Don’t misunderstand. Audience potential and the imprimatur of festival buzz are not the enemy or danger signs; they’re something to be embraced, every so often, if the possibility arises. But to concentrate on rooting out what is new and different, the trendsetters and commercially viable properties, usually to the exclusion of every other consideration that makes the theatre pertinent and essential, is to engage in a counterproductive exercise in crystal-ball-gazing and market valuation.
How many “runaway hits” or “consensus favorites” of the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Ky., have turned out to be overrated pap, box-office turkeys or head-scratching mediocre fare after they were done outside of the festival’s rarefied format? How many Humana plays don’t fit notions of commercial worthiness but are notable calling cards that establish or redefine the contours of a playwright’s emergent sensibilities? How many such plays have showed strong legs in theatres across the country, despite not having been christened as a “festival discovery”?
One of the most galling aspects of attending the full final weekend of the Humana Festival in April is to observe the disconnect between the youthful vitality and gutsy imagination of the current crop of playwrights and the one-track-mindedness of aging critics, journalists, agents and taste-makers who talk and act like hit-seeking missiles. This disparity makes itself felt in some of the offstage tensions and high-pressure interactions that are engendered when the two groups sit beside one another in the three performing spaces of the Actors Theatre, with the critics’ identities set off by yellow ribbons dangling from their name badges. Encrusted attitudes about what is commercial naturally bubble up to the surface, and the gulf between the formally inventive plays these young writers want to make and the plays that are deemed to hold the interests of mainstream audiences seems bigger than ever.
Despite the range and complexity of the works at hand, many festival regulars seem arthritically receptive. They tend to shoehorn the six full-length works that were performed in this year’s festival into predictable narratives and developmental-program prejudices that inevitably find their way into print. Several visitors strained to whip up some lather on the penetrating statistic that five of the six plays were by women, as if it were possible to detect the surge and ebb of the scripts’ estrogen levels. One fly-by-night assessment in a showbiz trade paper drips with disdain and condescension by describing this year’s batch of writers as “earnest, articulate, amply degreed but mainly neophyte scribes” who “evinced an obsession with the evils of the tube.”
The irresistible temptation, of course, is to grade and sort out six plays seen in a marathon of 48 hours, especially in the nation’s most prestigious new-play incubator. The truer task is to act on the fears and biases that prevent new works from being seen—and break that curse. The stakes are pretty high. For many young playwrights, like Gina Gionfriddo, Jordan Harrison and Kirsten Greenidge, landing a first production at the Humana Festival is a kind of grail, a culmination of years of bouncing around the developmental circuit that augurs the promise of brighter future. For other lucky writers, it is a beginning, since the Humana Festival often invests in writers and not just in plays. Melanie Marnich and Rinne Groff are seeing their second festival outing this year.
And when a play touches a nerve in the audience (as the post-9/11 angst of Omnium-Gatherum, by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck, did last year), it really hits. Gionfriddo has been catapulted into national standing because her tough-talking comedy After Ashley was this year’s popular choice. An indignant attack on the mass marketing of grief and on social hypocrisy, her play taps into a collective outrage about how the sensationalistic media fixate on rape and murder, transforming reluctant victims into instant celebrities and generating a cottage industry around personal tragedy. Justin, the disaffected teenage protagonist in the play, articulates this bottomless ethical anger, much of it furiously directed at his father, who recast his own cranky, pot-smoking wife Ashley into a hallowed martyr, wrote a best-seller about the crime and became a TV celebrity with his own reality show. Propelled by snappish-caustic dialogue, a straightforward plot and some meaty as well as too-broadly comic roles, After Ashley was immediately scooped up by New York producers and will debut at the Vineyard Theatre in the 2004-05 season.
A select few Humana playwrights, by dint of frequent appearances, are well-nigh veterans. This year’s lone old-timer, Naomi Iizuka—whose At the Vanishing Point is her fourth Humana premiere—firms up her reputation as a craftsman who writes to order. Staged site-specifically in a vacant meat warehouse, the play is a staid cycle of prose monologues about a group of Louisville residents in what was once the meatpacking district of Butchertown. Based on interviews and archival materials, Vanishing is structured as a series of dissolving portraits, beginning with a jazz-loving optician’s slideshow presentation of his photos, brought to life by five actors. Iizuka’s speeches are vivid, precious and airily linked; her sentences are one sustained, aching sigh reaching for poetic grace (“It’s about the act of seeing a thing, and how it connects to other things and is part of a whole”). Shuttling from past to present, the family album-like play reveals that the curious art photographer we first met and his wife have long since died. For such a nimble plot to be fully appreciated, Vanishing requires patience and breathing space (and a good night’s sleep), and it is one of several that suffered in the festival environment’s boozy orgy of schmoozing, deal-making, networking and new-play shopping.
One of the last Humana plays to be performed, Marnich’s Tallgrass Gothic also had to contend with a related impatience from an audience that had its ample share of the surfeit and was anxious to go home. A long one-act about an adulterous woman in a farm community in the American heartland whose affair escalates into havoc and murder, Marnich’s play is a sexy, raw, disturbing vehicle for young actors, a dark companion piece to her quirkily picaresque Quake. If Tallgrass Gothic feels familiar, that’s because it is a contemporary prairie-set reworking of The Changeling, the gory 17th-century Jacobean drama by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, with ghostly-archetypal helpings from Zola’s Therese Raquin. As the title cautions, profane sex, runaway lust, small-town gossip, suffocating boredom and violent acts are meant to erupt from the grassy tufts of golden wheat fields and the overheated pews of the Catholic Church.
