Lawrence Harbison, The Playfixer, usually brings you up to date with what’s hot and what’s not in New York; but in this column, Larry reports on the 2018 Humana Festival.

Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival is always one of the high points of my year. I have missed only two festivals since I started going in 1980. This year, I saw 5 plays. It is always tempting to rank the plays one sees at Humana as if this were a horse race – win, place, show – but I always try to respond to each as an individual production rather than as part of a vast bill. Still, one can’t help but have a favorite, just as one can’t help designating one the Festival bomb.

The festival began with a panel discussion featuring The Kilroys, an organization which promotes the production of plays by women which have not yet been produced. They must have been ecstatic to see that 4 of the 5 Main Event plays were by women, two of them women “of color,” as apparently being “of color” is now a given precedence when they choose their annual list. I know this because I had the honor of being a Kilroys nominator but was given the boot when I protested that this policy was racist. What I thought was a stimulating debate ensued, at the end of which I was accused of being an “aggrieved white male” and a card-carrying member of Trump nation, which outraged me as I have been a tireless champion of women playwrights all my life. I sent them a list, playwrights such as Tina Howe, Shirley Lauro, Jane Martin (back to her start when she was definitely a woman), Theresa Rebeck and scores of others – all of whom were first published by Samuel French because of me – and I included many plays by women “of color” in the anthologies I have edited for Smith and Kraus and for Applause, such as Lynn Nottage, Elaine Romero, Fernanda Coppel, Anne García Romero, Brigette Wimberly and several others. I told my correspondent to ask any of these playwrights if they think I am an aggrieved white male.

There was also an interminable keynote address delivered by Anne Bogart, who ATL thinks is a genius (as for me, I say that the emperor has no clothes), and the annual presentation of the Steinberg Awards, administered by the American Theatre Critics Association, who awarded their top prize to The Book of Will by Lauren Gunderson, about the heroic effort by members of the King’s Men to preserve the late William Shakespeare’s plays for posterity. The Wolf at the End of the Block by Ike Holter and Cry It Out by Molly Smith Metzler were runners up. Airness by Chelsea Marcantel won the Elizabeth Osborne Award, presented by Theatre Communications Group.

My favorite play (and, I think, the Festival audience’s) was Leah Nanako Winkler’s God Said This, a realistic mixed-race family drama. The Mom and Dad are James and Masako. Much of the play takes place in a hospital, where Masako is undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Her two daughters, Sophie and Hiro, spend a lot of time with her, as does husband James when he’s not at an AA meeting. James has miraculously recovered from liver disease and the family is hoping for a similar miracle with Mom. Sophie is a born-again Christian, whereas Hiro is a thorough cynic. The scenes are broken up by James’ AA speeches. The final scene is, we think, another one of these, but James is actually delivering a eulogy at Masako’s funeral, during which the couple’s first meeting is dramatized. This is very moving, and beautifully staged.

Director Morgan Gould’s production was exquisite, and her cast first-rate. The play just won the prestigious Yale Drama Series Prize and will be produced by Primary Stages in New York next season.

I also enjoyed Deborah Stein’s Marginal Loss, about a financial services company trying to reestablish itself after the 9/11 tragedy, in which it lost most of its work force. They are in a warehouse in New Jersey, with one computer and one phone line. A temp has been hired to assist, and she quickly becomes very valuable as, gradually, they make contact with their customers and resume trading. Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough’s staging was crisp, and her actors were terrific. I particularly enjoyed Carla Buren as the temp, Margaret, who becomes an adept trader.

Mara Nelson-Greenberg’s Do You Feel Anger? was an absurdist comedy about business, as an empathy coach has been hired to do workshops with the employees, all of whom are extremely difficult. It’s as if the coach, Sofia, has fallen down the rabbit hole. The play was wildly funny, though it gradually petered out as it was really a one-joke concept until a surprising, rather forced, violent denouement, but the actors were hilarious.

In Susan Soon He Stanton’s We, the Invisibles the playwright, played by Rinabeth Apostol, interviewed various workers at a luxury boutique hotel where she worked for 10 years, as well as several guests. One of the most significant guests who appeared in the play is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, who was charged with raping a housekeeper but was acquitted by undermining the victim’s credibility. I doubt that the playwright interviewed him, but he came across as a truly slimy character who made Donald Trump look like a saint.

An intrepid case of 8 played multiple roles (with the exception of Apostol) and they were all terrific under Dámaso Robriguez’ slick, very inventive direction. Particularly good wss Rebecca S’Manga Frank, who invested the rape victim with a quiet dignity.

Finally, Mark Schultz’ Evocation to Visible Appearance, which was the bomb of the festival as far as I was concerned. Its central character was a teenager who may or may not be pregnant by her now-ex boyfriend. She hooked up with a very strange guy who was a Satanic punk rocker. I knew I was in trouble when I entered the theatre and was instructed to grab a packet of earplugs, which I needed whenever this guy screamed his “songs,” which were beyond terrible.

The set was negligible, with a vast junk pile spilling off the front of the stage.

Les Waters, ATL’s outgoing Artistic Director, commissioned and then directed the play. What he saw in it is beyond comprehension.

“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 

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually does strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.” 

                                                                                    — Theodore Roosevelt

 

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