Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in the theatre world. This week, Larry tells you about the HUMANA FESTIVAL.

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During a break in the Humana Festival of New American Plays, presented each spring by Actors Theatre of Louisville, Marc Masterson, ATL’s Artistic Director, conducted a panel discussion on the topic of ensemble-created theatre. Panelists included representatives from the companies which presented this kind of work at the Festival (the Rude Mechs from Texas and refugees from the defunct Theatre de la Jeune Lune, from Minneapolis), a guy who books it and a guy who funds it. During the discussion, Masterson announced that it is his intention to give a third of the slots at the Festival each year to this kind of theatre. From his point of view, this is an exciting new way of creating theatrical events; from the point of view of the vast majority of Festival attendees, these are wasted slots. 

Theatre is ephemeral enough as it is without presenting work which has been created by a company and which is specific to its members. What often results is theatre about the process of creating theatre, as was the case with the Rude Mechs’ The Method Gun, which tried hard to satirize theatre folks’ fascination with methodology, usually of one guru. In this case, a group of actors are trying to keep the memory of their deceased acting teacher alive by performing some of her acting exercises while they rehearse a version of A Streetcar Named Desire which eliminates the characters of Stanley, Stella, Blanche and Mitch. I guess this was supposed to be funny; but it wound up being mostly inane. About halfway through, two male members of the company walked in completely naked, each with a bunch of helium-filled balloons attached to his male member. Why? Nobody knows … 

Former Jeune Lune Artistic Director Dominique Serrand presented another ensemble work, Fissures (Lost and Found), which appeared to be about the fallibility of memory. It consisted of scenes and monologues in which the actors (I cannot call them “characters”) revealed, over and over again, that we often misremember the past. Oh really? Do tell…

This non-play was occasionally funny, but quickly become tedious once the audience realized that, in Gertrude Stein’s immortal phrase, there was no there there. 

I find it most unfortunate that a festival which was created to foster the new American play is now slotting non-plays like The Method Gun and Fissures. Fortunately, these ensemble events almost always are short. Unfortunately, they never have intermissions. So, a word to the wise: unless you are the sort of theatergoer who actually likes this kind of theatre, be sure to ask for a seat near the exit door, so you can ditch unobtrusively. 

On the plus-side, at least Masterson didn’t bring back Anne (The Emperor has no clothes) Bogart and her SHITTI Company this year. Thank heavens for small favors … 

Of the actual plays presented at Humana this year, most everybody liked Scott Organ’s Phoenix and Deborah Zoe Laufer’s Sirens; few liked Dan O’Brien’s The Cherry Sisters Revisited or Lisa Dillman’s Ground. The Cherry Sisters was about five sisters determined to break into Vaudeville. The problem is, they have no talent whatsoever. The play is much better in the second act, when the sisters do become successful (as Tiny Tim or Florence Foster Jenkins were successful), because then it turns dark. The first act is about how talentless  they are. It is very difficult to make deliberately bad performance anything other than Just Plain Bad, and director Andrew Leynse just couldn’t solve this problem with O’Brien’s play. He wasn’t helped much by his cast, none of whom were particularly effective. 

Ground was an interesting though flawed play about illegal immigration. Well – if it were about that it would have been much more interesting. It’s about a young woman who comes home to her recently-deceased father’s pecan farm on the Mexico/U.S. border. Chuy, a longtime farm hand, has been running the farm, and running illegals through the farm, much as dear old dead Dad did. Set against him is the leader of a vigilante group willing to take any measures to prevent illegals from getting across the border and who is trying to get control of the land, and a local border patrol cop of Mexican ancestry who goes by the gringo name “Carl” instead of his real name, Carlos. He’s just trying to do his job. This all leads to a tragic denouement. The problem with the play is that Ms. Dillman has made the dead Dad’s daughter the central character, but she’s not particularly interesting as she’s rather passive. The real central character should have been Chuy, who is shot accidentally by Coop, the right-winger vigilante. Then the play could have risen to the realm of a powerful tragedy, though it would have to have had a better production than the one Mr. Masterson has given it on the awkward, ugly, cheapie set by Scott Bradley. 

Phoenix was a two-hander about a man and woman who have a one-night stand. She gets pregnant. She is an unsympathetic character fairly oozing negativity and pessimism. He is a Nice Guy and the Eternal Optimist. She wants to get an abortion, which as we all know is solely her choice to make. He bends over backwards to be supportive; but eventually tries to persuade her not to do it which, of course, ends what could have been a sweet love story. Or does it? Organ not only subtly undermines the irrefutability of a Woman’s Right to Choose but asks some troubling questions about why the Contemporary Woman thinks carrying a baby to term, giving birth and committing to a family is just Too Much Of A Bummer. In other words, Phoenix was, for me, refreshingly politically incorrect. It was also very well-directed by Aaron Posner, with wonderful performances by Suli Holum and Trey Lyford. 

The Festival’s smash this year was Ms. Laufer’s Sirens, about a middle-aged couple, Sam and Rose Abrams, who don’t have much of a marriage anymore. She’s a ball-buster; he’s a wimp. Sam is a one-hit-wonder songwriter whose one hit was a song about Rose written in his 20s, which has paid the bills ever since. In search of inspiration, he has lately been trolling the internet looking to meet young women. Well, Sam and Rose book an Aegean cruise, during which Sam hears beautiful, ethereal singing (which sounds a lot like his famous song). He jumps overboard, and winds up on the Island of the Siren, whose song lures men to their deaths, as we know from the Odyssey. Sam has two choices – he can either have passionate sex with the Siren, after which he’ll die, or he can eschew the sex and starve to death. Well, it turns out that the Siren has become obsessed with a Game-Boy which washed up on her beach, and she plays it 24/7 – when she’s not luring men to their deaths. When its batteries die, she lets Sam escape in order to bring her more batteries. Back home, the widow Rose is preparing for a date with her college honey Richard, when who should show up but Sam. She goes off on the date anyway, dressed as a hot teenager. Richard shows up at their rendezvous looking exactly the same as he did 25 or 30 years ago (he’s played by a young actor who looks 20 but walks like he’s 50). Will Rose come to her senses? Will Sam stand up to her? Will the Siren ever get her batteries? 

Ms. Laufer has a wonderful theatrical imagination and a fine comic sense. Casey Stangl’s direction was delightfully inventive, and Mimi Lieber and Brian Russell were hilarious as Rose and Sam. Also terrific were Lindsey Wochley in three roles (including the Siren); and incredibly handsome young Ben Hollandsworth was a hoot as Richard. 

The Humana Festival is always great fun, even if all the plays aren’t all that great. Let us pray that Marc Masterson comes to his senses and stops giving away those valuable Humana slots to artsy-fartsy nonsense.

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“It requires a certain largeness of spirit to give generous appreciation to large achievements. A society with a crabbed spirit and a cynical urge to discount and devalue will find that one day, when it needs to draw upon the reservoirs of excellence, the reservoirs have run dry.” 

                             —– George F. Will

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