BY SHERRY DEATRICK AND REBECCA HAITHCOAT
More than 750 plays were submitted to this year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. That’s fairly typical, Actors Theatre spokesperson Kyle Shepherd said, and certainly not shocking.
What is astonishing is that the six chosen plays were the crème de la crème. The overarching theme of work selected this year was apocalypse, although there were rays of hope here and there. But it wasn’t the subject matter that lacked as much as the execution.
Responding to submitted questions, ATL artistic director Marc Masterson offered this rose-colored assessment: “The Humana Festival is the most notable festival of its kind in the country and continues to draw theater lovers and journalists from around the world. To have Louisville mentioned in such a wide spectrum of publications nationally and internationally is important for the city’s image, and its economy — not to mention that Louisville audiences become taste setters for what the rest of the country will see in theater over the next few years.”
By contrast, Ian Williams, who writes for The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, told LEO he found the festival “a bit down” and open to “insiders” only. For confirmation, note the inclusion (for the third time) of work by Naomi Iizuka. She’s simply a weak playwright.
He wasn’t the only visiting critic who seemed dubious. Dominic Papatola, a St. Paul Pioneer Press critic and president of the American Theater Critics Association, seemed more intrigued by the bourbon waiting for him at the Galt House bar during the last weekend.
For us, and the many others who love the theater and desperately want it to be a vital and more relevant component of our culture, the 2007 festival was disheartening. Simply put, it lacked great playwrights who focus on human nature and the dichotomies within, who ultimately create works that stand the test of time.
There is intense competition in the entertainment industry, so we can’t afford to give theater a free pass and laugh at ploys that aren’t nearly as funny as whatever Will Ferrell is doing onscreen. Maybe it’s unfair to hold theater to a higher standard than film, but it’s absolutely essential to engage and maintain audiences. It’s a challenge, yes, but there are tremendously creative people in theater. Find them.
Also, what does the Humana Festival mean to Louisville, really? Granted, it is terrific for the city’s name to appear in newspapers nationwide. Certainly the month-long residency of actors, directors, playwrights and designers boosts our local economy. But what does the 31-year-old festival, founded by former artistic director Jon Jory, mean to American theater today? Pulitzer Prize-winning plays have emerged in the past, but this year’s selections don’t even come close.
We also question the continued viability of a festival that provides limited entertainment value to Louisvillians at a high price, underwritten by a generous grant from a major corporation, while talented local independent theater groups with great artistic vision starve for funds. Many local playwrights could write — and have written — better plays than some of this year’s festival offerings. If this is the best of the best, something is dreadfully wrong.
Well, enough of that already. Before the 31st annual Humana Festival of New American Plays fades completely into memory, here is LEO’s critical rundown on this year’s productions.
“The As If Body Loop”
by Ken Weitzman
With polishing, it might work better: Might. The ending was too pat: The crazy family all but donned superhero suits to save the world as they rode off into the sunset. Enough said. —SD
Overstuffed and completely unravels: The unraveling is especially evident in the next-to-last scene. The cast kept me engaged with the family at its epicenter. Josh Lefkowitz was the standout and made a potentially annoying character endearing. The play is entertaining, but a bells-and-whistles set is unnecessary, as is Weitzman’s need to tie up every single loose end in one short scene. —RH
“Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle”
conceived by Whit MacLaughlin and Alice Tuan and created by New Paradise Laboratories
Cheers for risk-taking: This, a celebration of human rites, says we should just let our freak flags fly, embrace all sides of our sexuality, and thus enrich the whole of humanity. As with most avant-garde art, people just didn’t “get” this one. Time will vindicate the artists and the critics (like me) who loved it. —SD
Yikes: While I appreciate the physical demands of performing a show like “Batch,” I’m simply not a fan of any play that’s a spectacle without a story to tell. The couple figures so marginally into the whole that the extended montage of the two on their wedding day seems foreign. By the time “Myclops” appears, it’s as if this spectacle is being weird just to be weird. —RH
“dark play or stories for boys”
by Carlos Murillo
Hitting pay dirt: Most people I spoke to said this was their favorite. I loved it, and its hilarious dark humor had me guffawing. The actors spoke realistically, in the way kids type on screen (“Do u like 2 chill?”). As one theater-goer told me, had it been a movie, he would have thought it was terrible. —SD
Worth remembering: This was, hands down, my favorite selection. The dialogue is sharp and funny, and Murillo gets extra credit for really capturing the manner in which teenagers speak. Performances, notably those by Will Rogers and Matthew Stadelmann, were easily among the best of the festival. The play succeeds because it focuses on one compelling relationship that culminates in a startling way; Murillo, trusting that this will keep the audience interested, doesn’t mire the play in extraneous subplots. I can’t see this play going to Broadway, but I do foresee it thriving in smaller venues. The downside is that its timely references could make it dated or obsolete in 10 years. —RH
by Naomi Iizuka
What’s the artistic criteria?: I didn’t dislike this as much as my cohort. But then, I haven’t seen “Crash.” It was the best Iizuka play I’ve seen, though it’s not one that will stick with me. The dialogue was stilted, with a soap opera feel. At the talkback, however, I heard subscribers praising the play. This is a quandary. Should plays be selected for their mass appeal, or should they meet more stringent artistic criteria? After all, Harlequin romances don’t win Pulitzers. —SD
Least favorite: I’m still baffled about why a play so similar to the movie “Crash” was included. Iizuka paints stock characterizations and sets up ludicrous and/or dubious interactions between characters. —RH
by Craig Wright
Favorite by far: People will watch it for years, unlike the others in this year’s festival. It’s not rooted in pop culture and thus won’t be dated. The complex ideas keep you guessing, and it draws upon a rich theatrical tradition. The two prisoners have hope, despite an unworkable situation. —SD
On the fence: Here the playwright refuses to hand out all the answers and fill in every blank. As with “dark play,” I like that “The Unseen” is theatrical. Instead of dazzling audiences with sets, costumes and plot twists, these plays allow theater-goers to use their imaginations. In the wrong hands, this could quickly crash and burn, but Richard Bekins and Gregor Paslawsky gave exceptional performances. —RH
“When Something Wonderful Ends”
by Sherry Kramer
Worst play: This playwright not only bores the audience with tedious preaching about oil addiction, she engages in irresponsible fear-mongering. She says we’ll reach peak oil by 2010, a contention without consensus in the scientific community. Put away your toys, America — that’s her lame solution to her crackpot theory that our Middle Eastern problems all began with an obscure 1964 treaty that let American GIs off the hook for recklessly running over Iranians, which led to universal hatred of Americans. Yet, Kramer drives an SUV and doesn’t intend to give it up.—SD
A bore: I can’t imagine any theater company reproducing this one-woman play. Kramer pontificates about the oil crisis, trying to make her monologue engaging by playing with Barbie dolls. She doesn’t grab the audience with either tack. A better play would focus on her childhood — and why she has more than 50 Barbies still in mint condition. —RH