In addition to a roster of six new full-length plays and four 10-minute ones, the impeccably run Humana Festival’s 29th incarnation featured a collaboratively written exercise subtitled On Democracy and Other Fictions, Featuring Patriotism Acts and Blue Songs from a Red State. It could have been a subtitle for the festival, mounted in March and April at Kentucky’s Actors Theatre of Louisville—except that the razor-sharp artists responsible for Uncle Sam’s Satiric Spectacular (Greg Allen, Sheila Callaghan, Bridget Carpenter, Eric Coble, Richard Dresser, Michael Friedman and Hilly Hicks) were writing within vaudevillian parameters that allowed for mostly rapid-fire pace, pithy one-liners and blissfully ridiculous showing off.
The problem is that the six full-length plays—which took aim at as many hot-button topics—didn’t have the benefit of the one-two punch. All that acutely felt anger, guilt, fear, frustration and pain, stretched to 90 minutes or longer, began to collapse under the weight of its own earnestness.
The playwrights in question are passionate and immensely talented. But, judging from their Humana entries, they’ve got an axe to grind about America—and, by extension, the theatre’s critique of it: “The theatre is not dead!” they’re shouting. “It is not complacent or irrelevant or superfluous!” But too often these ideals are hampered by the strictures of plot, character and form.
Which is a problem. Yes, we want our theatre to be keyed into what is most pressing, most terrifying and most vital. But if the proffered “solutions” are lacking energy and pulse, confined to a structure that can’t lift us out of our seats, then a festival like this can start to feel theatrically complacent and irrelevant. With the theatre field looking to Humana for what is new and daring—especially when the current national climate is the pervading theme—it’s frustrating to run up against plays that spend more time preaching to the choir than showing off the best their authors have to give.
Humana generates a great deal of its own buzz—and the final special-visitors weekend gathering of playwrights, critics, producers and enthusiasts radiated an energy that was lacking on the stage. The who-do-you-know, where’s-the-hit atmosphere can work to the participants’ own detriment, sure, but if you could harness the event’s extracurricular dynamic and put that on stage, it would outpace what was actually there by a mile.
Kia Corthron’s Moot the Messenger tops most lists as the poster child for what ailed the festival: Talented writer tackles too many subjects with too much stridency and not enough artistic coherence. The nation’s post-millennium headlines (Florida, Jessica Lynch, friendly fire and so on) careen in and out of view through our heroine’s eyes: Briar, a young African-American journalist, idealistic but tough, whip-smart and dogged. This is a heady journey, and Corthron jam-packs a well-researched litany of Bush-era grievances into her signature dense language.
Like a Cliffs Notes version of recent memory, however, this ambitious work (which clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes) loses some resonance by its epic telling. A play that conjures so many horrors and frustrations of the past six years should be more moving than this.
Corthron—who has tackled social and political injustices to better result in other plays—does find a few hooks on this roller coaster. In the most affecting, two enlisted girls from Briar’s hometown—one a brassy-but-endearing motor-mouth, the other her giddy, virginal roommate—unwittingly land in the midst of the Abu Ghraib atrocities. Corthron introduces them to us, however, giggling past curfew on their regulation cots; these girls are more frightened of soldiers patrolling the halls than the horrors of war outside. Returning twice to these characters in subsequent scenes—one set in prison—Corthron suggests how much stronger Moot could be, and how even an audience of knee-jerk liberals could be forced to consider new points of view.
Allison Moore’s Hazard County (this year’s National New Play Network selection, slated for productions across the country, including Atlanta’s Actor’s Express in July) feels like a victim of too much development. Ruth, a Kentucky single mother of twins who lost her husband in a racially tinged act of violence, meets the man who could be her savior: Blake, a Yankee transplanted to Hollywood, where he produces reality TV but aspires to be reporter for Fox News. Moore (herself a displaced Texan) admirably aims to get to the heart of misperceptions Northerners have about Southerners, and vice versa, but unfortunately new thinking on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line gets mired in a plot which hinges on those very stereotypes.
