Louisville, KY — Every new play festival has a panning for gold element.
As even a minor miner can tell you, though, the smaller the pan, the more difficult it can be to discover treasures. And such was the case at the 43rd Humana Festival of New American Plays.
The 2019 fest at Actors Theatre of Louisville offered just four world premieres and an apprentice program.
Yes, I realize that most serious theatergoers would love to have access to a quintet of impeccably produced originals every year. But dig out a program—or one of the published festival anthologies—from just a few years ago and you’ll find six full-length originals on the bill, along with the apprentice show. Plus a trio of ten-minute plays (which usually lasted significantly longer).
The downsizing wouldn’t have been quite so obvious if there was a standout production this time around. It’s easy to forgive even a fest full of lesser work when a breakout along the lines of Becky Shaw or The Christians or Dinner with Friends or Anton in Show Business (all Humana premieres) is also on the agenda. Blame it, perhaps, on this being a rebuilding year at ATL, with its artistic directorship in transition (Les Waters ended his reign last summer and new boss Robert Barry Fleming takes over shortly).
This year’s highest profile playwright, Lucas Hnath (he of A Dolls House, Part 2 and The Christians fame), entered metaphysical territory with The Thin Place, a commissioned piece directed Les Waters.
Emily Cass McDonnell, in a creepily intense performance where her silence is often the most interesting thing happening on stage, plays Hilda, a woman who tries to get close to alleged medium Linda (Robin Bartlett). Even after Linda shares her tricks for convince the gullible and needy that their dear departed are reaching out, there’s still a question of whether or not she offers access to the afterlife.
Tricks are played with the audience. Tangential monologues are shared. A triangle becomes apparent. And provocative lines are spoken without follow-up (At one point, Hilda comments that she can hear the cries of babies from abortion clinics). But the pieces don’t quite align.
That might be the intent, but my reaction was that there’s a thin line between meaty and overpadding.
The Thin Place, which probably could be tightened into a more effective fringe show, crossed it.
Also strongly acted, Lily Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself, directed by Marti Lyons, had a clearer vision and generated more moment-to-moment involvement than any of the other works this year. In it, members of a women’s self-defense class—and a pair of males attempting to offer assistance—wrestle with issues—and with each other—in the wake of a campus rape.
With clearly drawn characters, strong directorial choices, and revealing dialogue (even if occasionally too quickly intimate for believability), Padilla creates a set of women with differently nuanced views of the world, all dealing with similar questions: How do you deal with the desires of your own body when potential predators are around every corner? How can you celebrate yourself when the threat seems to always exist of someone taking away your autonomy? And how far do the ripple effects of rape extend to those who enable it? As the students, Gabriela Ortega, Molly Adea, Ariana Mahallati, Abby Leigh Huffstetler shine.
But rather than being focused on their work, much of the lobby chatter afterwards seemed to obsess on the sudden stylistic shift of the ending—one that I fear took away rather than added to the power of what came before. The confusion drove me to the script to try to discern intent, but I found no additional insight there. Sometimes a very theatrical choice just gets in the way.
I have not read the novel The Corpse Washer, but given the amount of exposition offered in the stage adaptation (by Ismail Khalidi and Naomi Wallace from the book by Sinan Antoon), its literary roots are clear. There’s a lot of story told here, covering years in the life of Jawad (an intense, searching Arash Mokhtar). In the tradition of many fictional and factual sons, the young Iraqi man rebels against the family business. In this case, the title task—ritually preparing the dead for the separation of body and spirit.
Constant war guarantees a steady flow of business, but Jawad isn’t just dealing with strangers. Those closest to him are also lost, leading to questions of duty vs. self-actualization. The themes may be familiar and the characters sketched, but the context is compelling enough. A bolder design and an even greater emphasis on ritual may be helpful in future productions.
The final, sincere 10 minutes almost redeem Dave Harris’ Everybody Black, in which too many layers of false narration have to be peeled away before the show finds its heart.
Up until then, it’s a hit-and-miss collection of sketches allegedly pulled together by a self-proclaimed black historian who says he has never actually met black people. J. Cameron Barnett’s over-the-top characterization seems to come straight out of the material being parodied, which lends to the lack of coherence of the overall play. Compounding the problem was the small scale of the show, which didn’t fit well on the Pamela Brown stage.
The apprentice show, We’ve Come to Believe, wove together short pieces by Kara Lee Corthron, Emily Feldman and Matthew Paul Olmos with a general focus on group think and conformity. As with past apprentice shows, this one was best served as a dessert after the festival entrees. While not without substance, it felt to be as much for the benefit of the small army of performers as it was for the audience. Their enthusiasm and passion, as always, proved the show’s most memorable element.
» Lou Harry is editor of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, Chair of the American Theatre Critics Association's New Play Committee, and hosts the Lou Harry Gets Real podcast. Follow him on Twitter @LouHarry and at www.louharry.com