If the latest crop of fresh plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival is any indication, love, death and failed theatre experiments are going to be complicating our lives well into the next century. That may not be an earth-shattering revelation, but in this volatile period of political, social, economic, and environmental instability, some comfort can be taken from the knowledge that some things remain constant—and that, for the playwrights at this year’s Humana Festival at least, politics still takes a back seat to people and art.
The Grim Reaper made an unusually strong showing in Louisville this year (the unofficial body count was nine), though the ominous recurrence of death as a theme was never fully accounted for. Speculation ran from the idea that the parents of baby boom playwrights are starting to keel over more frequently nowadays, to the more cynical notion that the festival itself is funded in large part by an enormous health services and hospital conglomerate, Humana, Inc.
Whatever the reasons, death was not in a vacationing mood. Wearing many different guises, touching almost every play, death did not necessarily signal the end of anything so much as an opportunity for renewal, for salvation, a passage from one stage of life to the next—something inevitable, but not necessarily dreaded.
For example, in another installment of Jane Anderson’s “Lynette” series, Lynette at 3 AM (the unanimous favorite of the 10-minute “Shorts”), Lynette and her boyfriend Bobby are sleeping when gunshots go off. Lynette hears them, Bobby doesn’t, and the difference is a symbolic bullet fired through the soul of their relationship. The ghost of a man downstairs, shot for sleeping with his brother’s wife, floats into their bedroom and seduces Lynette, making passionate love to her while Bobby wakes up and plods to the bathroom, oblivious to her imaginary ecstasy. (As artist Jenny Holzer puts it in one of her digital texts, “Murder has its sexual side.”) Lynette gratifies herself in fantasy while her real-life relationship dies of boredom.
Anderson’s was not the darkest use of death—that distinction went to Ross McLean’s Hyaena, which emerged as the festival’s most quietly disturbing play.
The Hyaena (played by William McNulty) is an emotional scavenger who ingratiates himself to terminally ill hospital patients so he can indulge his obsession for sharing the moment they die. He preys on the dying person’s need for compassion and takes advantage of a family’s tendency to pull away from loved ones who are close to death.
The Hyaena never reveals his name, always deflecting such questions with, “It doesn’t matter.” He claims to have unlimited empathy for the dying, but this pretense masks a self-serving desire to experience death vicariously (a moment from which he derives a twisted sort of pleasure), in effect stealing the most intimate moment of a person’s life without risking anything of himself in the process.
It’s a sick hobby, but one that hints at the possible consequences of living in a society that clinically detaches itself from the emotional realities of death, thereby increasing people’s fear of love, pain, grief, and loss.
Broaching some of the same issues but resolving them in completely different ways was the standout surprise of the festival, Mayo Simon’s The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival—surprising only because, on the face of it, Simon’s play involves the most innocuous of characters, two old ladies, and the most conventional of settings, a bus stop and apartment.
Netty, a spunky, fiercely independent 83-year-old, is going blind. Shprintzy, a fellow geriatric, can see and knows the bus routes, but doesn’t walk too well and is suffering from Alzheimer’s. Both women are slowly losing their ability to function by themselves in the world, and eventually they form a friendship based on reluctant but mutual need.
Simon embraces both the humor and pathos of their predicament, celebrating the preciousness of friends and the strength necessary to deal with the inevitable deterioration of body and mind as old age encroaches. Magnificently performed by Lynn Cohen and Shirl Bernheim, and tenderly directed by Alan Mandell, The Old Lady’s Guide to Survival was in many ways the most daring production in Louisville, for it took courage on Simon’s part to go back to basics, proving that traditional forms are not dead yet, either.
By far the most intriguing use of death as a metaphor was José Rivera’s apocalyptic anti-adventure Marisol, virtually the only play to grapple with any serious political or metaphysical issues. In Marisol the angels are plotting to assassinate God because He has gotten old and lazy. Abandoned by her guardian angel when she refuses to help, a yuppie woman named Marisol Perez wades through the apocalypse in New York while the angels battle it out in heaven. By the end, she is begging to have her boring nine-to-five job back.
Rivera’s vision of millennial chaos echoes the deterioration of our inner cities and global environment, but no verbal description could ever do justice to Rivera’s imagination. Suffice to say that watching Marisol is like sitting upside down at a Metallica concert reading Borges while drinking a gallon of gasoline and swallowing a lighted match—not something you’d want to experience every day, but still theatre at its revolutionary, mind-blowing best.
Even with the shadow of death lurking around every scrim—Joyce Carol Oates’s 10-minute short Procedure actually detailed the official routine for preparing corpses to go to the morgue—many of the characters in Louisville seemed intent on forging meaningful relationships out of the tattered shambles of their lives. Unfortunately, the search for love and family did not necessarily translate into dynamic theatre.
D. Boone, Marsha Norman’s commissioned story about a romantically disillusioned museum curator who travels back in time to be with the only man she truly loves, Daniel Boone, had a breezy, throwaway quality, as if it were written for her own amusement in between more serious projects. A clever, pleasant trifle, easy to like, but not exactly destined for the Pulitzer.
Likewise, in Evelyn and the Polka King, playwright John Olive sacrificed some fantastic polka music by Carl Finch and Bob Lucas to a trite story about a sleepwalking former polka singer coming off a 25-year drinking binge who helps a teenage girl, his daughter from a long forgotten tryst, locate her biological mother. Warmhearted (as the polka king says, nobody who polka-dances ever sold the government a $15,000 toilet seat) but ultimately frivolous, this patchwork of a play cannot be held together even by the stellar musicianship of world-class accordionist Guy Klucevsek and his band.
Suzan-Lori Parks’s Devotees in the Garden of Love and David Henry Hwang’s Bondage were originally packaged as two one-acts under the umbrella title “Rites of Mating,” which was changed mid-festival at the playwrights’ request to “2 Acts of to Love,” presumably to emphasize the romantic over the carnal. Devotees, a parable equating love with war, lost its audience to confusion and boredom, but its companion piece was another matter entirely.
Bondage takes place in a Los Angeles S&M parlor, where a man and woman dressed head-to-toe in black leather to conceal their true identities, explore racial prejudice as a sexual power game. Pretending to be African American, Asian, Hispanic, and white, they exploit each other’s preconceived notions about the role of race in sexual relationships, slowly igniting a deeper curiosity about who they really are underneath the leather and masks.
Though Hwang did not take full advantage of the S&M parlor’s more dangerous possibilities or push his characters to any convincing emotional limits, Bondage remains a fascinating vehicle for exposing how racial stereotypes keep people apart and, conversely, how love has the power to render racial barriers irrelevant.
In many ways, Bondage reflected the emotional situation of numerous characters throughout the festival. Protected against the dangers of intimacy yet yearning so deeply for a meaningful connection that they are willing to suffer almost any humiliation, the characters in Bondage finally reach a point where they have no choice but to face reality or abandon the game.
The sense that one pays a severe price for refusing to be emotionally engaged in the world—from the old lady who maintains that the key to survival is staying detached from other people’s suffering, to Hwang’s characters who inflict suffering on each other before they can love—is perhaps the binding theme of our time. Trapped between the longing for love and the finality of death, our best playwrights are still trying to find ways to break through the fear in order for the American experiment, not to mention the human experiment, to work.
The same can be said for theatrical experiments as well. Fate willing, there will always be a next year.
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