Humana Festival blasts off with a double whammy

If theater mirrors our culture, Actors Theatre of Louisville’s kickoff week for the Humana Festival should have us all rushing to the psychiatrist’s office or the monastery. Humans are sick, depraved animals with no redeeming qualities. We can’t possibly sink any lower. Just take comfort that our civilization is near its end. That is the message of the first two eloquent tragicomedies of the 31st year of this esteemed festival.

Waiting for Gitmo?
The stunning opening salvo, Craig Wright’s “The Unseen,” is sheer genius. With shades of Samuel Beckett and Tom Stoppard and a dash of David Mamet, it’s nevertheless an original. Wright, who was nominated for an Emmy for his work on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” is well known for his plays “The Pavilion,” “Recent Tragic Events,” “Orange Flower Water” and others.

As in Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” the two leading men in “The Unseen” pass the time playing word games and pondering their predicament. Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot,” Wright’s Valdez and Wallace wait. And wait. For 11 years, they’ve passed the time in separate cells controlled by a nameless regime, trying to make sense of their situation, which initially evokes notions of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. There is no explanation, however. There is no truth or meaning. Existence is cruel.

A dreary stone structure separates Wallace and Valdez. Their cots and implements are placed strategically, as mirror images, by scenic designer Michael B. Raiford. Harsh buzzers and telephone sounds blast at unpredictable intervals. Wallace uses these signals from above to keep track of time (although from some angles in the Bingham Theatre, the audience might miss this important point).

Wallace relies only on a concrete reality he perceives from their surroundings to plot their escape. Valdez finds meaning in seemingly random taps on the wall by a new, unseen prisoner in the cell between them.
Richard Bekins, as Wallace, uses a scholarly, resigned tone with just the right touch of condescension. It mocks Valdez’s childlike desperation to understand what the unseen prisoner wordlessly communicates.
Valdez is like a haruspex examining sheep’s entrails for omens, as he espouses the wild theory he has gleaned from the unseen prisoner. Wallace counters, “But you are seeing constellations, Mister Valdez, where there are, truly, only stars.”

Gregor Paslawsky was a tad too shrill as Valdez on opening night. Holding his head too high and rarely modulating his tone, he seemed to assault the audience while deadening Valdez. The actor made up for these irritants with impeccable, fluid physicality, as he stood on his bucket or arched his body while throwing a blanket on his cold metal cot.

Richard Furlong is smashing as the childish guard named Mr. Smeija, an average dude driven to acts of unimaginable cruelty akin to the students in the Stanford Prison Experiment. The prisoners call him Smash, and he is, as Wallace describes, a prisoner of his own empathy. Furlong plays Smash as a Mamet-like Pillsbury doughboy in khakis. Even wearing a mask, he conveys the scared little boy inside the burly guard. Smash retains some humanity because he can’t stand to sense his victims’ suffering.

Which prisoner most accurately perceives the nature of his captivity? Does Smash tell the truth about the unseen prisoner? Who knows? In “The Unseen,” Wright takes the “Waiting for Godot” model one step further, and hurls the theater of the absurd into the post-apocalyptic 21st century. Here the world is filled with those who look for meaning in existence, and those who follow orders.

At the end, the opening night crowd hooted and hollered and gave the cast a well-deserved standing ovation. “The Unseen” is what’s right about modern theater.

Celebrating “darkness” and “danger”

Carlos Murillo’s “dark play or stories for boys” is another stunner filled with gallows humor posing similar questions about the nature of reality and cruelty. The laughs, however, are not cheap; they’re the dangerous laughs that come when we’re confronted with an evil we know within ourselves. The play’s constant pop culture references make the humor even creepier.

The audience enters the Bingham Theatre to find a young couple centerstage, lying naked and nearly motionless under a ratty blanket on a tawdry college dorm bed. They barely move, making them almost imperceptible. Then, the lights dim, and we see only the girl’s cigarette glowing in the dark. They are at that awkward stage of a new relationship when Molly, tracing Nick’s abdomen with her finger, asks the question about his scars: “Nick, what are these?”

This throws Nick into paroxysms of panic. Should he “make some shit up,” or tell her the truth? He takes us with him as he recalls cruel Internet chat sessions with gangly, gullible Adam, who insists he’s “not stupid.”
From this point, the belly laughs are fairly nonstop. The highly skilled actors humbly let the audience tell them where the laughs are, and pause reverently to let the audience react. In fact, they all used silence skillfully to emphasize their points.

Under Michael John Garcés’ imaginative direction, the play really comes alive, in spite of the way-too-many expository monologues from Nick. (Mr. Murillo, we’re “not stupid.” Show us. Don’t tell us. Cut out the fat and let this play breathe on its own.)

Will Rogers plays Adam to perfection. While his Adam appears naïve, he possesses a desperate longing that will drive him to commit “heinous acts” (an in-joke you’ll just have to see the play to get). Matthew Stadelman is lively as the nerdy, angst-filled Nick. He bounces all over the bed, gesticulates wildly and makes us care about the lonely boy who can’t connect with others. Liz Morton is catlike as both Nick’s girlfriend Molly and Rachel, Nick’s his made-up sister. As Rachel, she curls up into herself and purrs Adam’s name when urging him to “show” himself to her on the Webcam. “Please, A-dumb … I want to love you the only way I can love you right now,” she begs.

Lou Sumrall pleases the audience with comic relief as various Netizens. Jennifer Mendenhall, playing multiple roles, is a riot. Her best part is Ms. Spiegel (German for “mirror”), Nick’s lesbian drama teacher who explains that theater is a mirror that must force the audience to examine its own “darkness and danger” so it can change. But Nick discovers that while a person can confront his demons, change isn’t always possible.
So, don’t look under the bed.