SITI came together for bobrauschenbergamerica, and in 2006 their Hotel Cassiopeia was a portrait of Joseph Cornell.)
Neither Rockwell nor Rhoades appear as characters in Under Construction. But their differing visions of America — Rockwell’s orderly, humorous and sentimental paintings of charming, simple scenes of life in the 1940s and 1950s, and Rhoades’ jumbled installations bringing together an avalanche of cultural artifacts. In a program note, Mee observed that, “Under Construction really is a kind of American then and now.”
The piece is a jumble of scenes presented on a more or less bare stage hung with construction-site lighting (yellow electrical cords with bare light bulbs in protective cages). They drag props on and off, change costumes — from period shirtwaists to a gorilla suit to tulle skirts — and occasionally re-create images by Rockwell (especially the famous Thanksgiving dinner gathering, although here it’s at a table made up of sawhorses and planks).
The cast of nine (six men, three women, all of them accomplished regulars from SITI’s stable of experimental performers) is engaged in audience interaction (asking personal questions about sexual behavior, in fact), dancing, chaos (a man is taped to a pole, another rolls around naked in a large plastic sheet) and watching television on an ancient console set.
Many in the audience come away from SITI/Mee productions feeling bewildered and that the company is involved in a lot of self-indulgent tomfoolery. But there's always a kind of lasting poetry in their stage creations. The images they generate stick linger in your memory and often coalesce days later.
This exploration of the building blocks of contemporary America and how we're products of our culture is one that some people like and others avoid. But it’s hard to stop thinking about it, even if you don’t quite get it.
Alison Moore’s play isn't quite sure what it’s about. The darkly comic piece uses the genre of slasher films to tell a story that tries to delve into more serious issues. Moore parodies the conventions of the film genre to tell a more human story. Unfortunately, one form bleeds into the other (that pun is fully intended), resulting in a strange mash-up of storytelling.
Sheena is a smart, attractive young woman who feels stuck in a dead-end waitressing job at Buster’s (a thinly disguised Hooter’s) in Austin, Tex. Frances, Sheena’s mom, has holed up in an apartment with chronic fatigue syndrome. Real or imagined, her affliction has led her into prescription drug addiction and a life that’s angry and dependent, as much as she hates it. But she also hates the choices her daughter has made, despite needing her paycheck to make ends meet.
When Sheena is recruited to act in a slasher film, Frances goes off the deep end, convinced that it’s not only dangerous, it’s a denial of feminist causes that she once fought for. Then she learns that she has a past with the director, and that moves her from immobility to scheming killer. Things go wrong, with a lot of black humor, but Slasher never decides if it’s about issues or comedy, and for me it didn’t do either one very well.
Some of the characters are amusing. Frances, played by Lusia Strus, is a caricature of the angry feminist, while Mark Setlock’s hack director is so stereotypically smarmy and incompetent that you can anticipate his every sexist move. As Sheena, Nicole Rodenburg is a convincingly likeable young woman; Christy McIntosh plays an amusing array of women from a militantly conservative church lady to several of Sheena’s co-stars in the dreadful film, most of whom come to bad ends. Kind of like Slasher.
Young playwright Zoe Kazan wrote the most traditional play in this year’s Humana Festival. It’s a piece about a dysfunctional family: Saul Weber is a domineering writer whose autobiography has his adult children in an uproar. Teddy, his youngest son, has served as its editor and refused to share its salacious details with his siblings. Sophia, his daughter, feels she’s trapped into a life of looking after her aging father. Adam, the eldest son, is also an author; he's struggling to cope with his young son’s recent death and his own one-time success as a novelist, success he’s been unable to repeat.
At a party to celebrate Saul’s book, all these conflicts boil over, especially with the appearance of a fourth “sibling,” Cole Maddox, a man whom Saul brought into the family as a child and raised as another son. Cole and Saul have become embittered toward one another over a novel Cole published that Saul claims was stolen from him. This soap opera spins through two acts and takes several dramatic twists and turns and characters betray one another.
The play’s title, Absalom, hearkens to the biblical tale of the rebellion of one of King David’s sons, and we see that story played out in several relationships. The female characters are less interesting, more serving as foils or devices within the machinations of the men. Teddy’s wife is also a writer and a beauty; she becomes attracted to Cole, sparking a conflict between those two men. Sophia has long had a crush on Cole, but her place seems to be one of being disappointed by men she cares about.
Peter Michael Goetz is an imperious patriarch, and J. Anthony Crane is the handsome but devious Cole; Todd Weeks was the cast’s most interesting performer with his multi-layered portrait of Adam, plagued by his own perceived inadequacies and by the loss of his son. I felt the piece needed more focus — perhaps one or two fewer characters — but Kazan is a promising playwright who knows how to create naturalistic dialogue and people you believe.
