Since April, when the Humana Festival of New American Plays wrapped up at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky, several theatres have scheduled productions of the work showcased there, and reviewers from around the country have spoken. Most have agreed with John Moore of the Denver Post that the 2007 crop was “flawed but compelling,” and several noted the prevailing mood among the plays was one of guilt and anxiety. The six full-lengths and multiple shorter works will never again be presented as a single package, so identifying common themes among them is little more than a journalistic exercise. But pattern recognition is a natural impulse, an indispensable tool for understanding the world. Isn’t that what we want from our playwrights—for them to frame a pointillist haze of ideas, events and personalities, and to help us see a picture emerge?
The writers represented at Humana this year excel at doing just that. So much so, in fact, that I occasionally wished they’d done less of the work for me. (This may be why I found the shorter compositions refreshing; a standout was Marco Ramirez’s I Am Not Batman, which won the festival’s Heidemann Award for 10-minute plays with its affecting display of youthful bravado and street percussion.) It’s no secret that human existence is messy. For me, the most satisfying plays at this year’s festival were the ones that left a few corners unswept.
Carlos Murillo based dark play, or stories for boys on true events. But wisely, he favored question marks over docudrama when he constructed this fascinating script—one of the festival’s critical favorites—about the shady side of the creative impulse. Through flashbacks, the play follows Murillo’s hyper-articulate teenage narrator, Nick, as he ensnares a web-surfer named Adam in a romance with a nonexistent female. Nick then uses that fiction to insert himself, disastrously, into Adam’s life.
Nick endows “Rachel” with all the characteristics of a web geek’s dream girl, down to Adam’s endearingly vague stipulation that she must “like to chill.” A woman who begins on stage as Nick’s present-day girlfriend (a recurring framing device with diminishing returns), also steps into the role of the hair-twirling Rachel, challenging the premise that she’s less “real” than the characters of Nick and Adam.
This is a play that comments on theatre as well as the Internet (the “dark play” of the title references a drama lesson that supposedly inspires Nick’s experiment), and it’s notable on both counts that Adam does most of the work in fooling himself, reading his own desires between the lines of Rachel’s chat-room banter. But am I as an audience member any less gullible in forming my opinion of Nick, a self-confessed compulsive liar, based on the tidbits he doles out?
Picking apart the snakes’ nest of Nick’s true motivations is one of the chief joys of the play. Matthew Stadelmann nailed what could have been a purely distasteful role with a blend of cocky intelligence and childlike insecurity. Even after the appalling denouement, it’s unsettling to realize he’s still trying to win us over.
Craig Wright’s The Unseen has a different take on the willful construction of reality. His main characters, Valdez and Wallace, have languished in separate cells of a mysterious prison for many years, without ever glimpsing each other’s face. Between brutal interrogations, they keep each other company by playing eloquent alphabet games that reveal their longing for lost, small pleasures.
It’s unlikely that Marc Masterson’s production will prompt a letter-writing campaign to shut down Guantanamo. These guys show no signs of physical abuse; apart from unshaven faces and nervous logorrhea, they appear to be in decent shape. This refocuses our sympathy on their existential agony: their attempts to draw conclusions about their situation based on the slimmest of evidence. Just as Adam does in dark play, these men fill in the blanks according to their yearnings—fantasies of hot air balloons and beautiful revolutionaries—based on reasoning no more solid than: “Maybe it’s true. We don’t know it’s not.”
A guard makes a few appearances that reveal something of the reality of this place. (Given how little they have to go on, the prisoners’ guesses turn out to be both surprisingly accurate and heartbreakingly off-target.) Though the guard’s explanations help push the story forward, they break the spell of elegantly desperate conversation that Wright has created between his two prisoners. The play’s strength is not in its plot, but in making us wonder whether we (like Valdez, according to Wallace’s accusation) are seeing “constellations where there are, truly, only stars.”
In Naomi Iizuka’s Strike-Slip, the stories of diverse Angeleno families intertwine, though the characters generally remain unaware of their connections; they believe they’re at the mercy of random events rather than one another’s choices.
Dreams are dashed at every turn in this densely plotted script: Young lovers ache to see the world together, but before long they’re exchanging well-worn reproaches (“I don’t even know who you are anymore”). A single mom fights to prevent her son from following in his dad’s footsteps. A yuppie couple’s attempts to create a home and family are ruined by secrets. An immigrant father can’t relate to his kids, let alone protect them. The characters cross paths repeatedly as they’re blindsided by teen pregnancy, drug deals, infidelity, closeted homosexuality, a car accident, a cancer scare—and an irreparable crime.
Critical and audience consensus placed this play among the festival’s finest, despite apologetic comparisons to the 2004 film Crash. I understand why: Iizuka’s offering is an ambitious, real-world play, and Chay Yew’s production, as was true across the board at Humana, was thoughtfully done. But inserting so many red-letter scenarios deprives these characters of the time to react or deepen in quotidian, more cumulative ways.
When the yuppie husband character, a seismologist, stepped up to a podium to lecture about “dormant faults” at the top of the second act, I felt detached admiration for Iizuka’s articulation of themes: “It starts miles below the surface…a friction or a strain that grows over time until the pressure becomes too great and there’s finally a rupture…” It’s a strong device, but not subtle.
