Actors Theatre of Louisville in Kentury celebrated its 50th anniversary this season with the 38th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, which concluded on April 6. The season marked artistic director Les Waters’s second season at the helm alongside managing director Jennifer Bielstein. American Theatre was there on the scene, along with members of the American Theatre Critics Association, which also held its annual conference during one of the festival’s industry weekends.
American Theatre’s senior editor Rob Weinert-Kendt sat down over Skype for a podcast conversation with two ATCA critics, Erin Keane—arts reporter and theatre critic from Louisville’s NPR station WFPL, whose individual roundup of the festival’s offerings is here—and Bill Hirschman, editor and critic of Florida Theater On Stage, whose roundup is here. They discussed the festival’s offerings and the critic’s obligation to playwrights, a point covered in a keynote speech by playwright Lauren Gunderson and addressed in a long Humana roundup by Tim Treanor, a critic for DC Theatre Scene (who was supposed to join the conversation but could not due to technical difficultites). Scroll to the bottom of the page to download or subscribe to the podcast.
A short summary of each play at the festival is provided below.
Partners, by Dorothy Fortenberry and directed by Lila Neugebauer, boasted a poster with a picture of a tube of hot sauce, the condiment of choice for most 20-somethings. Appropriately, the piece explored the lives of four millennials: married couple Clare (Annie Purcell) and Paul (David Ross) and couple Ezra (Kasey Mahaffy) and Brady (LeRoy McClain). Set in Brooklyn, the play begins at a dinner party at Clare and Paul’s apartment, where Ezra, Clare’s best friend and business partner, begins begging to get Clare to meet with potential investors in their still-nascent food truck business. However, Clare is much more interested in pestering Ezra and Brady about when they are going to get married, now that gay marriage has been legalized in New York. Both parties are evasive of the ideas presented before them, and the piece evolves into an exploration of how 20-somethings handle—and mess up—marriage, religion, career and money.
The Christians, Lucas Hnath’s latest play, also explores a large topic issue: religion. Set in a mega-church—the kind with its own coffee shop and Disneyland-style parking lot—Pastor Paul (Andrew Garman) delivers a controversial sermon about the role of the church and the message of Christianity. His associate pastor Joshua (Larry Powell) disagrees with Paul’s teaching, and ends up leaving the church with a small subset of the congregation, while Paul’s wife (Linda Powell) must grapple with supporting her husband in this tough time. Meanwhile, the members of the congregation continue to question Paul’s teaching, leading the pastor to have some existential questions of his own.
Jordan Harrison’s The Grown-Up asked its own big questions. Featuring Matthew Stadelmann, Brooke Bloom, Paul Niebanck, Tiffany Villarin, Chris Murray and David Ryan Smith, the play explored the life of a young boy who discovers a crystal doorknob in his house that allows him to access his future. In Narnia-like fashion, the boy finds himself several years in the future, putting his life on fast-forward with every turn of the doorknob, while his sister goes on a quest to catch up and find him.
Kimber Lee’s brownsville song (b-side for tray), which is already set to premiere at Lincoln Center Theater next season, moved around various locations in Brooklyn, where Lena (Cherene Snow) is struggling to raise Tray (John Clarence Stewart) and his half-sister Devine (Sally Diallo). As Lena places all of her faith and well-being in these children, she struggles to get along with Merrell (Jackie Chung), a woman from Tray and Devine’s past who is trying to get her life back together. Joshua Boone rounds out the cast.
Anne Bogart’s Steel Hammer, which was created and performed by her New York-based SITI Company, provided an intriguing movement-based piece to the festival’s line-up. Performed by the dedicated ensemble Akiko Aizawa, Eric Berryman, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Gian-Murray Gianino, Carney O’Hanlon, and Stephen Duff Webber, the piece also featured music and lyrics by Julia Wolfe; original text by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux, and Regina Taylor; and recorded music performed by Bang on a Can All-Stars and Trio Mediaeval.
Finally, the festival was rounded out by Remix 38, a collection of short plays by Jackie Sibblies Drury, Idris Goodwin, Basil Kreimendahl, Justin Kuritzkes and Amelia Roper. Performed by Actors Theatre’s acting apprentice company, the mish-mash of theatrical vignettes was directed by Ian Frank.