From afar, I had viewed the Humana Festival of New American Plays as a kind of godly celebrity, the kind with flawless skin and enviable style. Meeting Humana in person—that is, sporting a press badge, rubbing elbows with important theatremakers and attending this year’s seven plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville—I reasoned, would turn me into a bona fide arts reporter. But upon taking part in the festival’s 34th installment—my first—I realized that Humana, like that celebrity you spot in real life, is just a human being: shorter than you imagined and with hair less perfectly coiffed than it appears on TV. Like all mere mortals (and the festivals they invent), Humana is delightfully flawed in a number of quirky ways.
A more apt anthropomorphic description of Humana might compare it to a granddaddy (of new American plays, that is): Like an octogenarian who pairs a cruddy sweater with surprisingly chic reading glasses, this Humana’s lineup was an interesting mashup of ensemble-driven adventurousness and bordering-on-conservative conventionality.
Well, not quite conservative conservative. Let’s start with Phoenix, a two-hander by Scott Organ, directed by Aaron Posner and winningly acted by real-life married duo Suli Holum and Trey Lyford. Phoenix chronicles the story of a guy and gal on a second date who end up bonding over…wait for it…an abortion! As in the films Juno and Knocked Up, the circumstances of Phoenix provide ample comedic setups. There’s surprisingly little moralizing or preaching in the play, which proceeds from joke to choked-up emotional moment to another joke. It’s all enjoyable enough to watch, but with a topic as potentially weighty as abortion, it’s disappointing the script doesn’t display greater gravitas—especially given Phoenix‘s couple is (unlike the youngsters in, say, Juno, who decide to have their baby) of prime parental age. The needy/nebbishy man versus the romance-is-dead-to-me woman dynamic, though predictable in its modern ubiquity, still entertains.
Male/female dynamics also get a workout in Sirens, Deborah Zoe Laufer’s dramedy about a couple coming to grips with fidelity in their golden years. As the Abramses make cruise-ship plans to celebrate their 25 years of marriage, we spot Mr. Abrams ogling the backside of a young travel agent—which must be par for the course, given Mrs. Abrams’s glib eye-roll of a response to her husband’s wandering ways. In short order, she discovers that hubby Sam is on Facebook and in touch not only with past lovers but also with young women who are strangers! Cut to the cruise, where Sam, who can’t bear his marriage anymore, jumps ship only to wind up trapped on a tiny Mediterranean island with a beautiful, video-game-obsessed mermaid who proves to be even more annoying than his wife. Meanwhile the Mrs. (delightfully portrayed by Mimi Lieber), assuming that her husband has drowned at sea, decides she too should get back in touch with an old flame. Of course Sam realizes that he does in fact love his wife (“Who else will cook for me and do my laundry?” he reasons), so he returns to New York to win her back. The back-and-forth between reality and dream-world is fun, frothy and theatrical. But the plethora of funny one-liners, juicy dramatic setups and references to technology can’t disguise the out-of-date relationship at the play’s center, between a husband who I’m not sure is worth all the fuss and a wife who nags just a bit too much.
Have you seen something so bad it’s…bad? I love a good dumb joke (Wayne’s World is one of my favorite movies), but sometimes dumb jokes are just plain dumb. That’s the feeling I had watching The Cherry Sisters Revisited, which is actually billed as “something so bad it’s good.” Dan O’Brien’s broadly drawn script is based on historical sisters from the Midwest who in the late 1800s created a vaudeville comedy act so dreadful it became a sensation (Stephen Temperley employs a similar concept in Souvenir). The issue with the theatricalized version of the story is that the sisters’ performances in their vaudeville shows are barely distinguishable from their portrayals of their regular backstage selves. I’m sure the show’s five actresses would shine given more compelling material, but director Andrew Leynse’s maneuvering between amateur sketch show and heated backstage family tiffs would need to create real contrasts in order for the audience to care about the characters. Instead all we see are cliche-icatures—and by the last act, when rotten fruits and vegetables (and an anachronistic used condom) are thrown at the sisters, I’ll admit I wanted to join in.
