As the granddaddy of new-play fests, it’s incumbent upon Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays to check the pulse of its life-blood from time to time—and the event’s 33rd annual airing examined the new-play view from both inside and out.
Two new studies looking at the lives of playwrights were rolled out for the festival’s heavily attended special visitors weekend, April 3-5: the Plays and Playwrights Playwrights Project, led by New Dramatists’ Todd London under the auspices of the Theatre Development Fund; and “The Gates of Opportunity: A Field Survey on the Infrastructure for New Works in the American Theater,” written by Arena Stage’s David Dower and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Further discussion of the Mellon and TDF reports were scheduled to take place in June at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Baltimore, a report on which will appear in the September issue of American Theatre.)
A panel discussion held the previous weekend, moderated by American Theatre, took the outside-in approach and investigated the relationship between audiences and new work. “I want to build a work which includes the public but does not exclude the artist,” says an actor in Charles Mee’s Under Construction, presented by the New York City-based SITI Company in this year’s festival—and the conundrum was considered in overview by Marge Betley, literary manager and resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre of Rochester, N.Y.; Sean Daniels, associate artistic director at ATL; playwright Jeffrey M. Jones; Ellen Lauren, actor and associate artist director of SITI Company; and longtime ATL board member Ted Rosky.
If the lineup for the festival itself was meant to be a study in how varying dramatic structures affect audiences, it certainly succeeded. Half of the full-length plays presented at this year’s fest (or four of seven, if you count the annual apprentice showcase, Brink!, a collaboratively written collection of skits by a roster of hot playwriting talent, this year including Lydia R. Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz, Greg Kotis, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Deborah Stein) were collage pieces, making it possible to spend nearly eight consecutive hours in the theatre without hitting upon a sustained plot. And though two of the most noteworthy shows—performed by the SITI and Universes ensembles—fell into the former category, it was the traditionally structured family drama Absalom, by Zoe Kazan, that left many audience members feeling most satisfied.
Under Construction is SITI Company and Mee’s third meditation on an American artist (following bobrauchenbergamerica in 2001 and Hotel Cassiopeia in 2006, which both also premiered at Humana). This time Mee focuses on two artists: early- and mid-century painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell and installation artist Jason Rhoades, whose career was cut short in 2006 by heart failure. What results seems to be the actors’ attempt to put together tableaux of Rockwellian America from within one of Rhoades’s duct-taped, sex-obsessed, junkyard-beautiful exhibitions. The piece, like America, “remains permanently under construction,” we’re told in a prologue.
It’s a straightforward theme, but even within its freeform, installation-art framework, the play’s seams rip a little, threatening to open into something more cacophonous and unruly. At one point actor Ellen Lauren brings a microphone into the audience to demand highly detailed information regarding spectators’ sex lives (answered, one has to assume, with varying degrees of honesty). In another seeming rupture in the play’s structure, actors retrieve personal cell phones, each with a separate ring tone, and engage in what becomes an overlapping series of raw, painful conversations as the audience eavesdrops on the dissolution of nine love affairs. The moment, quickly passed over, is utterly heartbreaking.
Ameriville by Universes—Gamal Abdel Chasten, William Ruiz (a.k.a. Ninja), Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and Steven Sapp—begins as a high-octane tour of post-Katrina New Orleans, channeling its anger, fear and frustration into the group’s spoken word, movement and song style. But it turns out that the authors’ indignation reaches far beyond Louisiana, and midway through the play the scope widens to encompass all of the country’s ills, from the economic collapse to homelessness to health care. “There’s a Katrina brewing in your neighborhood,” the actors tell us, but Ameriville loses its momentum as it takes us there—and several false, repetitive endings undercut the immediacy of the dynamic performance.
The third of the festival’s nonlinear choreopoems was also awash in imagistic impressions of America, this time drawn from the writings of native son Wendell Berry, whose Mad Farmer poems, among other works, deal with the contemporary world’s encroachment upon the land (both in physical and psychic terms) and Berry’s growing fury. While Wild Blessings: A Celebration of Wendell Berry, adapted for the stage by ATL artistic director Marc Masterson and director of new-play development Adrien-Alice Hansel, lacked the electricity or poignancy of the ensemble-created shows, it benefited from a loving construction—and from transcendent video design by Donna Lawrence that rendered, in breathtaking 3-D, much of what Berry wrote about.
Allison Moore’s Slasher, on the other hand, revels in the tried-and-true mechanics of the bloodbath genre for its plot–predictable, but that’s part of the fun. Sheena, a Hooters-esque waitress, stumbles upon a washed-up director’s low-budget fright-flick project, and sees her ticket out of town—shunting aside her angry mother’s view that such films are demeaning to women. Though Moore skewers both debilitating feminism and its third-wave dismissal—not to mention Hollywood wannabes and B-movie filmmaking—her play works best as a lively, comedic romp. Its denouement could use more bite, but overall the play is an audience-pleaser.
Naomi Wallace wrote The Hard Weather Boating Party as part of an NEA/TCG Theatre Residency Program for Playwrights fellowship at ATL, and interviewed residents and workers in Louisville’s Rubbertown, the industrial neighborhood whose factories have allegedly poisoned employees and residents from unsafe working conditions and disposal of toxic waste. (Wallace, who now lives in England, grew up in nearby Prospect, Ky.) All of this lends complexity to the eerie and distorted noir drama centering around three workers—two factory level, one middle management—who have gathered in a dingy hotel room prior to a retaliatory crime. Touches of the surreal infiltrate the play as we discover that the men’s spit emits steam, among other bizarre physical conditions. Wallace traffics in race, class and domestic conflicts. Still, it would be interesting to see her pen a companion documentary of her subject, which gets a little lost in some of the plot’s willful obscurity. Reading the program notes turns out to be somewhat more captivating than the play itself.
Zoe Kazan’s Absalom unfolds gently throughout a June afternoon and evening during a book-launch party in the Berkshires for Saul Weber, the literary patriarch of a family of scribes. Long-held childhood resentments, adult disappointment and anguish, creative plagiarism and mixed-up marital matches all provide meaty scenes for actors and a voyeuristic relish for audiences (particularly the plot-starved). The machinery of that plot borders on the melodramatic (lots of two-character scenes with inopportune interruptions; one son deals not only with the breakup of his marriage and death of his son, but also a cancer diagnosis), but there is something unmistakably American about the work—in the style of Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller.
Much has been made of Kazan’s age (25), acting accomplishments (as in Broadway’s The Seagull this past fall) and heritage (her grandfather was Elia Kazan), and many critics are ready to crown her the Next Great American Playwright. She might be one of them, but as the Humana experience indicates, our contemporary dramas—the whole panoply of them—stand out best in relief of one another. The more new-play noise—and the more dissonant—the better.
Sarah Hart is a former managing editor of this magazine.
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