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.

It's spring, and once again yours truly and a coterie of local theatre folk made our annual pilgrimage to the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. As we have done for the past few years, my fellow KDHX critic Tina Farmer and I posted instant video blog mini-reviews from the festival on YouTube? Unlike previous years, however, Tina and I have agreed to split up the written reviews.

Over the course of last weekend (March 31 - April 2), we saw six plays: Tasha Gordon-Solmon's comedy I Now Pronounce, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas' drama Recent Alien Abductions, Chelsea Marcantel's Airness (a love letter to air guitar), the comedy/dramas We're Gonna Be Okay by Basil Kreimendahl and Cry it Out by Molly Smith Metzler, and The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, a collection of eleven mini-plays written for the acting interns of the ATL Professional Training Company. Tina is reviewing the first three and I'm covering the others.

The best of my three was unquestionably Cry it Out. The play is set in Manorhaven, a Long Island village described in the script as "directly on the ocean, heavily populated, and, depending on the block, either middle-class or quite rundown." The action takes place in the back yard of Jessie (Jessica Dickey) a new mother who left a job as a high-powered lawyer to start a family and now isn't sure whether or not she wants to go back — a thought she has yet to share with her husband.

The yard behind hers belongs to Lina (Andrea Syglowski), a brassy but loveable community college dropout. She and her husband are living with his alcoholic mother. Jessie and Nate are comfortably upper-middle class; Lina and John are barely holding on to blue collars. But Jessie and Lina had bonded in the Stop and Shop over the joys and woes of infant care and are now getting acquainted over coffee in the no-man's land between their houses where the coverage of their baby monitors overlaps.

The play starts out as a smart, funny, and completely believable story of two very different women thrown together by the demands of motherhood and drawing strength from each other while growing in the process. That all by itself would be enough to recommend it, but things get more complex when Mitchell (Jeff Biehl) drops in on one of their meetings with a request that they invite his wife Adrienne (Liv Rooth) to join them. She's also a new mom and he thinks "it would do her a lot of good to get out and talk to some moms like you."  

Mitchell and Adrienne live in Sands Point, the über-wealthy neighborhood on the cliff above town ("we look down on you," says Mitchell, a phrase he immediately regrets), and while Mitchell is affable, Adrienne proves to be a bundle of hostile snobbery inside of which is a women who is not at all sure she likes being a mother.

The play that spins out of these complications addresses issues of social class, economic disparity, lack of access to health care, and the confusing expectations placed on American women without ever becoming preachy or even directly bringing any of these issues up. This is a play that asks you to think about its message instead of beating you over the head with it for which I was very grateful.

I was grateful as well for the fine performances of the cast. Ms. Dickey and Ms. Syglowski, in particular, did a marvelous job of distinguishing their characters both verbally and physically. As soon as they appeared on stage, their body language made it obvious that Lina was an outgoing free spirit while Jessie was more reserved and even a bit defensive. Ms. Rooth's Adrienne, like Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, was apparently "born sneering" and Mr. Biehl's Mitchell was clearly hiding something behind his affability. David McCallum's direction was precise and sure-footed. Cry it Out is, in short, a first-rate play that is likely to have a life after Humana.

Basil Kreimendahl's We're Gonna Be Okay, on the other hand, seems unlikely to survive the festival — partly because its technical requirements are significant, but mostly because it's simply not a very good play.

Set during the run-up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, We're Gonna Be Okay is, in some ways, similar to Cry it Out in that it concerns neighboring families whose economic circumstances are very different. Efran (Sam Breslin Wright) is a middle-class motor mouth who browbeats his more taciturn blue-collar neighbor Sul (Scott Drummond) into cooperating with him on the construction of the bomb shelter because, Efran is convinced, "it ain't a matter of 'if' but a matter of 'when'" nuclear war breaks out. Their interactions were so reminiscent of the 1960s comedy routines of Burns and Schreiber that I have a sneaking suspicion Mr. Kreimendahl might have been inspired by them.

