Friday, December 14, 2007

Actors picks six

by Judith Egerton

After reading hundreds of new plays, Actors Theatre of Louisville has chosen the six new full-length works it will produce for its 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays, Feb. 24 through March 30.

The 32nd year of the prestigious festival welcomes back an early contributor, prize-winning playwright Lee Blessing, whose previous Humana premieres include "Oldtimers Game" and "War of the Roses."

Blessing returns with "Great Falls," a two-character drama about a father and stepdaughter on a cross-country journey. "It's a fine example of excellent writing; it has maturity and complexity," said Actors' artistic director, Marc Masterson.

The festival also will feature New York theater group The Civilians with a new documentary-style play, "This Beautiful City." The show explores the nature of faith and is based on interviews with evangelical Christians in Colorado Springs, Colo. The group currently is performing "Gone Missing" at an off-Broadway theater. Louisvillians saw that funny, poignant show about loss as part of Actors' Discover Series in September 2006.

For the Humana Festival, Actors commissioned a new play by Gina Gionfriddo, who made a national splash at Actors in 2004 with her first play, "After Ashley," a blistering satire about the public's insatiable appetite for sensational stories and the allure of TV celebrity.

Joining Gionfriddo in the lineup will be three young playwrights: Texas native Jennifer Haley, New York poet-writer Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Carly Mensch, a fellow at the Juilliard School's playwriting program. Their new works concern the blurring of reality and online video games, hip-hop culture and sibling responsibility.

The festival format remains the same this year: The staging of six new full-length works; a production of an anthology created by multiple authors and performed by the apprentice company; and the performance of several 10-minute plays.

All productions will be staged at the theater's complex, 316 W. Main St. Last year, Actors staged "Batch," an experimental Humana play, at Connections, a downtown gay nightclub. In 2004, Naomi Wallace's play about the Butchertown neighborhood, "At the Vanishing Point," was performed in a Butchertown warehouse.

Off-site Humana productions are rare because they put a considerable strain on Actors' production staff during its busiest, most difficult time of the year. "It's a huge investment of time and energy," Masterson said.

The festival -- founded by Jon Jory and supported by funds from the Humana Foundation -- has been a pioneer in new-play development. But now, the competition is more intense. Many regional theaters, city theater alliances and presenters, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., are producing new-play festivals. And there is less opportunity for commercial success in New York and on Broadway, which is dominated by splashy, expensive musicals, revivals and Disney-related productions.

Actors' mission with the Humana Festival, Masterson said, is to develop new works that will go out into the world and find homes in diverse venues that include regional theaters, touring groups, alternative theaters, art galleries and museums.

A play may go on to New York, where it may win top awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, as three Humana plays have done, but Actors' goal is to "move the work out into the American theater and global theater," Masterson said. "It's about being aware of a spectrum of possibilities."

Here's a closer look at the full-length works:

"Great Falls" (opens Feb. 27 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Lee Blessing, 59, is best-known for his 1986 play, "A Walk in the Woods," about an American and a Russian nuclear-arms negotiator. It was a finalist for a Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Blessing's new play isn't about avoiding global apocalypse, but audiences can expect universal themes involving the human condition in this story of a man and his stepdaughter who are trying to rebuild their lives. New York director Lucie Tiberghien, who was involved in the development of the play, will direct.

"This Beautiful City" (opens March 7 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- Written by Steven Cosson, 39, and Jim Lewis, 50, this play with original music examines the difficulty evangelical Christians and non-evangelicals have finding common ground.

The Civilians spent months interviewing residents in Colorado Springs, Colo., the home of the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family. During that time, a scandal arose involving evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who admitted to having sex with a male prostitute. The play evolved into a work about faith and how a community steers through such a crisis.

The play, which will be directed by Cosson, was developed in a workshop at the Sundance Institute. After its premiere at the Humana Festival, the show will go to The Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C.

"Becky Shaw" (opens March 2 in the Bingham Theatre) -- After her breakout success at the 2004 Humana Festival, Gina Gionfriddo landed a job as a writer-producer on NBC's "Law and Order." Her play "After Ashley" was produced off-Broadway with Kieran Culkin, who won a 2005 Obie Award for his performance.

In her new, dark comedy, a newlywed couple's attempt at matchmaking takes them into strange territory. Masterson said he commissioned Gionfriddo to write a play because "I love her work, and I want to see her continue to write for the theater."

The play will be directed by Peter Dubois, associate artistic director of The Public Theatre in New York.

"Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom" (opens March 20 in the Victor Jory Theatre) -- "This is a comedy, but it is truly scary. The hair on the back of your neck stands up kind of scary," Masterson said of this play by Jennifer Haley, a Los Angeles playwright in her 30s.

In a subdivision with identical houses, teenagers become addicted to an online video game of horror. Their parents are clueless about the children's activities and how blurred the line between reality and virtual existence has become. "It's a really sharp piece of writing," Masterson said.

Kip Fagan, co-founder of Printer's Devil Theatre in Seattle, will direct.

"the breaks" (opens March 11 in the Bingham Theatre) -- Dancer and poet Marc Bamuthi Joseph, 32, of New York City, was named one of America's Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine.

This new work by Joseph, a Stanford University resident artist, tells a personal story about being a multicultural person in a multicultural world. Joseph intertwines film, theater and dance in his narrative about hip-hop culture. Masterson predicts "the breaks" will have a long life after its Humana Festival debut.

The production will be directed by Michael John Garces, who provided imaginative direction to last year's Humana hit, "dark play or stories for boys" by Carlos Murillo.

"All Hail Hurricane Gordo" (opens March 15 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium) -- The lives of two brothers go haywire when they take in a female houseguest in this new work by Dartmouth graduate Carly Mensch, 24, of Harrison, N.Y. Masterson said the play is "smart and interesting" and Mensch "has a real gift" for playwriting.

The play will be directed by Actors' associate director Sean Daniels. After its Louisville premiere, the play will be staged at the Cleveland Playhouse.

"Game On" (opens March 21 in the Bingham Theatre) -- This anthology looks at sports in America and what society's obsessions with sports tell us about ourselves. The contributing playwrights are Yale School of Drama graduate Zakiyyah Alexander; Rolin Jones, a Pulitzer finalist for his play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" and a writer for the Showtime cable TV show "Weeds"; Alice Tuan, who wrote this year's Humana play "Batch"; Daryl Watson, co-creator of the Disney show "Johnny and the Sprites"; Marisa Wegrzyn, resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists; and Ken Weitzman, whose full-length play "The As If Body Loop" was presented at this year's Humana Festival.

The 10-minute plays will be announced later.

Reporter Judith Egerton can be reached at (502) 582-4503.