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By Glenn Loney, April 2003

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
[01] 27th Humana Festival of New American Plays
[02] Three Ten-Minute Plays
[03] "The Lively Lad"
[04] "Omnium Gatherum"
[05] "The Faculty Room"
[06] "The Second Death of Priscilla"
[07] "Orange Lemon Egg Canary"
[08] "Slide Glide the Slippery Slope"
[09] Side-Shows: "Trepidation" & Rhythmicity
[10] Nilo Cruz Wins $15,000 ATCA/Steinberg Award
[01] 27th Humana Festival of New American Plays
[02] Three Ten-Minute Plays
[03] "The Lively Lad"
[04] "Omnium Gatherum"
[05] "The Faculty Room"
[06] "The Second Death of Priscilla"
[07] "Orange Lemon Egg Canary"
[08] "Slide Glide the Slippery Slope"
[09] Side-Shows: "Trepidation" & Rhythmicity
[10] Nilo Cruz Wins $15,000 ATCA/Steinberg Award

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At Actors Theatre of Louisville

Onward and Upward with New American Plays!

This Spring was welcomed-at least in Kentucky-with a full slate of New American Plays. At Actors Theatre of Louisville, this was also the 27th year of the Humana Festival!

This is something of a record: Not only for a regional theatre, seeking out new and innovative scripts. But also for a corporation such as the Humana Foundation to continue to fund the performing arts over so many years!

Accordingly, every production during the Festival Weekend was greeted with hearty applause. This was not exactly spontaneous, as theatre staff made sure to elicit the response.

Last season's Festival was a bit disappointing. The best play was not a major script, but one of the so-called Ten-Minute Plays. Bake off hilariously pitted an embattled wimpy man against a virago of a woman in the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest. Complete with the Pillsbury Dough-Boy!

Some critics felt that the new Artistic Director of Actors Theatre, Marc Masterson, shouldn't be blamed for the paucity of good scripts last season. Possibly some decisions would have had to have been made in advance by the retiring chief, John Jory.

This April, however, Masterson and his dramaturgs bore full responsibility. At least the Ten-Minute Plays did not upstage everything else this time around.

Three Ten-Minute Plays:

Rebecca Wisocky, TRASH ANTHEM - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003
Only one of this new Louisville Trio came close to last year's favorite pocket-drama as a crowd-pleaser. This was Dan Dietz's Trash Anthem. It echoed a theme from filmdom's Far Off From Heaven, in that Jenny had caught her man with his male lover. He done her wrong, so she shot him dead. Only his boots remained, encircled by ashes, but they talked to Jenny, possibly from Trailer-Trash Heaven.

In the past few seasons, few of these Humana Festival short plays could actually be clocked at one-sixth of an hour. But, in some cases, "ten-minutes" can seem an eternity.

L-R: Jason Kaminsky, Lea Coco, Justin Tolley, THE ROADS THAT LEAD HERE - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003

Multi-Award-Winner Lee Blessing-a favorite at Louisville, as indeed across the nation in experimental theatres-offered The Roads That Lead Here. Three spoiled brothers, with an apparently immensely rich sponsor or father-"The Eminent"-have been cris-crossing the Continent in their state-of-the-art vehicles. They are collecting their own idea of Americana in Photos, Sounds, and Things. Their Big Surprise on this annual reunion is to have their cars blown up. Offstage, of course…

Fit for Feet was Jordan Harrison's contribution to the Ten-Minute Trilogy. It was mildly amusing in production. But it will not be right for many stages as the young male lead really needs balletic training to make it work. Spoiled teen Claire and her indulgent mother are planning the Perfect Wedding. But the Boy Friend-suddenly going round the bend-thinks he is Vaslav Nijinsky!