Adding to the comic mix are Efran's wife Leena (Kelly McAndrew) with her bottomless bag of arts and crafts projects, Sul's quietly desperate wife Mag (Annie McNamara), Efran's sexually confused son Jake (Andrew Cutler), and Sul's daughter Deanna (Anne-Marie Trabolsi). Described in the script as "feminine but a little rock and roll masculine," she comes complete with sardonic attitude and a guitar.

Efran's verbosity is sometimes grating but overall the first act of We're Gonna Be Okay is often quite funny and, Efran aside, Mr. Kreimendahl's characters are endearing, if a bit superficial.

All that changes in the second act, which moves the action from the front yards to the bomb shelter where both families have fled in what feels like oddly chaotic haste immediately after President Kennedy's speech announcing the presence of missiles in Cuba. The shelter isn't fully stocked or completely finished (although it has somehow acquired a surface door that wasn't there at the end of the first act) and over the ensuing few days conflicts within and between the families erupt as secrets are shared and everyone but Deanna begins to question their life decisions.

None of this really goes anywhere or resolves, and after a while it begins to become repetitious. By moving his characters below ground, Mr. Kreimendahl has left them nowhere to go, both literally and dramatically. He has also left himself with no convincing way to end the play, and his final scene makes very little sense given what has gone before.

As is usually the case with Actors Theatre, though, the play got very strong performances from a fine ensemble cast. The younger actors were particularly impressive, and Ms. Trabolsi's musical contributions added a great deal. Her "Break It to Me Gently" was a welcome high point of the second act.

Director Lisa Peterson made the best possible case for this script, although the many anachronisms in both the dialog and costuming sometimes made it difficult for someone like me, who actually lived through the missile crisis, to take it all very seriously. This one needs to go back to the drawing board.

The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield is also unlikely to have a life after the festival, but that's mostly by design. Every year, the festival commissions an evening of short one-acts to be performed by the acting interns. The plays are always performed without pause and always deal with a common theme. Last year's Wondrous Strange, for example, dealt with the supernatural, while 2015's That High Lonesome Sound was a tribute to Kentucky bluegrass music.

The theme for this year's show was a bit more vague. As described in Jessica Resse's program notes, it's all about "the slippery nature of innovation, and the myths we tell about it." A secondary theme is the state of Kentucky itself. The titular character, for example, was a Kentucky farmer who came up with the principle of wireless telephony but failed to capitalize on it and died in obscurity. 

Other plays approach the topic in more indirect ways. In Sarah DeLappe's The Henriettas, for example, four hilariously decrepit elderly ladies named Henrietta rattle off an increasingly silly list of inventions for which they didn't get credit.  

The relevance of some of the plays is a bit harder to discern. Ms. DeLappe's I Will Survive, for example, seems to be about the quick rise and fall of "roller disco," as company members quickly alternate between gliding around the stage in spangled outfits and tediously assembling disco balls while dressed in jump suits. As the play progresses, the ensemble shrinks until it's down to just one actress (Alice Wu) who turns to the audience and says "It's definitely lonely." Although I never cared much for disco, I found it a curiously touching piece, but its connection to the theme felt tangential.

That's a minor complaint, though. As has always been the case with the PTC shows, The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield benefitted from very solid performances from a cast of performers who, while still learning their craft, are already extremely talented and professional. Eric Hoff's fluid direction pulled it all together nicely.

The 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays concluded on Sunday, April 9, but the Actors Theatre of Louisville's regular season continues with the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival April 24-26. For St. Louis theatre fans willing to make the four and one-half hour drive, ATL is well worth a visit, and the Louisville area has many other tourist attractions to divert you when you're not in the theatre.

 

 

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton plays the blues. He's been offered a recording contract by a company in Chicago. Floyd is in Pittsburgh, and his electric guitar is in hock. He needs his guitar and he needs money for the Greyhound Bus. But the guitars referred to in the title of the play Seven Guitars are played by the playwright, August Wilson. They're the seven characters in his play.

Wilson does, as always, make his own beautiful and terrible music with those characters. The play takes place in 1948 in the Hill District, the black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where Wilson set almost all his Century Plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century. The characters gather in the backyard of the house where several of them live. Tim Case has created a carefully detailed setting, with lighting by Jim Burwinkel, for Wilson's tale. Wilson takes his time telling it. We get to know these seven people, and we get to listen to them. They talk about what's happened and what they want to happen, about their suffering and their joys.

