Imagine that a major regional theatre produced a full season of exclusively brand-new plays—genuine new-to-the-public debuts, not shows that have seen stage time in smaller venues and can only technically (or contractually) be considered “premieres.” Imagine that all those plays were full-on productions, not readings or bare-bones workshop stagings.
Say this hypothetical theatre mounted that entire season—six plays and two short-play anthology programs, for instance—in the span of just five weeks. Now up the ante still further: Envision theatregoers ingesting that full eight-course menu in the span of a three-day visit, give or take.
This uniquely compressed, oversized package is exactly what’s on offer each year at Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, where the embarrassment of new-works riches can give even the most ardent advocates of contemporary playwriting a be-careful-what-you-wish-for feeling. At least, that explains a large part of my reaction both times I’ve attended, including the 35th annual edition this past April: I’ve wound up flushed, sated, subject to a bewildering array of contradictory feelings, as if I’d just sampled a half-dozen contrasting cuisines without enough time to digest, let alone savor them.
As I step back from this most recent three-day binge, I can recall gut responses to individual plays and conversations with colleagues and acquaintances before and after performances. But it may be most constructive, not to mention true to the whirlwind experience, to think of Humana 2011 as a totality—an all-I-could-see buffet in which the festival’s six full-length plays and two multiple-work programs now merge in memory as one long mega-work with many chapters.
Indeed, in searching for a way to sum up the highs and lows (not to mention the sheer surfeit) of that cool spring weekend in Louisville, I could do worse than begin with the first date on my dance card, Anne Washburn’s A Devil at Noon, intently directed by Steve Cosson. An oddly shaped, often beguiling and just as often puzzling play about the blurry lines between perception and surveillance, between memory and imagination, Devil could stand in as a microcosm for the entire Humana ride this year.
It begins with what looks like a brief gag involving ninjas and a coffeemaker, then unfolds in alternating, seemingly unrelated narratives that finally, after two long acts, intertwine (sort of). Knowing that Washburn took inspiration from the mind-warping fiction as well as the real life of Philip K. Dick helps a little, but not a lot; A Devil at Noon largely casts a theatregoer adrift to make sense of its weird blend of loopy sci-fi and deadpan naturalism, of menace and banality.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but my cumulative experience of Humana 2011 traced a similar arc of amusement, vexation, fascination and disorientation. Even the fest’s most fully realized and satisfying work, Jordan Harrison’s seductive yet incisive Maple & Vine, stylishly directed by Anne Kauffman, had its share of eyebrow-raising lacunae. Harrison conjures a kind of Pleasantville-for-real scenario in which a stressed-out Manhattan couple, Katha and Ryu, gives up the rat race for a small planned community in theMidwest. But this isn’t your average pristine, gated, SUV-in-every-garage enclave: Instead, it’s the home of the vaguely cultish Society for Dynamic Obsolescence, which has meticulously recreated a 1955 small town, complete with its glacial pace, steak-and-martinis diet and ostensibly reassuring social hierarchies.
Along with rigid constraints, of course, come a host of familiar ailments, from sexual repression to racial intolerance, and Harrison milks these conflicts for all their delicious suspense. But he may ultimately have written his characters into a corner. As long as we feel implicated in Katha and Ryu’s retrograde journey, we’re hooked; but when it seems they’re bent on actively embracing the worst as well as the best of the past, we lose the thread. Harrison wants us to critically examine both our modern distractedness and our susceptibility to the opiate of nostalgia —a fine line he walks, then blurs with an ambivalent ending.
The farcical head of steam worked up by another festival find, Molly Smith Metzler’s Elemeno Pea, nimbly directed by Davis McCallum, has a few bumps and bubbles on its way. (Full disclosure: Metzler is American Theatre‘s play editor.) Transpiring in real time in a posh Martha’s Vineyard beach house, the intermissionless play centers on two sisters, Devon and Simone, whose getaway weekend is jaggedly interrupted by the explosion of Simone’s employer’s marriage. The employer in question is Michaela, a deep-dish diva who is imperious and insecure in roughly equal measure, and whose ownership of the beach estate, not to mention her thrall over her social-climbing assistant Simone, slips from her beringed grip in the course of the play.
Metzler’s dialogue is so whip-smart and tartly funny that we almost don’t notice how deftly she sandblasts the earth under her characters’ feet, the better to leave them dangling helplessly—and, just maybe, reaching out across the class chasm that has toxically split them. Indeed, some of the play’s sharpest comedy comes from the spectacle of rich, entitled assholes hashing out their tiniest peccadillo as if their servants—and/ or anyone else they consider beneath their ken—weren’t even there. It may be less clear why those put-upon “lessers” linger to listen, but it’s no mystery why we’re riveted.
It’s also easy to understand why A. Rev Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, lovingly directed by May Adrales, was the festival’s most warmly embraced show. This endearing if overlong familial love triangle—between Edith and Kenny, tight-knit teen siblings essentially raising themselves in a rural farmhouse, and Benji, Kenny’s sweet high school boyfriend—has all the elements of a Sundance Film Festival crowd favorite. If Pamatmat occasionally over-romanticizes these feisty outsider kids doing it for themselves against a world of uncomprehending adults, he has also rendered their dilemma with undeniable care and specificity.
The preternaturally prolific Adam Rapp made a long-overdue return to the scene of his 2002 Humana triumph with Finer Noble Gases, and the result, The Edge of Our Bodies, could serve as an index of how far his work has, and hasn’t, traveled since that early signature play. For one thing, The Edge of Our Bodies is a monologue for a young Bernadette, portrayed with empathy by Catherine Combs, from whom the ur-macho Rapp, doubling as director here, coaxed a strong performance.
But Rapp hasn’t shed his rankling bad-boy attitude: As Bernadette unspools her painstaking confession about mortality, random sex and her budding creative ambitions, Rapp does his usual number, sketching a world of petty squalor and degradation with anomalous fervor. Many writers are fascinated by descent and darkness, but few seem as truly excited by the abyss as Rapp. Even for those of us who don’t quite share his preoccupations, this Humana return was auspicious.
The festival’s remaining full-length entry, the whimsical picaresque BOB, showcased Frisco favorite Peter Sinn Nachtrieb in bright—possibly too bright—colors. This would-be American Candide follows the title character from his birth in the bathroom of a Louisville White Castle through his improbable path to Howard Hughes-ian wealth, back again to squalor, and finally to a kind of transcendence. There’s exuberance and bounce in Nachtrieb’s voice, and BOB evinces a loving, Ira Glass-y eye for off-kilter Americana. But what might have played as a kind of gritty Forrest Gump acquired, under Sean Daniels’s slick direction, a strenuous quirkiness. As one astute colleague, a fan of Nachtrieb, put it over drinks after the show, BOB hail been staged like a Broadway musical when it should ramble and cough like a Tom Waits record.
Some wins and losses are part of the Humana hall game; no theatre hits a home run every time at bat. And the Humana Festival, by packing a season’s worth of premieres into little more than a month of rep, can guarantee only the heady excitement that comes with a rapid-fire series of encounters with some of America’s most promising writers. For 35 years and counting, this impressive omnibus of new work—the Humana mega–play—has been more than enough to keep us coming back for more.