The Humana Festival of New American Plays has never been, or claimed to be, a collection of the “best” new American plays. If it were possible for readers, dramaturges and directors to read a thousand plays a year and determine which were destined for greatness and which for obscurity, theater wouldn’t be art. If that were possible, there might be no need for festivals that try to capture the emergent spirit of a dynamic medium that has become — in an era of highly corporatized culture — one of the places where economics allows unfettered experimentation, innovation and provocation.
So, as usual, this year’s Humana Festival — the 34th — offered a mixed and blurry picture of the current state and near future of American theater. There was, in the six plays I saw (I wasn’t able to score a ticket to “Heist,” by Sean Daniels and Deborah Stein), a little something for everyone.
There was even something for those who despise theater. The percentages may vary, but nearly every time a play is staged, some members of the audience are attending under duress. They may have been dragged by their significant others, by a perceived need to uphold a public image, or simply by a deep, sacrificial sense of duty.
Whatever the reason, they’d rather be someplace else. For these people, who truly hate the theater, nothing is more to their purpose than taking in a truly dismal piece of work — one that confirms their notion that theater is waste of time and one that confirms that their attendance is, indeed, heroic. For them, this year’s Festival offered two punishing examples of bad theater.
“Ground,” by Lisa Dillman, was a hackneyed, politically correct melodrama that attempted — unsuccessfully — to personalize issues around illegal immigration, race and class along the U.S.-Mexican border. Alas, Dillman’s borderland was populated by an irredeemably dull collection of stock characters who were doomed to long passages of expository back story and a plot so pointless and predictable that at intermission I wanted to start a pool on which of the poor, pure, dignified rabble would die at the end — and I’d have won that pool, though I couldn’t have predicted that at what should have been the emotional climax of the play audience members would be cackling aloud at the laughable appearance of a dead rooster. The customary critical approach to such appallingly bad plays is to note that the director and cast did as well as could be expected, given the nature of the material. But even that wasn’t true with “Ground.” Marc Masterson’s directing had about it a defeatist gloom that expressed itself in flat blocking, dull pace and scene after scene that sank beneath monotonous cadences. Only the technical staff — Scenic Designer Scott Bradley, Lighting Designer Brian J. Lilienthal and Sound Designer Matt Callahan — brought a whiff of imagination to this dull affair.
That same self-sacrificing audience would have profited equally as well from attending Dan O’Brien’s “The Cherry Sisters Revisited,” a fact-based, backward glance at a legendary 19th century vaudeville act that earned infamy for the incompetence of its performances. There is no premise so hopeless that it can’t be molded into comedy or drama by a crafty playwright. In this tale, there are so many juicy possibilities for dramatic irony, for farce, for flat-out physical and verbal comedy, and, yes, even for cathartic cleansing, that it took mighty striving to discover a path that managed to avoid every good opportunity. But avoid them, O’Brien did. Here, director Andrew Leynse did do his best to enliven the proceedings. A clever set by Scott Bradley and lively performances from the cast were enough to make the production flow. But biography alone — true or not — is insufficient to make a play work, and perhaps O’Brien was so respectful of the facts that he never imagined the meaning of what might have been a fine, insightful tale. Regardless, his plodding narrative couldn’t be salvaged by even the most desperately quirky diversions. And the high comedic point of the play came during a telling scene when the hapless Cherry Sisters were pelted with cabbages, rotted vegetables and other food stuff in a scene that was ripe with plenty of dramatic — albeit unintended — irony.
For folks who love theater as diversion, this year’s Festival offered two romantic comedies. One, “Sirens,” by Deborah Zoe Laufer, had a script as thin as a greeting card. An aging couple, teetering on the edge of an abyssal empty nest, find themselves lamenting the bygone romance and passion of youth. The husband, a one-hit songwriter, thinks he’ll find inspiration by surrounding himself with young, nubile Facebook friends. The wife thinks she’ll win her husband via the time-honored tradition of the mid-life cruise in the Mediterranean. On the isle of the Sirens, the husband — as sad an Odysseus as any writer has ever constructed — discovers that, yes, he’d rather return to his wife than die for the amusement of the Sirens. And back home, his present-day Penelope wastes no time in looking for inspiration in the light of an old flame. Of the playwright, one might ask, “Why invoke the ancient myth in service to a script that would likely have been rejected by the producers of ‘Love Boat’?” And of the cast and director, one might ask whether they thought the jokes so hopelessly obscure that each punch line required a bluntly mugged reaction.
Better — and indeed the best piece of conventional narrative in the Festival — was the charming “Phoenix,” by Scott Organ, a frothy, fun two-person comedy of manners about a one night stand that turns into something far more complex when the male half of the couple learns — to his dismay — that he’s not actually incapable of fathering children. With the question of abortion hovering over the play, the script might have turned into a turgid morality play. Instead, thanks to a cunning script, finely paced direction from Aaron Posner, and sparkling performances from Suli Holum and Trey Lyford, “Phoenix” bristled with upbeat energy and an urgent, cock-eyed optimism that might have been naïve, but was most certainly entertaining.
Fans of conventional theatrical narrative — people who think of plays as, in essence, three-dimensional movies played under a proscenium arch, featuring people who stand around talking about their dysfunctional families — might well find reason for alarm in the paucity of passable narrative plays in this year’s Festival. But those who think of theater as a conduit for ideas so complex, for language so expressive, and for physicality so eloquent that it simply can’t find a home in mass media, but requires the intimate confines of a small space — for those folks there were two plays worthy of rejoicing.
“Fissures (lost and found)” by Steve Epp, Cory Hinkle, Dominic Orlando, Dominique Serrand, Deborah Stein and Victoria Stewart is an intricate exploration of memory that opens with a mundane discussion of the trivial aspects of how recollection works — the cognitive processes by which slivers of memory coalesce to construct complex pictures of the past — and then turns into a rigorous philosophical examination of the ways in which memory interacts with and shapes the very nature of human truth and human relations. More than any other play in the Festival, “Fissures (lost and found)” is a celebration of the intricate ways in which ideas, language and physicality come together in great works of theater. Drawing its verbal techniques from the minimalist, repetitive gestures of Samuel Beckett, it’s beautifully architectural choreography from the concepts of Anne Bogart, and its ideas from artistic reflections on the philosophy and science of time, “Fissures (lost and found)” offered an exquisitely moving look into the ways memory shapes who we are now — and what will remain when we are gone.
“The Method Gun,” written by Kirk Lynn and assembled by the Rude Mechs, an Austin-based theater collective, was another outstanding fusion of ideas, language and staging. Here, the focus was on the nature of theater itself and on the curious nature of teaching and learning — all viewed through a complex, conflicted prism of cynicism, satire and earnest love for the art form. “Fissures” and “The Method Gun” share in common that they emerged from deeply collaborative processes, and that in each case the fundamental nature of the theatrical “set” becomes a meta-tools employed not as a frame for the action, but as an essential component. The companies don’t so “break through the fourth wall” as create an unbounded, infinitely malleable universe of experience that sucks audiences across the footlights and into another world.
It’s a powerful device, and one that surely points in new directions. And that, of course, has always been an important part of what the Humana Festival of New American Plays has always set about doing.