“The American theatre is in a shitload of trouble!” proclaims the stage manager in Jane Martin’s new play, Anton in Show Business, which premiered at this year’s Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The play’s first line succinctly states theatre professionals’ communal fear that the American theatre is a dying art. But while the play goes on to skewer every aspect of the theatre world, the 24-year-old Humana Festival itself is proof positive that the form prevails. The sheer scope of this year’s event—seven new full-length plays, three 10-minute plays and five phone plays—demonstrates that the festival remains the nation’s most fertile testing ground for new works and collaborations.
And given that many believe Jane Martin to be a pseudonym for Jon Jory—who has been at the helm of ATL for the past 31 years, and is retiring at the end of this season—Anton in Show Business could be called a parting shot, a career sum-up and a fond farewell.
Anton depicts a small Texas company, Actors Express (not to be confused with the Atlanta-based company of the same name), struggling to present Chekhov’s Three Sisters. A play about doing a play does beg the question asked by Joby—a character who sits in the audience and continually interrupts the play’s action with jabs at its integrity—“Isn’t that a little self-referential…a little precious?” Anton is indeed self-referential, though certainly not precious. At first glance the play seems a diatribe against the state of American theatre, but dig further and it becomes clear that the playwright cares deeply for the art form and the magic that first draws one to it.
While for theatre professionals the problems raised (questionable funding sources, star vehicles, concept-driven directors, weak-minded producers, the lack of good parts for women and people of color, the demands of uneducated theatregoers, damaging critics) may hardly be news, for lay theatregoers, the play is revelatory–as evidenced by the exuberant cheers, applause and comments elicited from those factions of the Louisville audience. They were treated to an enjoyable primer on the American theatre’s battle against its daily demons.
Despite Anton’s joviality, the play raises a crucial question, expressed by Joby, which lends itself to a larger discussion of the festival: “If doing plays doesn’t speak to the culture, then examining why, or satirizing why, is kind of beating a dead horse…from the inside.” Much of this year’s festival did attempt to “speak to the culture,” painting a picture of our society as rife with violence, force, torture and pain. Four of the seven full-length plays and one of the 10-minute plays dealt with violence—mostly against women. In these works, extraordinary cruelty causes the victims to feel eviscerated and exposed—but the plays also offer an antidote of hope: After violence, healing is possible.
Of the five works, Charles L. Mee’s Big Love, a modern adaptation of the Aeschylus drama The Suppliant Women, was the most visually violent. With a physically demanding staging by Les Waters, in which actors hurled themselves onto a padded floor, Big Love offered a poetic examination of the battle of the sexes. In the play, 50 Greek sisters, forced to marry against their will, conspire to murder their grooms on the wedding night. A bloody, yet erotic, slow-motion massacre ensues, with lace- and tuxedo-clad bodies crawling, clinging, scratching, strangling and stabbing. Just one sister, Lydia, refrains from the killing, only to be charged afterwards with treason against her sisters. But Mee’s wise-old-woman judge sets her free with a concise declaration: “Love trumps all.” Without losing sight of the horrors that have just occurred, Mee reminds us that there can be joy after sorrow.
Alexandra Cunningham’s No. 11 (Blue & White) and Stephen Belber’s Tape both exposed the devastation of acquaintance rape, focusing not on the rapes themselves but on the emotional aftermath. No. 11 depicts a trial in Connecticut, studying the disintegration of a group of prep school friends after one of them has been accused of two date rapes. The play exposes the moral fracturing of American youth and the gradual collapse of communication between the students, their parents and their coaches. Cunningham smartly opts not to stage the physical rapes, but to use vocal reenactment in which the attacker, Reid, bellows commands to the two girls from across the stage. Pain and violence are encapsulated in language rather than in action, resulting in a more powerful, contained energy.
What Cunningham makes clear is how these individual events ravage an entire community. Reid’s best female friend, Alex, who staunchly defends him by cruelly badgering the victims, delivers the most telling line: “The worst thing you’ve ever done—that’s who you are.”
Stephen Belber’s Tape, which reunites two childhood buddies who once dated the same girl, could claim a similar moral. In a dingy Motel 6, Vince, high on cocaine and alcohol, confronts Jon with his suspicions that Jon raped the girl—Amy—in their senior year of high school. Ten years after the assault, Vince still blames himself for not challenging Jon or supporting Amy, and the incident dogs both men as a reminder of the “worst thing they ever did.” Vince pummels Jon—verbally and physically—into a confession that he then tapes. But what they both realize, of course, is that confessions and apologies cannot change what happened. When Amy appears late in the play, she makes it powerfully clear that neither man has the right to “own the event” of her rape. But they are all victims nonetheless: Vince is held prisoner by the past, and Jon, though an aspiring filmmaker and now a “solid citizen,” will always be the person who committed a terrible crime.
Ironically, the least physical of this cluster of works is a play entitled Touch, by Toni Press-Coffman. This memory play dwells entirely in the mind of the protagonist, Kyle, who tells the gruesome tale of how his wife Zoe was tortured, raped and left to die in the desert. This brutal image is evoked by Press-Coffman’s language and enhanced by a small burial mound of rocks at the back of the stage. Though Zoe never makes an appearance, her existence and death are vividly present. Three other characters, all battered by Zoe’s loss and consumed with a need for healing, join Kyle in his spiritual struggle in this poignant portrait of life’s renewal after tragedy.
Naomi Wallace’s 10-minute Standard Time—a monologue delivered by a young man who has murdered his girlfriend in order to get her car—was yet another festival entry about the darker forces of the human psyche. Why the somber focus? Violence in the news and on prime-time TV is surely one impetus. Speaking more broadly, ATL literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon noted, “Violence and force are part of our lives—and the playwrights at the festival are bringing these issues into the lives of people like themselves. These are not people living in small subcultures of society, they are all pretty much part of the mainstream, living with the problems in society and dealing with the aftermath.” Playwright Mee believes the festival’s tone reflects a literary trend. “Dramatists,” he says, “are just getting back to the big, deep, horribly difficult stuff of human nature that the Greeks always dealt with.”
Not every play in Humana hewed to this harsh through-line. Perhaps the most divergent piece was War of the Worlds, a collaboration between Anne Bogart, her New York-based SITI Company and playwright Naomi Iizuka. This piece examines the life of the celebrated and self-destructive Orson Welles, whose pop-culture status seems to be at an all-time high. Mimicking the format of his most successful film, Citizen Kane, War begins with the word “thorn”—Welles’s supposed deathbed pronouncement—and works backward to find a meaning for this enigmatic final syllable. Bogart’s directorial prowess is most evident in the visuals she creates when the actors step in and out of a large moving frame to reenact film clips; or when she utilizes onstage lights to create a shadow puppet show; or when Welles piles chair upon chair only to tear them down again, mirroring the destruction of Xanadu in Citizen Kane.
The sight of a genius tearing down his own monument couldn’t help but point up the contrasting accomplishment of Humana’s own presiding genius—an artist who has built and nurtured the festival with such care that its importance to the American theatre scene is not likely to diminish under new leadership. Although he is leaving Louisville, Jon Jory promises he’ll “be back next year to direct in the 25th Humana Fest.”
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