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Humana Festival nurtures new plays

Tuesday, April 10, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Looavul? Looeyville? Luhvul? Not even the natives can agree. But Louisvillians do agree on their pride in the 25-year-old Humana Festival of New American Plays, staged by Actors Theatre of Louisville and funded by the Humana Foundation, offshoot of Louisville's Humana Inc., a health insurance giant.

"Humana," as everyone calls the festival, is one of the great restorative watering holes of the American theater. "It's the playwrights' equivalent of Sundance," says experienced playwright Arthur Kopit ("Oh Dad," "Wings," "Nine"). "With film, it's all about money and making the deal; with plays, it's about the excitement of live audience response."

Humana puts the playwright first, Kopit says. "And it's not like novelists -- no one is hoping your play will fail so theirs will succeed. It's reinvigorating, revitalizing. ... The audience comes to see not just your play but a group of plays," which reduces the hit-or-flop pressure associated with New York.

The festival lasts for about six weeks from first opening to last performance. This year's, just closed, filled three theaters with six full-length plays, a smorgasbord of tiny playlets, a three-part serial and seven brief "phone plays" that you listened to on dummy pay phones in the lobby.

Humana sustains relationships with playwrights over time, so several plays resulted from commissions -- this year, four of them. But Marc Masterson, former head of Pittsburgh's City Theatre who is in his first year as artistic director of Actors Theatre and Humana, points out that a commission doesn't guarantee a play will be produced. It still has to survive the selection process.

Actors Theatre subscriptions include one or two festival plays, and locals can buy single tickets to other shows. But out-of-towners come on the two middle weekends, when all the plays are up and running, arranged so you can see them all crammed into two or three days.

The result is a lively two-week bazaar, with critics, agents, talent scouts and artistic directors from all over the country and abroad. On critics weekend, there was also one panel discussion, a stimulating discussion of international theater festivals, with producers from Toronto, Bogota, Dublin and Brooklyn.

Mainly, this year, everyone was curious to see the new man in charge, but Humana always has a relaxed, camp-time atmosphere that tempers judgment with the sheer pleasure of a crowd of theater lovers celebrating new plays.

Some critics expect to leave Humana with a new take on the zeitgeist, some theme or mode or new wave that can be detected bubbling up in the theatrical heartland. But really, it's just a grab bag. "It's more theater than makes any rational sense for anyone to see all at once," Masterson says, but what fun it is, to no small extent because the productions are full scale in the 637-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium (thrust proscenium), 318-seat Bingham Theatre (steeply banked in-the-round) and 159-seat Jon Jory (black box). Sets vary from sumptuous to spare, but direction and acting are at a high level.

Melanie Marnich, "Quake"
Marnich is a brilliant young writing talent, and her comedy is a deliciously quirky but spotty affair about a young woman searching for love in contrasting parallel to an older woman serially killing toward a similar goal. Tracey Maloney (seeker) and Luisa Strus (killer) were striking in the central roles, while director Susan Booth made the most of the flexible Bingham space.

Eduardo Machado, "When the Sea Drowns in Sand"
The experienced Machado's subject remains Cuba and its exiles. In this affecting if occasionally strident piece, Feredico (the expressive Joseph Urla) -- who left on the "Peter Pan" flights when he was 9 -- returns for a visit, testing his identity in ways national, ideological, economic and sexual.

Jane Martin, "Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage"
"Jane Martin" ("Talking With," "Keely and Du," "Jack and Jill") is generally thought to be a pseudonym for Humana founder Jon Jory, who always directs "her" work. "Flaming Guns" is a robust, crowd-pleasing comedy about modern cowboys and their feisty women, complete with the funniest dismemberment you've ever seen on stage. Phyllis Somerville and Monica Koskey played Big 8 and Shedevil, two women competing for the boyish charms of ingenuous Leo Kittay as Rob Bob.

Mac Wellman, "Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS"
This wordy poetic allegory, with a fetching score by Michael Roth, is set in a vast metaphysical Rhode Island, where white hegemony is indicted in the person of the eccentric and exploitative Ring family. Wellman's poetry is sometimes striking and often challenging. Occasionally it makes its parable of domineering imperialism too bald. But Lisa Peterson's lovely, dreamy staging created lasting images to focus the meandering text.

Richard Dresser, "Wonderful World"
We know Dresser from his "Below the Belt," a serrated satire of the business world once staged at City Theatre. Here, Dresser turns his attention to families in a cartoony comedy of competing brothers. Masterson directed. The result felt betwixt and between -- too broad and insistent in presentation, I'd say, but some felt it needed an even more surrealistic edge. (For the critics, "Wonderful World" came as the fifth show on a very long day, in what Masterson called "the graveyard shift -- I didn't know any better.")

Charles L. Mee, "bobrauschenbergamerica"
Don't ask me what this engaging show is about, because it's about a great deal. Mee gathers texts by Rauschenberg, Walt Whitman, John Cage and many others for a panorama of American ambiguities. Staged with colorful joy by Anne Bogart and her SITI Company, it is a hymn to the heartland, full of the icons and experiences of growing up enthusiastic and entrapped, subversive and patriotic.

Arthur Kopit, "Chad Curtis: Lost Again"
Over three days, we saw three episodes (jokingly labeled 1, 4 and 14, each one 10 to 15 minutes long) of a goofy, retro serial in which innocent Chad searches for the tablet with which God has sent his last words to Earth, while aliens, an earthy despot, a religious maniac and Chad's mother all follow contrary agendas. A comic blend of Revelations, early sci-fi schlock and social satire, "Chad Curtis" is a reminder of the pure joy of serials. Kopit has plans to expand it into a play, but mightn't it then lose its improvisational, occasional zest?

16 playwrights, "Heaven and Hell (on Earth): A Divine Comedy"
The prime purpose of this series of brief snippets was to showcase the festival's many talented apprentice actors, but it also involved many playwrights, including William Mastrosimone, Rebecca Gilman, Keith Glover and Hilly Hicks Jr.

Seven phone plays
This is a form with many possibilities. Some were groupings of phone messages, ranging from satiric to tragic; in some, we were aural voyeurs, trying to fill out a story for ourselves. What a great exercise for writers and actors, and what fun for audiences, too -- just like the Humana as a whole.

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