Here’s a quasi-philosophical question: If a play is mounted in the woods and no one is around to see it, is it still a play? Here’s another one: If a play looks finished and sounds finished, is it finished?
This latter case of cognitive dissonance hit me while sitting in the darkened Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentucky. It was my second day of a marathon play-going weekend at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in March. On stage, a 1,000-year-old cannibalistic Austrian was having a crisis of conscience that involved smoke, swordfights and dismemberment.
And as I watched, I felt obliged to avidly remind myself, “This play is not finished. This play is not finished.” An article such as this has to acknowledge that the works under journalistic consideration—including Greg Kotis’s mortality-defying Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards—are, by Humana’s own production criteria, still malleable. But there is something about seeing smoke effects on a stage, or a DJ in the corner dropping beats, that raises your expectations. (Conversely, there is something about seeing music stands and a simple row of chairs—the norm for a play reading—that lowers those expectations.)
“I think that, for the most part, a play is finished when it’s published,” proposed Melissa Ross, author of a witty play called You Are Here, about middle-aged frustrations, which I saw in a reading at the Pacific Playwrights Festival the following month. She and I were sitting in a Costa Mesa, Calif., hotel lobby sipping lattes between shows. “But even after publication,” Ross conceded, as we pursued the subject, “there can be room for adjustments or rewrites if a playwright becomes re-inspired.”
This concept of presenting an array of plays still drying on the canvas is a now-common occurrence at theatres from coast to coast. Festivals of new, never-before-produced works serve as a meet-and-greet for theatre artists, and as a way for finding a home (or two or three) for the plays themselves. Humana is known as the granddaddy of these entities—at a well-seasoned 36 years old—and the way it flawlessly shuffles audiences from one show to another over the course of a month and a half is as artful as it is intense.
If Humana is the granddad of new-play fests, Pacific Playwrights, at California’s South Coast Repertory, qualifies as its spunky granddaughter. This year, the younger festival turned 15 and landed a new artistic director. I caught up with Marc Masterson, the man who bridges both festivals, in his new West Coast office—he left ATL last year to become artistic director of SCR. The leadership change in the two theatres means that the play selections for both festivals were done by committee.
“That’s to be expected when a change like that happens,” Masterson reasoned, leaning back on his personal couch. “I did Humana for I I years. It’s a huge mountain that everyone at Actors Theatre climbs every year, to produce seven full-length works and an evening of 10-minute plays. PPF is a completely different structure and approach. It’s two full productions with a bunch of readings.” Which one does he prefer? “I can’t say one is better than the other because that would be foolish!” he hedges with a laugh.
At Humana, ATL literary manager Amy Wegener and associate director Zan Sawyer-Dailey led the play-selection group, while new artistic director Les Waters and managing director. Jennifer Bielstein presided over the festivities. At PPF, the team consisted of Masterson, outgoing SCR founding artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson, and festival directors John Glore and Kelly L. Miller, who are also SCR’s associate artistic producer and literary manager, respectively. For everyone involved, it was a transitory year.
Idris Goodwin, whose play How We Got On I remember most vividly from Humana, told me in a post-festival interview that he wanted to write about hip-hop as experienced by its young listeners. “I’m writing about kids coming of age in 1988. I think about myself in 1988, and rap was everything,” he recalls. “For you it might have been punk rock, it might have been Dungeons & Dragons—whatever it was when you were young that helped you get through being young.”
Navigating that natural conflict between the young and the old—how do we transition into maturity? how do we engage with those so many years ahead of us?—was a theme reiterated in a majority of the works at Humana. That common strand in a batch of plays is a helpful indicator of what is in the air among theatre professionals of late—and lately, theatres seem to asking: How do we attract a younger audience? Besides taking advantage of social media and enabling audience members to live Tweet during a show, there is one fundamental way to do that: Tell young people’s stories.
One of the more fully formed pieces at Humana, How We Got On is a bildungsroman about three suburban teenagers. As a way of expressing their creativity, they create rap songs, with a notepad and an ’80s-style boombox. Taking the audience through this musical narrative is the Selector (Crystal Fox), perched high above the action behind a DJ booth. Fox is the narrator and doubles as the kids’ parents, providing that disapproving voice of authority from above. The arrangement is a literal emblem of the vast world of difference between these free-spirited kids and their strict parents.