The men have all spent short stays in jail, either because, as one of them says, they had too little money or too much. Floyd has just gotten out. He does get his electric guitar and the money to get to Chicago, though he has not gotten them, we suspect, in the way he'd wanted to. Things rarely work out the way you want them to when you're black and live in the Hill District. But they can tell their troubles in the rich details and rolling rhythms of Wilson's writing. And the cast at The Black Rep, under Ed Smith's direction, knows those rhythms. Occasionally I had a little trouble hearing them, perhaps because those are not the rhythms I hear every day.

In a welcome return to town and to the Rep, Kingsley Leggs makes a fine fit for Floyd. I've never seen Linda Kennedy quite like this, because with her amazing, invisible technique, she has become Vera, who loves Floyd and whom he wants. Cathy Simpson plays her sharp friend Louise, and Lakesha Glover fascinates as a visitor who starts something that will end in another play. Phillip Dixon is a young friend of Floyd's, and Reginald Pierre plays the stylish Red Carter, who wears a white suit to a funeral. Costumes are by Michael Alan Stein. The play turns on a character who has been crazed by the racism he's suffered and that has denied him his true place as Ethiopian royalty. Ron Himes doesn't bother playing King Hedley as crazy, just sure of himself.

As always with Wilson, Seven Guitars satisfies with its rich language and its deep humanity. It continues at The Black Rep through April 23.

 

"In the Spring," wrote Tennyson, "a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." Were he still with us today, he might have added, "and, if he's a theatre geek, to thoughts of the Humana Festival of New American Plays." 

All right, so it doesn't scan. But the fact is, anyone who is interested in the state of theatre in the USA today can't afford to pass up the Humana Festival. Now in its 41st year, the festival is a seven-week celebration of new plays produced by the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The company presents seven new works (winnowed down from an average of 500 submissions each year) in the course of the festival, which takes place in their sumptuous downtown digs.

How sumptuous? Located in historic structures on Main Street, the Actors Theatre consists of the 637-seat Pamela Brown Auditorium, with a thrust stage; the 159-seat Victor Jory Theatre, a three-quarter arena performance space; and the 318-seat Bingham Theatre, a flexible arena space. 

Add in the palatial lobby, a nine-story parking garage, and a restaurant (called Milk Wood because it's located under the theatre — a punning reference to Dylan Thomas' famed verse play Under Milk Wood) and you have the kind of facility most theatre companies dream about. Better yet, it's only part of a general revitalization of downtown Louisville that includes fine hotels, restaurants, and bars, all within an easy walk of the theatre.

The Humana Festival is a valuable resource for other theatre companies as well as folks who simply love theatre. I'm on the board of directors and play reading committee at the West End Players Guild here in St. Louis (our motto: "big theatre in a small space"), and I can attest to the festival as a source of new plays for our seasons.

For the past seven years now I've been attending Humana and reviewing the new plays for KDHX. I have been posting short video blog reviews from the festival and longer written reviews at KDHX and on my Stage Left blog. For the past few years my fellow KDHX critic Tina Farmer — who sees more theatre every year than just about anyone I know — has joined me on those video blogs. This year we'll be sharing the written reviews as well, and Tina will also be publishing feature articles on the festival here at KDHX.

Tina will be reviewing Tasha Gordon-Solman's comedy I Now Pronounce, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas's drama Recent Alien Abductions, and Chelsea Marcantel's comedy Airness. I'll be covering Molly Smith Metzler's comedy/drama Cry It Out, Basil Kreiemendahl's comedy/drama We're Gonna Be OK, and The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, an unclassifiable collection of eleven short one-act plays written specifically for the young Acting Apprentices of the Professional Training Company at ATL. Look for our articles later this week right here at KDHX and check out our video blogs on YouTube.

