Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Overview of the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays

A CurtainUp Feature

By Charles Whaley

It has been a very good year indeed for the just ended 32nd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. All six full-length plays turned out to be strong offerings--with first rate acting in every one--but four of them seemed exceptional.

My vote for top honors is split between This Beautiful City, a mesmerizing, fiercely intelligent portrait of Colorado Springs, the Evangelical Capital of America, based on interviews and visits conducted by the group of New York artists called The Civilians, and Jennifer Haley's dark and dangerously fascinating Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom, the name given to a violent online video game that intersects with real suburban life.

Also outstanding were Lee Blessing's Great Falls in which an unhappily divorced man (the excellent Tom Nelis) gets his defiant teenage stepdaughter (marvelous Halley Wegryn Gross) into his car and takes off on a road trip through the Great Northwest so they can "talk," and Gina Gionfriddo's Becky Shaw, a subtly scathing look at a supposedly helpless female manipulator (think Eve Harrington in All About Eve) who relishes her own victimization as she wrecks the lives of others.

Annie Parisse expertly played Becky, the type of woman who on a casual blind date overdresses in a backless satin outfit. Max (the superb David Wilson Barnes), the rich money manager whose friends arranged the date, is suitably appalled. But Becky's menacing Fatal Attraction stance at play's end bodes ill for Max's determination to erase her from his life. Blessing's works have often been produced at ATL, including previous Humana festivals, and Gionfriddo's After Ashley was the major hit at the 2004 festival. ATL artistic director Marc Masterson noted at a panel disccussion on "Curating New Work Festivals" that three of this year's festival plays, all co-productions, will be seen soon at other venues.

This Beautiful City, co-produced with The Studio Theatre in Washington, D. C., will stop there before moving to the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Writer and performer Marc Bamuthi Joseph's hip hop piece, the break/s, which I found to be of little interest beyond Joseph's incredible dance movements, was co-produced with Living Word Project and will be at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Spoleto Festival plus half a dozen other places.

Carly Mensch's hyperkinetic All Hail Hurricane Gordo, produced with the Cleveland Play House, is set for a run there. This crisply written tale of two young brothers--one of them a mentally unstable constantly-in-motion force of nature (an incredibly convincing Patrick James Lynch)--left to fend for themselves in the family home after their parents abandoned them in a parking lot and drove away will test anyone's capacity to suspend disbelief. Even so it makes for engrossing watching.

Kudos to the four cast members of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom who brilliantly portray both real and video characters (John Leonard Thompson and Kate Hampton as fathers and mothers; Robin Lord Taylor and Reyna de Courcy as sons and daughters) and to Kip Fagan for masterful direction.

This Beautiful City, commissioned and developed by The Civilians, was written by Steven Cosson, who also directed, and Jim Lewis from interviews conducted by them and most Civilians company members. Michael Friedman's pitch perfect music and lyrics amplify the memorably performed monologues and the church and outdoor scenes. The play, especially in its overly long second act, could benefit from cuts. It puts into powerful perspective the New Life megachurch, whose charismatic pastor Ted Haggard was exposed for his hypocritical relationship with crystal meth and a male prostitute, and Focus on the Family, "the biggest conservative Christian media empire in the world", both headquartered in Colorado Springs among 4000 Christian organizations. It's a probing examination of a cancerous threat to the U. S. Constitution. As a community activist says of the Christian right, "They've got a big picture and it has to do with big things like dismantling government programs and privatizing public education cause the more thay can dismantle the more people need the church to provide those services. Faith based initiatives, all that. Right. And what do you think that means for the Christian leaders? Power and money."

Also in the festival mix were four 10-minute plays and Game On, an athletic anthology satirizing sports madness contributed by seven writers as a showcase for ATL's 2007-08 Acting Apprentice Company. Jose Urbino was hilarious in a pantomime tennis routine. Most of the sketches featured monotonously shouted four letter words. There was an appalling "eating contest" for which parents trained children to gorge on food in preparation for winning prizes and acclaim. And Andy Lutz, Christopher Scheer, and Nicholas Combs were wild and crazy in an extreme sports episode heavy on homoeroticism. Best of the 10-minute plays was Elaine Jarvis's Dead Right with Dori Legg and William McNulty as an older couple reading newspaper obituaries at their kitchen table and thinking and talking about what they wanted put in their own.