I think it’s Paula Vogel who quips, astutely, that in the theatre women win prizes but men get productions. That gulf widens when young writers are several steps ahead of the graying festival regulars who flail to catch up. Two of them, Jordan Harrison in Kid-Simple: a radio play in the flesh and Rinne Groff in The Ruby Sunrise, are so besotted by a love for language and theatrical effects that their gizmo-laden plays pull the rug from under an audience’s feet. Kid-Simple, in particular, upsets audiences who cannot handle the three-ring-circus nature of its sensory assaults. Drenched in a storm of sound and spectacle, some overloaded minds simply tune off or get ticked off, an adverse reaction not unlike those that frequently meet the relentlessly high-tech revelries of the Wooster Group and Builders Association.
To be fair, Kid-Simple is way too rich a confection, like a multi-layered cake with candies on top of icing. At its core a coming-of-age quest, it is a sci-fi comic-book tale about a know-it-all teenage science student who invents a device called a Third Ear, loses it and schemes to get it back. Infused with the confounding lyricism of Mac Wellman and the arbitrary absurdism of Caryl Churchill, Harrison’s overcrowded fantasia intercuts several strands of plot: an amusing radio melodrama, a rescue story involving a boy virgin and an infrasonic cello, a lit-crit riff about the end of narrative order, and a whorl of funky sound effects that seek to represent such inaudible things as the sounds of toenails growing on field mice, the ripening of figs and “cogs in her head.” As one can no doubt imagine, Kid-Simple‘s director, master sound designer Darron L. West, grabs this world of fertile, discordant sounds and paints the town red. Unfortunately, he hasn’t pared down the rambunctious clutter to give it a satisfying shape, so that Harrison’s larger point about the corruption of language, machine and memory is brought off without pointed clarity, and the silence that follows the cacophony does not come off as a terrible, ironic relief.
Kid-Simple, nevertheless, is a tour de force of imagination. Intriguingly, it resembles Groff’s Ruby Sunrise in the sense that both turn in structurally daring narratives about whip-smart female inventors whose obsessive desire to create leads them to love, adventure and much heartbreak. What’s thrilling is how both plays purposefully veer off course, with the difference that the unruly Kid-Simple vaults off the map and the more assured Ruby Sunrise loops back, ingeniously, to its core themes through a time-travel trick.
The romantic first act of The Ruby Sunrise involves Ruby, an intense, ambitious young woman from Kokomo, Ind., whose uncanny grasp of electromagnetism drives her to create a 1927 prototype of television in the old barn beside a farmhouse kitchen where her boozy aunt and her shy college-age boyfriend live. Then, Groff’s story spins forward 25 years to a New York television studio, where Ruby’s daughter, a television copygirl, arranges for a writer to create a television drama about Ruby.
Under Trinity Repertory Company artistic director Oskar Eustis’s brilliant direction and with an unforgettable design by Eugene Lee, Deb Sullivan and Bray Poor, The Ruby Sunrise is only nominally a thought-provoking critique of the failure of television as a medium that could promote peace, community values and mutual understanding. The play is really about how history, as told by the official media, mangles the truth. Just as the New York Times represented only the interests of large corporations during the early development of TV, so have commercial interests, blacklist anxieties and political machinations warped the most impassioned attempts to recuperate Ruby’s past. (My favorite line: “New York Times. New York Times. I can say it, too; it don’t mean it’s holy.”) Groff, however, is not scoring ideological points. In her play’s bravura final tableau, Ruby’s idealistic speech about how TV will one day help stop wars is juxtaposed with a huge projected image of the ingenue TV actor playing her, walking against a rolling landscape, while a sanitized “Playhouse 90”-like version of Ruby’s life is simultaneously being broadcast live. This collage—of poetic realism, made-for-TV portrayal and backstage antics—may be the closest thing one can get to the unvarnished truth. Some lives, Groff fears, may never be fully recovered.
Kirsten Greenidge’s Sans-culottes in the Promised Land is the other great play to come out of this year’s Humana. Its subject is wholly original: How do successful, upper-middle-class African Americans maintain their cultural identity and impart their values to their children in a country that aspires to mimic the model of upper-class white suburban lives? Greenidge’s hilarious answer is that they hire nannies.
Inspired by her own experiences as a nanny for a family in Newton, Mass., Sans-culottes teems with a scurry of African Americans lost in a black, black comedy of distorted fantasies. The new nanny, who can’t read or write, pulls letters of the alphabet, instead of laundry, from the bowels of a washing machine she can’t operate. The fierce-looking housekeeper, a West Indian immigrant, is intent on gaining control over the household. The mother, an overachieving lawyer who has become detached from her family, strives to play with the big boys even as her head literally hits the glass ceiling. The father, an ineffectual architect, can’t keep his hands off the domestic help. Their daughter, Greta, is a fragile, roly-poly doll who stuffs her face to boost her self-esteem and covers herself with white talcum power to look like Snow White.
The one remaining sans-culottes figure in Greenidge’s paradise lost, a maniacal African-heritage teacher, is not the revolutionary working-class savior that one romantically supposes. Despite her good intentions, aromatherapy potions and effusive love for the Declaration of Independence, her back-to-Africa strategy involves sowing the seeds of destruction and watering them from a spray bottle. Soon, leafy plants and towering trees miraculously grow, sprouting everywhere until they overwhelm the furniture and turn the well-appointed house into an enchanted wilderness, where no one (not the lost characters in the play or the bewildered audience) can see the forest for the trees. Chaos reigns.
In Greenidge’s wildly zany and supernatural vision, the dawn of the “new world” will first be greeted by pandemonium. The entire bulwark of civilization will have to collapse to the ground, if America’s promise of equality and democracy is to gain a true stronghold, its ideals flowing like milk and honey. Not since The Colored Museum has a satire about colored contradictions been this provocative. An expressionistic parable of the catastrophic fall that precedes radical rebirth, Sans-culottes in the Promised Land is pure astonishment.
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