Five New Plays & a Quasi-Musical:


L-R: Lea Coco, Dennis Kelly, THE LIVELY LAD - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003
Quincy Long doesn't insist that his new script is a musical. He calls it "a play with songs," with music by Michael Silversher. It is a Period Piece, with an ex-Civil War serviceman as butler and Turn-of-the-Century costumes. Rich Patrician Wimp Jonathan's financial advisor's office overlooks the Brooklyn Bridge, but this cannot be New York, for the city is ruled by a Patriarch. This Capitalist Tyrant has had his own illegitimate son castrated to prevent dissent. Jonathan is in love with a prim Social Reformer, but this is a declassé problem for his badly spoiled bitch of a daughter. She wants to have a Eunuch of her very own, just like the other rich girls contending for Coronation at the Patriarch's Ball. Long tries very hard for the Wit of Oscar Wilde, but this show is more like Earnest Worthing & St. Joan Come To Urinetown. Jonathan's Little Eva gets her Eunuch-complete with his testicles in a little box. Some may find this distasteful. But the Eunuch Janissaries of Ottoman Turkey also kept their severed organs handy in a testicle-receptacle. As the old vaudeville joke goes: "All that meat and no potatoes!" And the late Charles Ludlam's Guggenheim Award play was Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, so the topic can be treated with levity. Lively Lad is certainly not Thoroughly Modern Millie, but something could be done with this show to make it more musical, compelling, and hilarious. You might yet see it on Broadway. Long's Saint Joan at the Stake scene could be another Springtime for Hitler! Timothy Douglas directed an able cast, including Holli Hamilton, Shannon Holt, Celia Tackaberry, Marc Vietor, and the Eunuch, Lea Coco.


L-R: Edward A. Hajj, Phillip Clark, Richard Furlong, Robert Lee Simmons, OMNIUM-GATHERUM - Photo: ©John Fitzgerald/Humana Festival 2003.
Playwrights Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros & Theresa Rebeck have just added yet another drama to the long list of plays which take place at dinner-tables. Were it not for the conceit that a demi-Martha Stewart is giving a gourmet feast in an underground atomic-bomb & chemical/biological-bunker/shelter, the contemporary contentions of the assembled, but widely dissident, guests-minus the dead NYC Fireman-could just as well have been aired in committee at the United Nations. Or at a Round Table at Columbia University. In response to 9/11, the two writers each wrote a play-so says the program-and this is the combined result. Neither author is a match for the wit & insight of George Bernard Shaw, however, so this is no Heartbreak House, alas. As each of the characters is required to represent-or give utterance to-a variety of beliefs, attitudes, prejudices, and positions, there is no consistency in character. The Neo-Fascist Novelist, for instance, makes a dubious champion for Jews and the State of Israel. Nor do Good Muslims drink wines with dinner… Will Frears staged, with Kristine Nielsen desperately trying to keep the dinner-courses moving. The food looked appalling, but few seemed to eat it. FREE MARTHA STEWART NOW!


L-R: Michael Laurence, William McNulty, THE FACULTY ROOM - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003
What impressed me most about Bridget Carpenter's strange fable of delinquent teachers in a small-town Columbine-like high-school was the spaciousness and furnishings of its Faculty Room. Obviously designer Paul Owen intended it to look like an academic trash-heap. But it was so much nicer than our Faculty Room at Brooklyn College that I couldn't help envying the four teachers who used it. But then I left Brooklyn at the time they set up metal-detectors at the main-gate-for faculty as well as students! One running-gag in this show is the casual discarding of confiscated guns down the room's trash-chute. Another gag is the constant intrusion of the disembodied voice of the Principal on the PA System, with odd noises as accompaniment. Yet another is the silent man who enters and leaves without even acknowledging that there are other teachers in the room. But it was puzzling that only four teachers ever used this room. That must be what they call a Dramatic Convention? Zoe & Adam, once briefly married, are instructors who single out attractive students for lovers. Carver is a anal-retentive gay who has recently been dismissed from a metropolitan high-school, after a disaster resulting from a male student's fixation on him. This is, of course, the stuff of TV serials and sitcoms. But what can be expected of playwrights who have been weaned on such fare? As most audiences are constantly exposed to the same formulae, this play-which still needs some work-could prosper in community and regional theatres. Where expectations are often not high… Susan Fenichell directed. Good characterizations from Rebecca Wisocky, Michael Laurence, & Greg McFadden!