Making “bad acting” the central focus of a play is a thorny endeavor. This isn’t to say that one can’t successfully make acting—bad or otherwise—the focus of a play. Take The Method Gun by Austin’s Rude Mechanicals, which expertly demonstrates how acting can be dealt with in a nuanced and intelligent way–even when practiced by ridiculous people. The play’s ostensible central character is the never-seen-but-oft-discussed Stella Burden, a larger-than-life acting teacher-cum-guru who leaves her troupe in a huff, forcing them to soldier on in her absence as they rehearse A Streetcar Named Desire sans Blanche, Stanley or Stella. Will the actors succeed? Scenes from the in-development Streetcar are inter-spliced with rehearsal discussions, ruminations on the cast’s former teacher and absurd acting exercises—all to charming effect, particularly when the two storylines coalesce in repeated gestural movements.
The Method Gun indulges in gleeful interruptions apropos of nothing, like when a tiger hijacks the action, or when a deliciously Dionysian naked balloon-dance bobbles forth out of nowhere. The payoff comes when the actors set a number of cast-iron pendulums into swinging motion and deftly maneuver around them as they silently repeat specific gestural movements we’ve seen before. It’s stressful to watch, but gorgeously rendered, and the effect is both stunning and haunting. A great detail: At one point in the dance, a pendulum knocks a poker chip off a table; the rigor and precision required for such a moment of minutiae is impressive—and methodical—to say the least.
Given the Rude Mechs’ star turn, I sensed that ATL artistic director Marc Masterson (who directed Lisa Dillman’s Ground, an exploration of the emotional and human price of immigration struggles) and managing director Jennifer Bielstein are interested in ensembles at the moment. Before I saw any plays, Masterson and Bielstein sat me down for a rundown of the festival’s prestigious history: In its three-plus decades, there’ve been three Pulitzer Prizes, three Pulitzer finalists and a slew of other accolades. And 85 percent of the work shown at Humana goes on to have multiple subsequent productions. “The hallmark of Humana,” Masterson reminded me, “is that we develop plays by producing them.”
Our chat kept returning to ensemble-based work. “We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve, and we’re seeing a rise in smaller companies as well as a diversity in the kind of theatre being made,” Masterson noted, adding that ensemble work, while certainly not a new trend, has had an increasing presence at Humana. Further tipping the scale toward collectivism, the weekend panel discussion I attended was titled “From the Rehearsal Room to the World Tour: How ensemble theatre companies are shaping new-play development.” I imagine in future years there will be more than three-out-of-seven ensemble works (Heist! and Fissures (lost and found) were the other two) represented on Humana’s roster. Grandfathers move slowly, after all, but they generally have the right instincts.
Fissures, the weekend’s other memorable ensemble piece, is a group-written meditation on memory penned by Minneapolis-based artists Steve Epp, Cory Hinkle, Dominic Orlando, Deborah Stein, Dominique Serrand and Victoria Stewart. Perhaps the most subdued production in the festival, Fissures strikes a lovely balance between poetry and play while exploring the mind’s landscape. It starts out ordinarily enough: We see an actor struggling to remember where he’s left his keys. Complications ensue, and soon enough everyday narratives about household items, moving homes and neighbors begin to overlap and unravel. The purposeful plotlessness of Fissures forces the viewer to turn inward and consider his or her own life and as a result proves to be surprisingly moving. The subject matter for Serrand, who directed and appeared on stage in the play’s final moments, is clearly personal—it evokes the dissolution last year of his former company Theatre de la Jeune Lune.
At the ensemble panel discussion, Serrand spoke frankly and poignantly about the formal termination of Jeune Lune, but reminded listeners that even when a group of artists doesn’t have a physical space, they can still find ways of working together. Fissures‘ highly collaborative process involved actors working alongside the playwrights (several of whom form Minneapolis’s Workhaus Collective) as they devised improvisations that were later massaged into scripted material. The upshot was cohesive and elegant, somber but humorous, achingly wistful but never sentimental. Humana will do well to open its wise old arms to more such gems of ensemble creation in the years to come.
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