How We Got On examines the singular importance of music, which acts as an escape and a source of validation for teenage frustrations. Yet while the two boys, Hank and Julian, are given well-rounded personalities and ample stage time, the female, Luann, is relegated to a supporting role, and her own love for hip-hop is given shorter shrift. Still, How We Got On dissects hip-hop’s many overlapping elements in a clever and easy-to-understand way. I now kind of know how to crossfade, in theory. And the message of how a love for music can transcend racial, economic and gender barriers is an instant crowd-pleaser.
Also at Humana, This Hour of Feeling, by Mona Mansour, is an intelligent and finely crafted work, one that spans continents and language. It’s a prequel to Mansour’s Urge for Going, which premiered at the Public Lab of New York City in 2011. Feeling follows Adham, a young Pakistani scholar living in 1967 in a village outside of Jerusalem, who is invited to London to deliver a lecture about William Wordsworth’s poem “Tintern Abbey.”
Hadi Tabbal and Rasha Zamarniri, who play Aciham and his wife Abir, skillfully handle the switch between Arabic and English dialogue—their characters sometimes converse in one language, then the other, and translations are projected onto the wall behind them. But Adham’s character arc is woefully short: He starts at the beginning of the play already at odds with his cultural background, not to mention his mother Beder (Judith Delgado), and those feelings only intensify in London. The mother-son relationship is rife with hurt that is never fully developed. Feeling also has a political dimension—the Six-Day War breaks out while Adham and Abir are in London—but it is gently developed, to Mansour’s credit, and seen through an intimate lens.
Eat Your Heart Out by Courtney Baron does not travel so much. It’s set in Pasadena, Calif, where four intersecting stories are concurrently told, about the things that cause a heart to break. Single morn Nance and her overweight teenage daughter Evie are adversaries in a familial tug-of-war. Evie is in love with a lanky boy named Colin, who sees himself as just a friend; Nance is trying to go through the awkward motions of dating again. And Alice and Gabe are trying to adopt a baby, with Nance as the social worker tasked with approving them. Baron’s mix of drama and bittersweet humor prevents the plot from sinking into Lifetime Television material—mostly, with the exception of some treacly lines about body image. Heart conveys something uncannily akin to real life, with its neediness and self-destructive impulses. It’s a lovely and frustrating, but genuinely human, experience.
In contrast to the gentle tones struck by Goodwin, Mansour and Baron, Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax takes an acrid approach to the subject of the generational gap. Judith Roberts plays Maxine, a sinister skeleton of an old lady who is convinced her daughter (Danielle Skraastad) is trying to kill her to gain access to her money. Maxine bribes her nurse (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) to help keep her alive. Death Tax is only five scenes long, but the characters’ relentless monologues seem to stretch out the time and (as a fellow journalist opined during happy hour) fill the play with Hnath’s voice rather than the organic, individual voices of his characters. Still, the meaty material for actors and simple staging (the play only requires a hospital bed and chairs) may make Death Tax a natural for black box theatres.
The two remaining works at Humana—Lisa Kron’s The Veri**on Play and the aforementioned Michael von Siebenburg Melts Through the Floorboards—were sillier fare. In Veri**on, Kron casts herself as Jenni in a scuffle with Verizon over a false charge on her cell phone bill. In true-to-life fashion, her phone calls accomplish nothing but high blood pressure—and she soon discovers that her troubles are part of a vast corporate conspiracy to swindle the American population. When the villain of the play says, “I’m not good or evil—I’m corporate. Which means I’m morally neutral,” a trickle of knowing laughter ripped through the audience. But what began as an insightful and clever rant on modern bureaucracy felt, to me, overstretched by the addition of an energetic chase sequence and a sing-off (with break-dancing).
I had similar feelings about Michael von Siebenburg—the show that prompted this article’s opening puzzlement. Greg Kotis, who wrote the book and partial lyrics for Urinetown, loosely based the two-act play on Dracula. Instead of blood and Victorian era Europe, his title character lives in present-day Manhattan and harbors an appetite for properly spiced human flesh. What could have been a Sweeney Todd-esque exploration of cannibalism and human nature comes across as overstuffed (pun intended), with comments on gender equality and modern frigidity that muddle the plot and humor. It’s ridiculous, but only in a mildly entertaining way.
