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February 28, 2006

Theater Review - Something in the air: Americana and more at the 2006 Humana Festival

BY SCOTT DOWDA central theme seems to emerge from several selections in the 30th Humana Festival of New American Plays, which begins Tuesday at Actors Theatre of Louisville: the nature of the Americanism. Among the 10 dramatic productions selected this year, three of six full-length plays seem to ask us to consider what Americanism means and, perhaps, how our understanding of ourselves is changing.ATL artistic director Marc Masterson oversees the final selection process of the plays, and he says that sort of thematic grouping is completely unintended and “has more to do with what’s in the air.”That is, each year festival selections seem to give a close read on the state of contemporary American theater, and often, the country’s mindset. For example, in 2005, several plays had a political element. “That was the year coming off the (presidential) election,” Masterson notes, “and a lot of people were thinking along those lines.” This year’s plays include Theresa Rebeck’s “The Scene,” Charles L. Mee’s “Hotel Cassiopeia” and the collaborative dramatic anthology “Neon Mirage” (created by Liz Duffy Adams, Dan Dietz, Rick Hip-Flores, Julie Jensen, Lisa Kron, Tracey Scott Wilson and Chay Yew). Rebeck’s anti-hero, Charlie, is a down-and-out actor trying to get back into show business; a seminal moment is revealed as Charlie contemplates and measures his worth against the heights of luminaries surrounding him in Times Square.Mee’s play draws on the life of collage artist Joseph Cornell, whose work with mundane bits of Americana, which explore the American psyche, provides the impetus for the playwright’s examinations of the same subject. “Neon Mirage,” which will be performed by ATL’s Acting Apprentice Company, uses Las Vegas as a metaphor. Five writers and a composer/lyricist explore how artificial culture, like that found in Las Vegas, affects Americans’ view of reality.This year, ATL’s literary department collaborated with City Theatre in Miami, which provided additional dramaturges to read the submissions, thus allowing for consideration of more short works. The 2006 festival features six plays, three 10-minutes plays and one dramatic anthology from 16 emerging and established playwrights. After a five-year absence, the ever-mysterious Jane Martin returns with a commissioned 10-minute play, which, thus far, play remains as unknown as its author. All Masterson would say is that Martin’s play is political and a “sharp piece of writing.”Masterson is directing “Natural Selection,” the latest full-length from Eric Coble, whose play “Bright Ideas” was staged off-Broadway by Manhattan Class Company in 2003. In Coble’s manufactured reality, environmental disasters have made it impossible to tolerate the outdoors. Citizens who want a sense of bygone Americana are driven to Cultural Pavilions. “A little like EPCOT,” says the director. The main action centers around protagonist Henry Carson, curator of the Native American Pavilion, who must venture to the wastelands to re-stock, while his wife blogs the journey.ATL dramaturge Julie Felise Dubiner describes “Natural Selection” as a work set in a parallel world in the not-so-distant future. Reading her written thoughts on the work, it seems Coble’s comedy draws energy from the uncertainty of the early 21st century, where humans have been dramatically reminded that while we cause plenty of trouble for ourselves, and each other, there are still plenty of things we don’t control that can introduce chaos into our lives.Also during the festival, artist and social activist Rha Goddess will perform her one-woman, multi-disciplinary theater piece, “Low’s Journey: Meditations Trilogy Pt. 1,” which explores mental illness and related mythology, stigmas and fears. Goddess joined the emerging New York poetry scene of the last decade with encouragement from her mentor, reg e. gaines, who literally pushed her on the stage of the Nuyorican Poets Café in the East Village.To produce this year’s festival, Masterson and his staff read more than 700 unsolicited scripts over the past year. One thing that gives the festival its appeal and energy is the fact that these are all new works. Each of the full-length plays gets the standard four-week rehearsal period in Louisville, although work has already begun on some of them. “We’ve been able, this year, to get some development time on a few key projects,” Masterson says. “Act a Lady” by Jordan Harrison, for example, had a workshop at Playwrights Horizons in New York; Mee’s “Hotel Cassiopeia” has had three weeks of rehearsal in New York with ATL staff. “We have also done some reading here and in New York,” Masterson says. This pre-festival development track has been growing over the past few years, and it gives Masterson and his staff a chance to help playwrights focus their works and provide the strongest drafts possible so the limited rehearsal time can be spent fine-tuning the productions for discerning audiences. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com