Ask Les Waters, who last year was appointed artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, what he finds most satisfying about his career, and he doesn’t talk about his own work as a director — though for more than 30 years he’s been winning plaudits in cities like London, New York, Chicago and Berkeley. Critics fall all over themselves looking for ways to praise his directing. They use words like “faultless,” “spellbinding,” “stylish,” “jolting” and “bracing.”
But Waters says, “When it comes time for me to throw in the towel, I’d be most proud if I could look back and know that I’d helped introduce the work of young playwrights who’ve gone on to create the canon of 20th and 21st century theater.”
For a director who values that sort of legacy, there can hardly be a better post than Actors Theatre, where the 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays — the first festival under Waters’ leadership — kicks off this week. And from what one can tell in advance, Waters and his ATL colleagues have assembled an intriguing slate of plays by writers who are: A) just emerging as forceful and provocative voices, or B) writers who are still early in their careers but have already made their mark.
Some of those playwrights have worked with Waters on past projects. In 2009, Waters directed the Berkeley and Broadway productions of Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play),” which earned multiple Tony nominations; this year he’s directing “Two Conversations Overheard on Airplanes,” Ruhl’s contribution to the always juicy “Ten-Minute Play” program (which includes offerings by Jonathan Josephson and Emily Schwend).
Waters also teams up with former collaborator Will Eno, whose play “Gnit” tells the tale of Peter Gnit, an updated take on Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, one of literature’s great peripatetic anti-heroes. (Waters previously directed the American premier of Eno’s “TRAGEDY: a tragedy” at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and his “Middletown” at Steppenwolf in Chicago.)
Ruhl, who received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2006, and Eno, whose “Thom Pain (based on nothing)” was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer in Drama, are already fixtures of American theater. At the other end of the spectrum is Jeff Augustin, whose “Cry Old Kingdom,” a drama set in Haiti in 1964, depicts the plight of an artist forced into hiding by the deadly regime of “Papa Doc” Duvalier.
I don’t have any spoilers to offer about Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ new play, “Appropriate.” All I know is that it’s set on a fading Arkansas plantation where three siblings have come together to liquidate their father’s estate — and they make a disturbing discovery. But given that a reviewer once described Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing as “flame-throwing dramaturgy,” I’m eager to find out about that secret — and see how things turn out.
A dark undercurrent also seems to flow along “The Delling Shore,” a new work by Sam Marks (whose “The Old Masters” premiered at Chicago’s Steppenwolf a couple of years ago to reviews that called it “sharply etched” and “compelling”). The new play explores the rivalry between two writers (one rich and renowned, the other still struggling) and their daughters as it unfolds during a visit to the rich writer’s lake house.
A somewhat lighter theme emerges in Mallery Avidon’s “O Guru Guru Guru (or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you),” about a young woman who grew up in an ashram — but it turns out that even folks who grow up in ashrams have trouble finding themselves.
And it must be noted that for all the importance that attaches to the premieres that define the Humana Festival’s importance in the world of American theater, it’s the Acting Apprentice Company production that really captures the sheer, childlike “let’s put on a show” pleasure that theater can give an audience. This year’s production — with a script by Rinne Groff, Lucas Hnath and Anne Washburn, conceived by Amy Attaway and Sarah Lunnie, and directed by Attaway — should be no exception. Entitled “Sleep Rock Thy Brain,” the play delves into dreams, science and all the things that happen (or seem to happen) during the time we spend in slumber.
37th Humana Festival of New American Plays
Feb. 27-April 7
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 W. Main St. • 584-1205