A month after having properly digested my first Humana experience, I donned sunglasses and headed to California for PPF, a more subdued affair that lasted not a month-plus but only three days. Of the seven works presented, five were staged readings and two were fully mounted productions of plays that were read at PPF 2011: The Prince of Atlantis by Steven Drukman (see page 65), and Cloudlands, an SCR-commissioned musical, with book and lyrics by Octavio Solis and music and lyrics by Adam Gwon. None of the works were longer than 90 minutes.
Was there a common theme to be gleaned? Perhaps it’s summed up in a line from Samuel D. Hunter’s play The Few: “I’m really terrible at being a person.” A number of PPF plays were about people who are terrible, not by nature, but in how they treat others, especially the ones that they love.
The Prince of Atlantis is one of those rare plays that I wanted to be longer. The characters needed more time to marinate on stage. Joey Colletti, who owns a seafood shipping business called the King of Atlantis, is serving jail time. While he’s behind bars, Joey’s biological son requests to finally meet him, and Joey has his brother Kevin pretend to be him. While Kevin’s game transformation from truth to playacting and back is a bit too abrupt to be believable, Prince contains many tender and funny moments—Drukman’s characters are simultaneously maddening and lovable, and I just wanted to spend more time with them.
In Cloudlands, Gwon and Solis seem to be aiming for a Greek tragedy by way of a chamber musical, and they partially succeed, through cultivating melodrama. Their heroine is Monica, a fragile girl who previously tried to kill herself and who feels (in that too-frequent moan of adolescence) that something is missing in her life. That something is clearly a functioning family unit: Her mother is cheating on her father with a Latin lover (there’s a tango number to cement the stereotype), and her father is stifling in his protectiveness.
The musical is a dramatic and turbulent exploration of an age-old concept—how the worst pain comes from family, and the ones who feel it most deeply are children—yet Cloudlands is weighed down by its repetitive lyrics (“This is a vision I’ve never envisioned”) and motifs (Monica’s oft-mentioned cloud fascination can only, it turns out, lead to one thing). Still, Gwon’s songs are beautiful. His melodies blend seamlessly into Solis’s book, ending Cloudlands on a dreamy and (of course) tragic note.
The staged readings at PPF included new plays from Kenneth Lin, Samuel D. Hunter, Lauren Gunderson, Melissa Ross and Noah Haidle. I can say that, courtesy of Haidle’s Smokefill, a commission from Goodman Theatre in Chicago, I now have a new favorite stage direction—one that received an uproar of laughter from the audience. In surveying the quotidian happenings in a family’s life within a single day (and how those small events reflect upon the past and future), Haidle dives past flesh and bone, and in the second act, sets the action “inside Violet’s womb.” Imagine the scenic and costume possibilities.
That moment of humor encapsulated the most interesting thing for me about PPF: With no props and restrained physical action from the actors, the readings brought into focus the language of the plays, even the stage directions, and how much emotion such words can conjure up. One play even takes up language as its subject: Gunderson’s I and You is an existential look at life and death, with help from one of the grand masters of navelgazing and self-love, Walt Whitman. Two teenagers dig deep into Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and explicate the meaning behind his uses of “I” and “You.” Initially simple, the play slowly spiraled into something so profound that it made me want to dust off my copy of Whitman’s poems.
So after jet-setting from Louisville to Costa Mesa, binging on plays that ran the gamut in topics, treatment and quality, I came to a few conclusions. This season’s new plays tend to deviate away from the fantastical—Michael von Siebenburg is an extreme exception—and at their center is a focus on the quotidian and contemporary: relationships, life and death, how friends and family treat (and mistreat) each other, and how growing up is overwhelmingly difficult. These topics aren’t surprising. After all, theatre at its best has always been a rumination on the human condition before an audience, couched in beautiful language. The plays at Humana and PPF took on that pedigree and built from it some affectingly intimate, instantly relatable works.
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