L-R: Barbara Gulan, Graham Smith, THE SECOND DEATH OF PRISCILLA - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003
This, the most beautifully realized of all the new Humana plays, was designed by the remarkable Paul Owen. Each season he not only gives each script a special look on stage-which is often more helpful in siting the drama than the playwrights' own words. But he also designs each drama so it can be rapidly set up and struck to keep the program of ten plays moving swiftly along. Russell Davis' Symbolist Drama was set on a raised stage shaped like a six-sided coffin, pulled a bit out of shape. Behind and above this was a matching coffin-sided projection screen, with a smaller one beyond, near which jugglers did their Symbolist Thing. The Symbolic Projections were often more interesting than the actions on the coffin-which splits at one point. Priscilla herself is also split into three Symbolic Selves: Jacqueline, Aramanda, & Coquelicot. And she even has a Second Priscilla, just as the man she favors, Peter, has a Second Peter. This has nothing to do with Eunuchs. But everything to do with The Three Little Pigs, as Priscilla believes the Wolf is just outside her Symbolic Window. This was lovely to look at, but I have no idea what it was all about. Frantically scribbling fellow-critics around me seemed also clueless. Davis explained in the program: "It is about a woman who sets out in her mind to slay what looks like a wolf outside her window, waiting for her house to blow down." Maurice Maeterlinck, where are you now that we need you? Bring back Pelléas et Mélisande! Artistic Director Marc Masterson staged this very attractive production.


L-R: Nell Mooney, Rene Millan, ORANGE LEMON EGG CANARY - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003
Playwright Rinne Groff subtitles her script "A Trick in Four Acts. And it is indeed tricky. This play may well appeal to college, community, and regional theatres, but it has a built-in technical-prop problem that could discourage all but the most resourceful director. Central to the fable is the magic-contraption which makes possible the Impalement Illusion. The Magician's Assistant-or Victim, as Groff makes clear-is apparently hypnotized into rigidity and set on top of a metal rod rising from an ornate base. At a command, the rod suddenly shoots up through her stomach. As with uses of nooses in amateur productions, this is one trick you do not want to go wrong. Groff's showy drama concerns the grandson of a magician who in fact unintentionally killed his wife-assistant with the trick. She haunts the play and the young man, who is attracted to a new assistant named Trilby. Unfortunately, he is no Svengali, and she is trying to discover his secrets to help the African-American Egypt who was formerly his victim and is now her lover. This relationship also requires-at least it did in Louisville-a hot Lesbian kiss with some female member of the audience. If you hate audience-participation, or actors sitting in your lap, do not sit on the aisle. Michael Sexton staged, assisted by two professional magicians as advisors. Groff's title refers to a classic trick in which an orange is peeled to reveal a lemon inside. This in turn is peeled, revealing an egg. When it is cracked, a canary flies aloft! But do not despair: many communities have amateur magicians lurking in the side-streets who may be willing to help out in production…


L-R: Dyron Holmes, Cheryl Freeman, SLIDE GLIDE PAST THE SLIPPERY SLOPE - Photo: ©John Fitzgerald/Humana Festival 2003
Cloning Issues & Genetic-Engineering have unfortunately seized the imagination of playwright Kia Corthron. Previously, she has demonstrated her ability to write interesting and provocative plays, so this script may be regarded as a well-intentioned misfire. There is entirely too much undigested Popular Science in this play-not to mention onstage bookcases loaded with books on the twinned topics. In fact, Corthron has even included a Dolly-like cloned-talking-sheep to provide some commentaries which could not otherwise have been elicited from the African-American Identical Twins, Erm & Elo. A major problem in the production-quite aside from the presumably unconscious attempts at Maeterlinckean Animal Symbolism-is that the two actresses playing Erm & Elo do not look at all alike. If one cannot Willingly Suspend Disbelief on this level, how can it be expected in the murkier depths of Pop Psychology and Ethnic Family Drama? Nonetheless, Cloning is a topic worthy of Bernard Shaw or even Neil Simon. Back to the Drawing-Board! Valerie Curtis-Newton directed.

Side-Shows Beyond the Main Tent:

Every Spring, Actors Theatre Apprentices provide a showcase of their varied talents. This actually works better when their monologues and scenes have been selected from the extant dramatic literature. But the Humana Festival is, after all, a celebration of new scripts.
L-R: Christopher Ashworth, Eleni Papleonardos, TREPIDATION NATION - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003

So this season's drama-collage-Trepidation Nation-was commissioned from no less than sixteen playwrights. The official program described these authors more specifically as "frighteningly creative playwrights." This proved to be Adjectival Overkill, despite scripts from such talents as Richard Dresser, Stephen Belber, Hilary Bell, Warren Leight, Gina Gionfriddo, and Keith Josef Adkins. The Designated Theme was Phobias, which Post-9/11 certainly seems timely. The Apprentices did their best with the often disappointing material, but they are not, in general, on a par with the Juilliard's Stars of Tomorrow.

