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[Theater reviews]

The 25th Humana Festival of New American Plays


If New York is the capital of American theater, then Louisville is its unlikely New Frontier. Yep, they are breeding more in bluegrass country than fancy horses and chicken fingers. Every spring the Actors Theatre of Louisville produces the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, this year celebrating its 25th anniversary with a marathon of six world premieres of full-length works, along with shorter stuff that included seven “Phone Plays” you listened to by picking up what looked like pay phones in the lobby.

The first festival, in 1976, was not so lavish; the growth of the event was assured, however, when one of the two plays premiered that year, D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. So did Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, which debuted in Louisville in 1978, and Donald Margulies’s 1999 entry, Dinner with Friends. Other notable works first presented at the festival include Marsha Norman’s Getting Out, José Rivera’s Marisol, John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, Emily Mann’s The Execution of Justice, and all the plays of the pseudonymous Jane Martin, who’s widely believed to be long-time ATL artistic director Jon Jory. Jory resigned his Louisville post a year ago, to be replaced by Marc Masterson. But he was back in town for the recently concluded month-plus festival to direct the prolific Martin’s latest, a black-comic Western called Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage.

Fortunately, there were better things on view, including the delightful bobrauschenbergamerica, the work of Charles L. Mee, whose Full Circle was a highlight of the American Repertory Theatre’s 1999-2000 season, and the zany and haunting Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS, by Obie winner Mac Wellman. During the heady if exhausting visitors’ weekend, I managed to see those three plus full-length works by Melanie Marnich, Richard Dresser, and the Cuban-American writer Eduardo Machado; an evening of monologues by various writers on the theme Heaven and Hell (on Earth): A Divine Comedy; and Arthur Kopit’s Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, an amusing if apocalyptic three-short-part serial centered on a glowing frisbee encoded with a message from God. All were slickly produced in one of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s three theaters. And then there was the time spent eavesdropping on the “Phone Plays.”

Certainly nothing was as much fun as Mee’s collaboration with director Anne Bogart and her wonderfully precise SITI Company, bobrauschenbergamerica, a bright, kaleidoscopic piece that flows together and falls over itself like its name. It’s no surprise that Mee, whose stage works are themselves collages, would be inspired by the artist Robert Rauschenberg. But this piece — which pastes together images and texts by, among others, Mee, Rauschenberg, Walt Whitman, John Cage, and William S. Burroughs — is less a homage to the artist than a giddy, nostalgic jumping off into an earlier, apple-pie America that formed him. As one character remarks, “You think you see what’s present . . . but you don’t. You never do. All you can ever see is the past.”

Populated by a perfectly coiffed housewife (Bob’s mom), a trucker, a physicist, a girl in a mod bikini, and a bum in a cardboard box, bobrauschenbergamerica paints a sunny, sometimes sublimely silly picture daubed at the edges with the darker colors that have come to dominate the national landscape. Filled with wittily used and well-executed music and dance, it is redolent more of an ebullient Mark Morris creation than a play. The characters sidle into and out of one another’s orbits toting such Rauschenberg totems as stuffed chickens and claw-footed tubs and seeking love and delight in everything from an old-fashioned picnic to a skid across a floor awash in martini. At the heart of the piece is the celebration of an artist who could emerge from a world of which “art was not a part” to “see the beauty of almost anything” and of a freedom that has more to do with imagination than the Stars and Stripes (though they loom here as prominently as in Rauschenberg’s Pegasus’ First Visit to America in the Shade of the Flatiron Building).

In sharp contrast to the colorful bobrauschenbergamerica is Mac Wellman’s Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS, which narrows the all-American focus to a “vast, metaphysical Rhode Island” where an old-moneyed, white-clad clan, the Outermost Rings, gather for a family photograph. Musicians have been hired to play for the occasion, and in various guises they lace through the play. But blustery Uncle Fraser — called “the marplot” because of his tendency to obstruct family plans — believes with the Native Americans that “the black art of photography” whites out the human soul and refuses to sit for the picture.

In Wellman’s fantastical millennial allegory, Fraser is ultimately called to account and perhaps be sacrificed for tribal sins both ancient and modern. His disappearance leaves the play’s other characters, all women, as caretakers of a mysterious, convoluted, and fragmented family mythology that takes both musical and linguistic flight. Wellman has been likened to “James Joyce reborn as a rap artist,” and the language of Description Beggared is intricate, alliterate, dizzyingly Jabberwocky-like. And Michael Roth has supplied the theater piece with an arresting score, nicely played and sung at Louisville, whose rhythmic incantations and plaintive harmonies contrast with the cacophony of collective family memory and dispute.