What is great about this play—and suggests Moore’s predilection toward something a bit quirkier and messier—is a Greek chorus of “Dukes of Hazzard” enthusiasts and critics who wax rhapsodic or dubious about the 1980s TV show. One claims “Dukes” succeeded in finding “both the joke and the danger behind the joke.” Moore’s play doesn’t reveal enough of either.
The numerous compelling elements of playwright-to-watch Adam Bock’s The Shaker Chair include a winning leading lady of a demographic not often seen center stage, two great tragic-comic foils for her, and heightened, looping diction that perfectly captures the incoherence of speech. The play is something of a departure for Bock, who tends toward more surreal work. Here, middle-aged Marion has bought a Shaker chair, which stands resolutely stage center, a beacon of “get to it”-ness. Whether to rouse oneself to action (Marion’s activist friend Jean wants her to pitch in on a rogue mission to save some local pigs) or not (reduced to a weeping muddle after her husband’s latest infidelity, Marion’s sister Dolly still won’t leave him) is the central question and conflict of the play.
Ironically, it’s when the play takes a turn for the active—introducing several peripheral characters and a spot-lit chase scene—that it falters.
The characters in John Belluso’s A Nervous Smile possess a special kind of self-absorption; they’re fascinating in their wickedness. Belluso’s amorality tale is set in the upper echelons of New York society where two parents—Vicodin-addled Eileen and her adulterous husband Brian—decide to escape the strain of raising a child with cerebral palsy by abandoning her with a note at the hospital. Eileen will go to London; Brian will convince Nic—also parenting a child with cerebral palsy—to flee south with him.
It’s preposterous, of course, but Belluso (who based the play on an actual event) seems clued in to the inherent absurdity and lets his characters veer to melodrama. The second act comeuppance (for the women, at least) isn’t nearly as much fun as the setup, though, and the pace drags. Still, commendably, Belluso has not weighted his characters to ensure sympathy—no victims of the world social order here. We have to join them on their awful own terms—and the thing is, we do.
Critics complained that Kathleen Tolan’s Memory House is a slight play, amiable but a bit dull and slow. One hopes that separated from its fireworks-laden festival brethren (New York City’s Playwrights Horizons tackled the play in May and Chicago’s Victory Gardens will have a go in September), Tolan’s work will get its chance to shine. With a slice-of-life scope—one room, two characters, real time with an actual clock and an actual baking pie—Tolan offers a precise portrait of the tenuous bond between a mother and her teenage daughter. As anyone could tell you who has been or has raised a teenage girl—especially at the moment when she has an hour or so to complete her college admission essay—this is not a pleasant way to spend an evening.
When the political sphere insinuates itself—and it does, even here—it comes by way of the truculent accusations of 18-year-old Katia, who was adopted by Maggie and her now estranged husband from Eastern Europe. In Katia’s recriminations, being ripped from a war-torn country by well-meaning but basically imperialist rape-and-pillagers is an abomination roughly equivalent to having a mother who nags about an essay.
Maggie and Katia are family enough to push each other’s buttons, loving enough to want to avoid combustion, but sharp enough to see that neither will end up unscathed. Tolan nails the mother-daughter negotiation.
In this heightened, hit-crazed festival atmosphere it’s not always safe to trust the consensus favorite—especially as this year’s anointed one, Carlyle Brown’s Pure Confidence, was also the only play that didn’t fit with the others by dint of its historical setting and comic touch. Still, Confidence is an assured, boisterous play and, as the inveterate Brown is among the nation’s most overlooked playwrights, one can only hope this festival buzz catapults him into the known stratosphere.
For Simon Cato, a brash, charismatic slave-jockey in pre-Civil War Kentucky, freedom and horseracing are inextricable. (In a scene of pure joy, Simon saddles a barrel and fervently enacts an allegorical horserace between Freedom and Slavery while his soon-to-be wife shrieks in orgasmic counterpoint.)
By play’s end—a nice non-conclusion—Simon has a new theory: The only time you’re ever free is before you make up your mind what to do. It’s a simple conclusion, one that may not entirely warrant the length of Brown’s smart and captivating play—but after all of the equivocating, insecurity and kvetching about a world-gone-confusing offered up by Brown’s compatriots, the sentiment serves as a kind of festival benediction.
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