Willie Perdomo, RHYTHMICITY - Photo: ©Harlan Taylor/Humana Festival 2003

After the success on Broadway of Def Poetry Jam, ATCA critics seemed primed for the Actors Theatre discussion/performance of Rhythmicity. Described as a "convergence of poetry, theatre, and hip-hop," the event's interaction of performers and audience was one of its most interesting aspects. There was a certain pompous/portentous quality to the delivery of some of the ethnic-authentic poetry. This new and highly energized ensemble deserves to be encouraged, as does Actors Theatre for its initiative in introducing them. Among the talents: Mildred Ruiz, Regie Cabico, Gamal A. Chasten, Rha Goddess, reg e. gaines, Steven Sapp, & Willie Perdomo.

ATCA/Steinberg New Play Award:

Nilo Cruz Wins Big,
But Arthur Miller Comes Close!

As the winner and runners-up of the annual New Play Award are only announced on the second day of the Humana Festival, it's impossible that they should also have been seen onstage during the three-day drama-fest. And, by the time the next Festival comes around, none of them is any longer a New Play, so they cannot be staged by Actors Theatre.

The Humana Festival is all about New Plays, after all. Fortunately for the credibility of the ATCA/Steinberg Award, all of the nominated plays have already received at least one production in regional American theatres such as the Purple Rose, the Woolly Mammoth, the Guthrie Lab, and Rafael de Acha's innovative New Theatre, in Coral Gables, Florida.

Not only have the honored scripts been produced professionally. They have also-along with scores of other new plays-been closely read by ATCA's discerning New Play Committee. This is really a demanding and time-consuming task.

Alec Harvey, of the Birmingham News, chairs this important committee. He is aided in the sorting, reading, and evaluation of the piles of new scripts by a skilled group of eleven leading American theatre critics-all members of ATCA, of course.

Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics is this year's winner. He found his inspiration in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina! Cruz has received impressive productions of earlier scripts in New York, notably at the Public Theatre. This drama should win many stagings. Cruz was awarded not only a plaque, but also a check for $15,000!

It was premiered at Coral Gable's New Theatre, which should make Artistic Director Rafael de Acha very proud. It certainly vindicates his own discernment as a judge of new plays.

When I talked with De Acha at the Festival, he told me that his Florida audience is very experienced and sophisticated. They are generally wealthy and traveled, so a Florida staging of a new play from London's West End won't be news to many of them.

Thus, new plays are the lifeblood of his theatre. This is admirable, because so many regional theatres seem to plot their coming seasons with a wary eye on recent Broadway successes. And on new play premieres at New York's institutional theatres such as the Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizons.

What was even more welcome about this year's ATCA/Steinberg Awards was the $5,000 citation to Arthur Miller for his Resurrection Blues, staged at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre. Not that Miller needs the money: His royalties from his many dramas-which are still widely produced-must be impressive!

But it is a testimony to Miller's genius-and his staying-power-that he is still writing provocative dramas in his eighties! Only Horton Foote can come close to Miller's challenging record.

All too many young playwrights-if they are fortunate enough to win major productions and critical acclaim-desert the Living Theatre for television and films. Indeed, a laugh-line in one of the Humana's new plays was provided by a fledgling dramatist whose aim was no higher than "Arthur Miller-Lite."

Playwright Craig Wright also received a $5,000 citation. This award was for his Recent Tragic Events, a 9/11-inspired drama, staged by Woolly Mammoth, in Washington, DC.

All three of the above plays will be cited in the 2002-2003 edition of Best Plays as well. That added honor will set them a bit apart from three other strong contenders which did not make the final cut.

These admired scripts are Across the Way, by Jeff Daniels; The Dinosaur Within, by John Walch, and Good Boys, a new play by Jane Martin. Ms. Martin actually has won the ATCA Award before. She is also widely believed to be the alter-ego of John Jory, former Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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