LOUISVILLE, KY.: Weary spectators, we brave few hundred, buttocks aching, breath redolent of box lunch: we, the nation’s critics, sitting alongside the chirpy interns, the antacid-popping playwrights, the panning-for-gold producers. We will not doze; we will keep pens poised high at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 25th Humana Festival for New American Plays. For we are the curmudgeonly “special guests” at “visitors weekend”—hands down, the best-run, friendliest and most celebratory event I have visited in many a season.
The festivities surrounding this year’s multi-play marathon were stellar, commencing with a Thursday night soiree hosted by ATL board member Fredric Davis, a meat supplier with a top-grade, choice-cut home, where I schmoozed with foreign critics (“Vhy is American theatre alvays so cheerful?”) and snoozed under the head of an elk. Friday morning several of my hungover colleagues drank mint juleps at a special brunch; Saturday night there was a bacchanalian party, complete with ice sculpture and lobby-shaking music that had the critics rolling in the aisles until 4 a.m.
Actually, if I could change anything about the Humana Festival it would be the mind-set of the critics, those smug and self-satisfied scribblers, all so sure “who Jane Martin really is.” As a rigorous journalist, one who relies on evidence, I attempted to find out the famously reclusive playwright’s real identity on my own, after it was announced before the weekend’s last production that she had won the American Theatre Critics Association/Steinberg award for best new play (for Anton in Show Business, featured at last year’s festival). I called out: “Jane?!” Only nobody jumped, or replied, “Yes?”
Yes, critics have to prove they know things, so everyone had the inside dope about where the theatre’s new artistic director Marc Masterson would take this festival now that Jon Jory (ATL’s producing director from 1969 to 2000) has left for a post at the University of Washington. But these predictions were all just wind-borne micturition: This year’s festival, after all, was the swan song of Jory and his longtime associate Michael Bigelow Dixon (also leaving ATL, in Dixon’s case for Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater), and their imprint was palpable. So while I doubt that this is the last Humana premiere of a collaboration by Jane Martin and Jon Jory (represented, as author and director, respectively, of this year’s festival crowd-pleaser, Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage), if it is, they will go out not with a whimper but with a bang—12 of them, to be exact, lodged as bullets into the chest of Black Dog, the comedy’s cyborg-like biker.
Flaming Guns is nothing to be pondered too long, and director Jory seemed to approach Ms. Martin’s play accordingly: This hellzapoppin’ laff riot about a sensitive rodeo cowboy, a pierced-and-dyed groupie from L.A. and lots of sawed-up body parts was kept spinning like the cotton candy it is. Phyllis Somerville (as an aging temptress of young bucks) sashayed away with the show, drawling all the sodium chloride out of salty lines like, “If you put her brain in a bluebird, it’d fly backwards.”
Just as popular (and with a bit more meat on its bones) was Melanie Marnich’s Quake. Centered on young Lucy’s picaresque search for “big love,” the play’s elliptical structure peeks at the pantheon of bad boyfriends, from myopic jocks to two-timing bookworms. Through her travels, the protagonist remains in awe of an Aileen Wournos-like serial killer (of men only, of course). Quake is a quest, quick with quips—but I have a quibble: Lucy’s excellent adventure ends with a too-easy conclusion (“big love” means, you guessed it, compromise), and when the writing strains to be surreal, it comes out more Ally McBeal. That said, Marnich is about to make waves on the theatre scene, and I predict that Quake, like all seismic shifts, will turn the tides.
Reception was mixed for my two favorite works, both of the less conventional variety: Charles Mee’s bobrauschenbergamerica and Mac Wellman’s Description Beggared: or The Allegory of WHITENESS. In the spirit of a Rauschenberg combine, Mee’s play seemed to exist always-and-already as a found object and an Anne Bogart production. The alchemy of the SITI company actors, the sound design by Darron West, the American flag set by James Schuette (which owes as much to Jasper Johns as to Rauschenberg) and Mee’s words, by turns tongue-in-cheek and rapturous, made this a play that any critic in his right mind would put down his notepad to watch. My favorite assemblage/happening-like moment involved swimsuit-clad actors transforming the Victor Jory Theatre into an enormous martini, diving in and spitting olives to the strains of the Captain and Tenille’s “Love Will Keep Us Together.” Rauschenberg is immanent in Mee’s words (Bob’s mother speaks of throwing castoffs against the wall to find the art within), images (taxidermists’ animals, dresses on hangers, rubber tires) and, best of all, spirit.