Hard Weather Boating Party
Playwright Naomi Wallace is a genius, certified by her receipt of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (the so-called “genius grant”). That’s more than can be said for the three men who constitute the cast of characters in her new play, her third for the Humana Festival. (She wrote One Flea Spare, presented in 1996, and The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, featured in 1998.) Her new script all happens in one place, a run-down motel in “Rubbertown, U.S.A.” (It’s an actual industrial neighborhood in Louisville, the one-time site of several rubber companies that evolved into chemical production facilities.)
Staddon Vance (Michael Cullen), Lex Nadal (Jesse J. Perez) and Coyle Forester (Kevin Jackson) are workers who have been exposed to toxic industrial waste. They’re angry about their fate, which extends to failed personal relationships, but blame most of their troubled lives on their employer, personified by the company’s CEO, whom they've decided to murder. The first act is their ham-handed planning the crime; the second act is the aftermath of an action that didn’t quite play out as planned.
Wallace, a native of Jefferson County, where Louisville is located, has commented, “I was interested in writing a play about the intersection of environmental issues with race and class in the U.S. I also wanted to write a play about how the damage to our environment affects us in the most personal ways. How it affects our bodies, our minds, our desire, our connection with others.”
That’s what Hard Weather Boating Party explores: Vance, a mid-level manager, feels some guilt at the constant exposure of employees to hazardous situations. Nadal, a hyperactive Hispanic who dreams of a better life but is mired in poverty and dead-end employment, is simply trying to move forward. Forester, a well-read African American whose marriage has crumbled, is hoping that somehow he can reclaim the past. They’re an unlikely trio of conspirators, and they spend much of their time together in misguided efforts to build trust — especially playing damaging rounds of “Truth or Dare.”
After an act and a half of realistic interaction, Wallace’s tale turns suddenly surreal. I was a bit befuddled by the play’s final image, and I couldn’t quite capture what she expects us to take away from this tale. Her program comment notes, “More than anything, perhaps Hard Weather is a play about the possibility of friendship in an impossible situation.”
The play’s antithetical title — the notion of a festive gathering in the midst of a storm — captures this dichotomy. Well-drawn characters and searing interactions typify this drama. I just wish it drew a clearer conclusion.
Most of the shows offered during the 33rd Humana Festival have serious intentions. As noted, even humorous works offer that feeling through a very dark lens. The one cheerful production is Brink!, the 2009 anthology written for the theater’s acting apprentice company. Six playwrights were commissioned to write brief pieces about rites of passage — birth, adolescence, dating, first job, marriage and so on — that would be performed by 21 aspiring actors who have spent the year in less visible capacities.
The writers — Lydia R. Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz, Greg Kotis (one of the co-creators of Urinetown), Deborah Zoe Laufer, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Deborah Stein — each generated two or three short scripts that were enacted in a 90-minute showcase that showed off the musical, acting and dancing talents of the young performers. Almost every piece was an amusing flight of fantasy, from the “Big Birth Opening Number” with the cast running randomly throughout the theater with headpieces on that turned them into spermatozoa to the closing piece, the conclusion of “Grandpa’s Cologne,” a sweet three-part tale of first love with a book by Diaz and music and lyrics by Kotis.
Some of the pieces were truly imaginative: “The White Bread Ballet” by Nachtrieb and Stein is the story of a relatively normal young woman raised by circus clowns who has a moment of insight just before being swept away by a boring life, while “Today I Am a Woman” by Laufer, is a bat mitzvah for Sarah, who cites gloomy existential writers in “honoring” her family. Kotis’ “An Actor Arrives” portrays an aspiring performer (like most of the actors in Brink!) at a crossroads, a startling opportunity on short notice to audition for Martin Scorsese.
Even shorter pieces like Stein’s “Instructions to My Future Life Partner Re: What to Do in the Event of My (Sudden, Heartbreaking, Heroic and/or Dramatic) Death” with just one actor lecturing as if to a college class were funny. Probably my favorite segment, however, was “American Dream,” another piece by Kotis laced with humor that felt like it was written earlier in the week. Jacob Wilhelmi, a fine singer, played the Father of a family striving for success in today’s world, singing, “Don’t you call it a Ponzi scheme/ We want in on that American Dream.”
One of the most popular features of the annual Humana Festival is a bill of Ten-Minute Plays. I missed seeing them this year because they're not presented until the Festival’s final weekend. This year’s titles and writers are On the Porch One Crisp Spring Morning by Alex Dremann; 3:59 am: a drag race for two actors by Marco Ramirez; and Roanoke by Michael Lew. Typically these brief performances feature some of ATL’s acting apprentices and actors from several of the featured productions, so it’s fun to see them in roles that differ radically from how they’re spending most of their time onstage in Louisville.
The Humana Festival draws its audience from across the United States. It’s less than a two-hour drive from Cincinnati, and more theater fans from here should make this trip — this year's festival continues through April 11.
It’s a showcase of intriguing work: Every play isn’t a home run, but Actors Theatre of Louisville has had a phenomenal batting average. I come home every year with a revitalized sense of what’s going on in theater around the country. It’s like recharging a battery.