 

Dubbed "the crime of the century" at its time, the stunning case of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb is ripe with drama from the facts alone. In 1924, the two affluent and intelligent college students from Chicago kidnapped and brutally murdered a young boy as a social experiment. The New Jewish Theatre brings Never the Sinner to life in an engrossing tale that keeps you on the edge of your seat, with stunningly creepy and compelling performances by Pete Winfrey and Jack Zanger.

The three young men were members of the same community, Leopold and Loeb were lovers, of a sort, and the media propelled interest by spilling the sordid details on the front page day after day. Empowered with a sense of invincibility, the two do not deny their acts, and the prosecutor presses for the death penalty. In an impassioned plea for mercy and compassion, famed prosecutor Clarence Darrow defends the young men, not from their guilt in the crime, but from a sentence of death.

Winfrey and Zanger are mesmerizing, and oddly sympathetic, as their love story turns into a sordid game of control and reward that ends in a brutal crime. Brilliant and gifted with wealth, the two show a convincing air of disdain for those they don't deem their equal and spend their time pursuing intellectual and moral conundrums. Appealing and convincing as lovers, there's a fatal intensity between them that is deliciously and emotionally compelling. Winfrey expertly captures Loeb's charisma and need for attention in a character that is by turns charming and alarmingly callous. Zanger's Leopold is content to bask in the glow of Loeb's light, seeming to live only for his pursuit of intellectual stimulation, affection, and sexual gratification. But, as the closing moment so pointedly suggests, Leopold may have more influence than his actions infer.

John Flack, as Clarence Darrow, and Eric Dean White, as the prosecutor Robert Crowe, are dignified and equally passionate in their beliefs. Both eloquent and logical, if perplexing at times, their back and forth is a thoroughly engaging part of the plot. The three actors in the ensemble are as completely in the moment as the principles. John Reidy skillfully shifts his posture and lowers his voice, becoming a new character. Maggie Conroy dons a scarf and her just the facts ma'am reporter is a flouncing, flirty party girl. In a manner of seconds, Will Bonfiglio ages 15 years, using his physical bearing and facial expressions to go from eager cub reporter to wizened doctor. It's a genuine pleasure to watch as Dildine smartly builds scenes to moments that allow the actors to shine in service to the story.

The sounds of a photo bulb flashing and the casters rolling across the wooden floor as the set pieces glide in an out of place are deceptively simple and effective bits of stagecraft. The audio clues signify the fluidity of time within the framework of the drama while enabling a seamless transition from scene to scene. Whether intentional or not, the device is an important layer in the tapestry Dildine has created. The approach is cinematic in nature and the execution is flawless.

Period appropriate, Michele Friedman Siler's costumes and Margery Spack's props are quickly and easily modified to signal a change in time, place, or character. An exchange of hats turns a reporter into a policeman. Notebooks are swapped out for clipboards and two other reporters become psychiatrists probing the minds of Leopold and Loeb. The loss of a single pair of glasses becomes damning evidence, but the audience doesn't notice until Loeb questions Leopold in a critical scene that transforms to the police station with the addition of lights and an actor.

Another important layer is the gorgeous stage, designed by Peter and Margery Spack, with multiple ornithological drawings and paintings as well as the sculptural effect of hanging glass jars of liquids adorning the theater and set walls. The platforms and aforementioned furniture give prominence to key plot pieces and easily blend from scene to scene. Dildine and the cast take the same approach with the characters -- every tick, flinch, smile, arched or furrowed eyebrow, touch, and embrace adds context. Smart lighting by Maureen Berry and sound by Michael Perkins complete the enveloping environment and affirms the contemplative and moody disposition of the show. 

John Logan's Never the Sinner, running through April 2, 2017, isn't always easy to watch. The subject matter is at times disturbing, but the story is enthralling. The murder of Bobby Franks by Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb was a scandalous, newsworthy crime, and the New Jewish Theatre production is taut and captivating. Darrow's impassioned summary during the sentencing hearing is an important touchstone in our ongoing debate on capital punishment and the story of the two young murderers is surprisingly fascinating. The tension kept me in my seat during the brief intermission, anticipating and wanting to get on with the rest of a story that is as intimate as it is sensational and unsettling. 

 

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