Wellman’s ironic inquiry in “whiteness” got an exquisite treatment from director Lisa Peterson and included some witty/pretty music by Michael Roth (who I think used both white and black keys). Designed as animated alabaster—diadem, snow, pearls, lace, white feathers and fur—Description Beggared looked gorgeously frostbitten, but some of the more literal-minded critics just felt left out in the cold when confronted with Wellman’s wordplay. True to its title, the play beggars description but revolves around Frasier Outer Ring the IV, who rails about the sullied arts of photography (black-and-white, I suppose) and, of course, jazz. Frasier can’t come home to his pallid-pallored clan because “he did not know how to reply to the white zebra.” Only obliquely about race (Wellman confessed that he didn’t set out to write a play about white people, it just ended up that way), The Allegory of WHITENESS was playful, pun-filled and, at times, hilarious, a baby-powder keg of a play that dared to make music out of miscegenation, class privilege and the mechanical flea circuses of Newport, R.I.
Eduardo Machado’s deeply felt When the Sea Drowns in Sand fused the personal with the political. When the Cuban-American Federico wonders aloud if he experienced forced expatriation or willing exile, his Italian-American friend Fred decides to help him find out. Escorting the nervous writer back to his homeland, Fred finds he is having an identity struggle all his own. Throw in a third character, the streetwise Ernesto—wholly unsympathetic to what he believes is a gay couple engaged in frivolity—and When the Sea‘s unusual triangle becomes a fresh wedge into the nearly exhausted subject of identity politics. However, judging from the confused chatter in the lobby, just whose struggle is at the center of this play remained unclear to too many critics; Machado seems one draft away from what may turn out to be a solid-but-bittersweet drama.
Richard Dresser’s Wonderful World plunked us squarely in the domestic realm, eschewing politics for the ethics of coupling. Two brothers, their very different female partners and an emotionally Arctic mother all switch allegiances when some cruel candor dissolves their “loving” bonds. Brother Max fantasizes about murdering his fiancee, then sleeps with his sister-in-law. Brother Barry makes big bucks delivering motivational speeches in public arenas while, in private, he cuts his brother off at the knees. The roundelay of who-loves-whom-and-in-whose-bed spins into yet another fidelity-versus-philandering story. It’s told with some cartoonish glee, but it has a mean-spirited center: By the time all these characters had shown their teeth, I felt like I’d watched Donald Margulies’s Dinner With Friends adapted by Lucrezia Borgia.
And then there are the Humana perennials. Gadzooks!: Arthur Kopit’s three 10-minute plays, collectively titled Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, involved parodic swipes at B-movies, complete with soupy string orchestras, villains who laugh like “mmmwaa-ha-ha-ha-ha” and a reluctant prophet (the dimpled Chad—played with indefatigable dimples by Leo Kittay—who receives a message from God on a tablet-cum-frisbee). Of the telephone plays (recorded plays, about three minutes in length, heard in the lobby by picking up a pay phone), Sterling Houston’s was the only one worth sweating up your ear for.
Finally, Heaven and Hell (on Earth): A Divine Comedy, a pastiche of 16 short sketches, owed little to Dante but much to the apprentice company of spirited young actors. Indeed, these talented tyros were often better than the material, though I was quite taken with Guillermo Reyes’s reimagining of St. Augustine as a slacker college roommate (Saints at the Rave), Hilly Hicks Jr.’s portrait of an accountant from hell (Note to Self) and—yet again—Jane Martin, who, in White Elephants, boldly goes where no man (sic?) has gone before: the Republican section of heaven. Other noteworthy contributions came from Rebecca Gilman, Keith Glover and Elizabeth Wong, but most of the others had me feeling that even a five-minute play can wear out its welcome before the blessed blackout arrives.
But everyone’s a critic.
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