There is probably in Wellman’s allegory a mea culpa for the white race, even for the human family (old evils are alluded to, and Fraser, or one of his namesake progenitors, is said to have participated in an eerie massacre on the eve of World War II). But Wellman is more interested in the mutation and the full-circling of family history than he is in Caucasian guilt mongering. And he’s fascinated by the visceral power of words, including the many “blenched” connotations of white. Moreover, his work, if sometimes obscure, is acutely theatrical. The strange saga of the Outermost Rings included, in Lisa Peterson’s ghost sonata of a staging, swirling snowstorms and a giant zebra on wheels that may or may not be a stand-in for Godot.

More out of left field comes Quake, an intriguing new work by advertising-copywriter-turned-dramatist Melanie Marnich, whose play Blur will soon have its New York premiere. Following examples from Arcadia to Copenhagen (not to mention bobrauschenbergamerica), Quake incorporates the laws of physics into its whimsical, poetical, questing comedy. The play’s central character, Lucy, is urged by a voice to “move with the curve of the world” in search of the love of her life — which she did, in Paul Owen’s spare but ingenious design for Susan V. Booth’s Louisville production, on a couple of criss-crossed people movers that took her from one lustful romantic encounter to another, none of them lasting or right. Lucy has a doppelgänger on a parallel journey, though: a seemingly unstoppable female astrophysicist who doesn’t just discard boyfriends but kills them. Her mantra: “I am brilliant. And that is pure energy. Energy doesn’t disappear.” As for the boyfriends, “They were only human, and I knew what it was like to wish upon a supernova. I just wanted more.”

Breezy on the surface, Marnich’s play is about acknowledging female want, about not settling — though, in the end, the murderous alter ego does; and Lucy, flying solo after a few near-crashes, gets the indestructible albeit transferable energy — “velocity, ferocity, power” — that her kick-ass astrophysicist idol has been flaunting. The play is a kind of episodic parable, and it’s nicely written, jumping among lyrical monologue, sketch comedy, and surreal gambit. Imaginatively realized in Louisville, it also has some refreshingly Mamet-esque conversation for women. As Lucy tersely remarks, “We’re in the land where want is a four-letter word. So is love. So is move.”

A journey is also at the center of Eduardo Machado’s When the Sea Drowns in Sand. This autobiographical theater piece was inspired by the playwright’s emotional 1999 return to the Cuba from which he was unceremoniously whisked as a child in the early ’60s following Castro’s revolution. Machado is best known for his Floating Island Plays, which deal with the immigrant experience. When the Sea Drowns in Sand addresses the duality at the center of Cuban-American identity from the other end of the pond. And the playwright got lucky: his homecoming coincided with the Elián González affair, which allowed him to work that into his treatment of his own perceived cultural split. The play is disarmingly honest in its treatment of the conflict the homecoming churns up in Federico, the Machado clone, in whom an American liberal wars with a Cuban patrician still chafing at the appropriation of the family manse. And Ernesto, the Cuban whom Federico and accompanying friend Fred hire to drive them around, is a character both laid-back and compelling: a Marxist opportunist still dealing with a wrenching separation from a sister who chose America. But Machado muddies the water with Fred’s mirror crisis: he’s a macho Italian-American male for whom Cuba, for some reason, inspires a reunion with his feminine side that is upon occasion embarrassing.

Machado, at least, is writing about something. Martin’s Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage, a combination B-movie Western/horror-flick spoof with possible Joe Orton–esque aspirations, struck me as pointless. Martin did excite the audience by reintroducing a character people remember fondly from her first play, female rodeo rider Big 8 from the monologue collection Talking With, and the writer has an undeniable way with a one-liner. But this play, ostensibly a parodic gloss on the ever-blurring line between good and evil, is an overblown Saturday Night Live sketch. And Richard Dresser’s Wonderful World, a harsh comedy about the ravages of family honesty, is too brittle by half: a sharp-edged sit-com masquerading as a contemporary comedy of manners. These two plays, directed by former honcho Jory and current one Masterson, had pride of place in the festival, occupying the largest of the three theaters. Both were Actors Theatre of Louisville commissions. Still, if it’s true that there’s an old-boys aspect to Humana, with some of the same authors returning again and again, Marnich’s Quake proves that a new girl can make it into the derby as well.

Issue Date: April 12-19, 2001