The play is far more engaging when Iizuka lays out pieces that fit less neatly into the puzzle. The best example is the act of violence, never fully explained, that provides a nice cliffhanger at intermission. It’s similarly effective when the most intriguing character in the cast—a lurking presence who goes by the name of Frank Richmond, given a standout portrayal by Keith Randolph Smith—boasts, “I count on people looking at me and seeing whatever it is they see.” Is he a thug, a street-smart cop, a drug lord, a lothario, the only guy who really knows what’s going on? I was glad to see Iizuka leave at least some of the friction underground, the better to shake us up.
In When Something Wonderful Ends, Sherry Kramer braids three subjects—the loss of her mother, the nostalgia of her Barbie collection and the U.S.’s disastrous dependence on foreign oil—into a likeable, earnest monologue performed at Humana by Lori Wilner and directed by Tom Moore.
Kramer pinpoints 1964 as the moment the American dream went sour. There’s plenty there for debate, but she backs up her thesis with information she says she gleaned from obsessive research about U.S. foreign policy (for the purposes of the play we’re best off accepting her facts, if not her conclusions). In the process, she embroiders some tricky metaphors. For example, her contention that leaving flowers on the graves of our loved ones is a way of doing a miracle for the dead—she returns to the motif of miracles again and again, down to the final line: “Let the miracle we do for our dead be that we save the world.”
Kramer believes oil is what stands between us and salvation. Her arguments are complicated, and enriched, by the fact that she’s as frightened and confused as anybody else—and just as reluctant to part with her SUV. While she may not have all the answers, the playwright does have a talent for honest, luminous language. As she seals her Barbie clothes in Ziploc bags for eBay, our narrator contemplates “the great moving river of memory and fetish and greed that the Internet has made out of the artifacts of the American dream.” And when her lecture becomes too pedantic, she pauses to acknowledge her own “arrogant smug smallness,” which, she frets, “files down the finer points of my soul.”
The action of When Something Wonderful Ends is the organizing of a room full of toys, but its text doesn’t shy away from untidy, grown-up truths: that innocence is expensive and that both grief and happiness are inescapably selfish. When an artist dwells in such uncomfortable territory, and invites audiences to do the same—individually, and collectively as citizens of the world’s most powerful nation—it’s a valuable service.
My prediction is that Ken Weitzman’s The As If Body Loop, though harder to stage than Kramer’s solo piece, will earn its share of productions at theatres across the country. It pulls off a similar balancing act between accessibility and topicality: It’s really funny, and it finds a new angle from which to explore the post-9/11 unmooring of America. Almost every step of the way, I was swept along by the imaginative sincerity of Susan Booth’s production.
When social worker Sarah collapses under the weight of her patients’ grief, her family concludes she’s one of the souls that, according to Hebrew legend, were selected to bear humanity’s pain. Her brother Aaron—who thinks he’s less quirky than the rest of his family only because his quirks center on football instead of New Age healing—decides to lighten Sarah’s load by helping one of her patients. He finds Martin (another chance for actor Keith Randolph Smith to shine). Having lost his wife in the World Trade Center, Martin is enraged by the sympathy of others, so Aaron’s brisk approach to his problems is effective.
But from the moment Martin finally tells his story, so painful in its specificity, Aaron steps back in deference to Martin’s loss. Unfortunately, so does the script, which strains to grant the audience closure in its final upbeat moments. As one of Weitzman’s characters rightly observes, catharsis is not the same as healing—and like it or not, the play’s message about shared mourning will continue to be a complex and pertinent one.
I got some of those intellectual dust-bunnies I wanted from Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle, conceived by Whit MacLaughlin and Alice Tuan, and created and performed by New Paradise Laboratories. The piece is part of a series by these collaborators about rites of passage.
Festivalgoers were polarized in their reactions to Batch. Some complained it needed ruthless editing. Some found it unusual and invigorating. Some suggested its use of multimedia failed to break new ground; others insisted the video components opened up layers of meaning. I agree to an extent with all of those points, but above all I appreciate how Batch captured both the crass frivolity and the unexpectedly sinister undertones of a widespread social tradition.
Batch was staged in a nightclub, and the audience bought drinks before settling at tables or in chairs at the base of a raised stage. A hand-held video camera, connected to huge surrounding screens, pinpointed details of the action that I wouldn’t have caught otherwise from my neck-craning vantage point, and helped to establish the tone of the play: disorientation, abandon, faint nausea.
A hard-working co-ed team of actors donned red dresses and lacy bras to play the bachelorette and her retinue, then button-downs and tightie-whities to play the guys, with padding as necessary to assist the blurring of genders. Batch‘s text is surreal and associative, with bursts of aggression and jarring excerpts of normality. Bizarre strippers and mythical creatures emerge from an opening in the center of the stage, creating the impression of a sprawling underworld beneath the small square of playing space. The betrothed eventually vanish down this rabbit hole, continuing their journey to the altar on the video screens.
The production took some trippy detours that made me feel tired and grumpy, the way you would as the only sober one at a party. But the morning after, there’s a quiet surprise: the articulation of the wedding party’s innermost thoughts. Do they approve of the union? Do they feel lonely or demoted? Batch gets something exactly right: Bachelor parties are never really about the bride and groom. I don’t know what everyone else in that club saw, but I witnessed the final chance for a tribe of single buddies to exercise control over their engaged friend—to push his or her comfort level physically and emotionally, even to punish him or her, in a sense, for desertion.
Batch had its flaws, sure, but it also had an abundance of moments like these, the kind of moments that energized me throughout the Humana Festival—when it felt like the playwrights trusted me enough to let me make some connections of my own.
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