The Humana Festival of New American Plays presents intellectually stimulating, emotionally varied theater
Now in its 41st season and continuing through April 9, 2017, Louisville, Kentucky's Humana Festival of New American Plays has firmly established itself as a perennial contender for the title of "most important" play festival in the U.S. Longevity is just one of the factors that contributes to the festival's continual appeal. High-quality, technically stunning professional productions and interesting scripts, this year ranging from imaginative histories to deeply troubling truths to exuberantly human emotions, are equally important to Actors Theatre, the festival's producing company.
I've been fortunate to attend Humana Fest several times, and am always genuinely surprised and moved by at least one show each year. Six new plays are in production this year. As a theater critic and audience member, I feel there are three standouts, and a couple of shows that need work. Following are my reviews of I Now Pronounce, Recent Alien Abductions, and Airness. For reviews of the other three productions, see Chuck Lavazzi's review article.
I Now Pronounce by Tasha Gordon-Solmon, directed by Stephen Brackett
As weddings go, the nuptial celebration of Nicole and Adam is filled with more than the usual twists, turns, and drama. For starters, the officiating Rabbi dies mid-ceremony, before asking each for their "I Do" and pronouncing the couple married. Take a now nervous couple and add in a drunk bridesmaid, another bridesmaid who had a brief fling with the groom, a sadly divorcing groomsmen, an ill-timed hook up, a cynical groomsman, three adorably skittish and curious flower girls, and the Rabbi's loving wife. The resulting show is a bit of a soufflé, filled with laughter and a few fresh takes on modern love, with satisfying depth and a heartfelt conclusion.
The scenes connect effortlessly as cast members run on and off the stage, and several scenes cleverly avoid smashing into each other to humorous effect. Alex Trow and Ben Graney are charming as bride Nicole and groom Adam, but they're frankly, and appropriately, upstaged by the antics of their wedding party. Clea Alsip shines as the drunken bridesmaid Michelle. Her illogically logical rants aside, she brings warmth and realism to the part, particularly her ending monologue which, though a bit too long, is unexpectedly sweet and satisfying. Alsip has great chemistry with Satomi Blair, bridesmaid Eva, who's too tightly wound for the chaos around her and yet sympathetically so.
Jason Veasey and Forrest Malloy are by turns comic, impulsive, and sympathetic groomsmen, and Ray DeMattis is touching in the dual role of the Rabbi and his wife. The entire I Now Pronounce ensemble simply clicks, with flower girls Carmen Tate, Mary Charles Miller, and Brylee Deuser adding perfectly girlish punctuation. Brackett's direction is sharp throughout, leading the cacophony with a maestro's touch until it resolves in a lovely a cappella moment at the end of the show that is harmonically gratifying and uplifting.
Recent Alien Abductions by Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, directed by Les Waters
Álvaro, a recently deceased writer of some minor attention featured in the show's opening sequence, is talented, obsessed with The X-Files, particularly Episode 25, and harboring painful secrets. His friend and fellow writer Patria arrives from New York to ask Álvaro's Puerto Rican mother and brother for permission to publish his remaining work posthumously. His mother's health and cognitive abilities are failing and brother Néstor is reluctant, but Patria is determined. She finds unexpected support from long-time neighbor Beba, but still can't seem to crack Néstor's resistance.
The truth of the alien story is revealed after a truly startling and physically intense fight between Patria and Néstor, after which the acknowledgement of well-kept secrets and a disturbing past spills onto the stage. Actors Ronete Levenson and Bobby Plasencia commit to the scene is a way that is painful to watch and impossible to ignore. Carmen M. Herlihy's Beba is once again an unwilling witness; effectively traumatized she is compelled to finally speak. Jon Norman Schneider is likable and sympathetic as Álvaro, though some judicious editing at the top of the show would help move the story along at a more satisfying pace.
Recent Alien Abductions is not an easy show to watch, and I think director Waters made some interesting choices in slowing down the open, enabling the story to unfold in a way that heightens the tension and blunt force of the ending. Unfortunately, a small crowd of people left during two particularly long scenes, and this is where I feel some judicious editing may improve the show without diminishing its impact. Nonetheless, the play resonates deeply for me and has lingered in my mind, even as I found faults in the script and pace of the production.
Airness by Chelsea Marcantel, directed by Meredith McDonough
Playful and a bit rebellious in nature, Airness is a delightfully quirky character-driven play overflowing with the best weirdness of humanity, and a crowd-pleasing favorite at Humana Fest. The show focuses on the world of competitive air guitar and the interesting characters that practice the artistically nuanced sport, but delivers an ode to letting your inner enthusiast out and finding your tribe.
Nina, the fabulously evolving Marinda Anderson, is heartbroken after her fiancée dumps her and breaks up the band to pursue the Air Guitar Championship. Seething with vengeance, she delves into the sport, befriending fellow competitors in her quest to extract revenge by taking her ex's U.S. title. At first a bit cocky and dismissive of the form, she's an actual guitarist after all, she soon finds herself bonding and studying with the other competitors. Naturally there's conflict along the way, particularly after she disses the sport and competitors in a spat with her ex. Nina has lessons to learn if she's going to win the battle, and a wonderfully intriguing cadre of teachers.
Director McDonough keeps the pace at a hard rock tempo and an inventive set design makes sure the ensemble doesn't miss a beat in the quirky and unexpectedly rich play. Anderson is captivating, real, and eminently "cheerable" as Nina, while reigning U.S. National Air Guitar champion Matt Burns is surprisingly effective and varied as the ubiquitous Announcer. Lucas Papaelias, as Mark "Facebender" Lender, and St. Louis native Angelina Impellizzeri, as Astrid "Cannibal Queen" Anderson, are particularly engaging characters in addition to Nina. Both reveal a lot of depth and personal story in their performances, ensuring the show quickly moves from caricature to compelling. Fabulously entertaining and emotionally satisfying, Airness is the feel good hit of Humana Fest.