Lawrence Harbison, our very own critic, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, he reports on this year’s Humana Festival.
This year marked the 50th year of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s new play festival, which has been sponsored by Humana since 1992. In the early years of the Festival, ATL did as many as 12 plays – hard to believe, but true. In recent years, they have settled on 5 full length plays, a bill of 3 10-minute plays and what has come to be called the “apprentice event,” which consists of an anthology of commissioned playlets more or less organized around a central theme.
This being Louisville, it is challenging not to think of the Festival as a sort of theatrical Kentucky Derby with Win, Place, Show and the Rest of the Field, but one must. Never again will these plays be presented together on what amounts to a vast bill. That said, there are always clear Audience Favorites and usually one that Nobody Likes. This year was no exception. In the former category were Chelsea Mercantel’s Airness and Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out.
Apparently, there are Air Guitar contests all over the country and, indeed, the world, involving elaborately choreographed routines as competitors advance through sectionals to the national and then world championships. These people take playing air guitar really seriously, and Mercantel takes them seriously as well. Her characters all have air guitar nom de plumes, such as “Shreddy Eddy,” “Cannibal Queen” and “D Vicious,” the latter the reigning national champion. Into their mix strides a determined woman named Nina, there to study their moves and eventually compete with them. We find out later that she wants to wreak revenge on D Vicious, who jilted her at the altar, by dethroning him. She resists admonitions that she must have an air guitar name; but eventually, she decides to call herself “The Nina.” As we follow these determined friends/competitors, we learn their back stories. And we learn a lot more than any of us knew about air guitar. As Shreddy Eddy tells The Nina, there are six elements which she must master, the last of which is the elusive quality of “Airness.” ATL’s Associate Artistic Director, Meredith McDonough, did a brilliant job of streaming together this rather episodic play and her cast was superb. One actor played the announcer at all the air guitar events. At the curtain call, we found out that he is the actual reigning air guitar national champion as he launched into a wonderfully goofy, elaborate routine which brought down the house.
Cry It Out is about recent mothers. Jessie, in whose backyard the play takes place, is a lawyer on maternity leave. Her new friend Lina is a feisty blue collar woman forced to rely on her aunt for day care—a real problem as the aunt is a drunk. Into their small group walks Mitchell, another neighbor, who asks that they include his wife in their daily get-togethers. She has reacted to new motherhood with extreme hostility, and Mitchell hopes getting her together with other mothers will help. His wife Adrienne does show up, and she’s every bit as hostile as her husband has described her. She comes back a second time to egg Jessie’s house because she found out that Jessie suggested to her husband that maybe she is just suffering from post-partum depression. It’s not depression Adrienne has – it’s rage. Again, this had a superb cast consisting of Jessica Dickey (Jessie) Andrea Syglowski (Lina) Jeff Riehl (Mitchell) and Liv Rooth (Adrienne).
I would be surprised if Airness and Cry It Out didn’t turn up in New York in the next year or two.
I also enjoyed Tasha Gordon-Solomon’s I Now Pronounce and Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Gonna Be OK although, strangely enough, the ending of both plays just doesn’t work. I Now Pronounce takes place, as you might imagine.at a wedding. The officiating rabbi drops dead, though, before he can say “I now pronounce you Man and Wife,” freaking out both bride and groom. The groomsmen and bridesmaid try to sort this out, even as they have their own issues. Also on hand are three little girls, who are amusing but who could have been cut without being missed. The playwright solves the problem of whether or not her bride and groom are married by having a bridesmaid (who was falling down drunk up until this point but who is now miraculously sober) just happen to be an ordained minister – so she finally says the vital words. Oh wait – before that the rabbi’s wife showed up, played by the same actor who played her husband. This is amusing but highly unlikely. Youlda thunk the old lady would have gone to the hospital to see her dead husband. Before all this silliness at the end, the actors did a lovely a cappella rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon.” The play should have ended there.
We’re Gonna Be OK is set in the fall of 1962 and is about two neighboring families. The Dad of one is obsessed with the Nuclear Peril and persuades his neighbor to help him build a bomb shelter in the back yard. When the Cuban Missile Crisis hits they decide that This Is It – the Big One – and move their families underground, where everyone comes to a deeper understanding of themselves. This is an amusing though unlikely premise, but the playwright couldn’t figure out how to end it. We hear a roar which may just be the nuclear apocalypse – which of course never happened. Up until then, though, the play was terrific, with fine performances all around.
Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ Recent Alien Abductions was the one play I didn’t care for nor did any of the folks I talked to. It started out promising, with a lengthy monologue by a young Puerto Rican man about his obsession with “The X Files.” The action then shifts to the family home. The guy who delivered the monologue is now dead, a suicide in New York. The play becomes a Terrible Family Secret play about the dead kid’s abusive brother. Most festival-goers were left scratching their heads.
This year’s apprentice event was The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, by various writers, consisting short pieces which question the “progress” that technology has provided, although there are some playlets which have nothing to do with this. The main purpose of this event is to showcase the talents of ATL’s hard working apprentices, and this year’s group acquitted themselves well.
ATL does two big weekends of Humana plays, only offering the 10-minute plays on the second one. I went to the first this year, so I missed them, dang it. What could I do? The Masters was being played on the second weekend.
I’m off to NYC next week, booked for 10 shows in 7 days. Woo-hoo!
“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.”
— George F. Will
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
— Theodore Roosevelt