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A CurtainUp Feature
The Humana Festival: 2002
Charles Whaley

Some Background on the Festival
For 25 years the Humana Festival of New American Plays has been a unique partnership between Actors Theatre of Louisville and The Humana Foundation. The resoundingly successful theatrical event was founded by producing director Jon Jory during the 31 years he headed ATL. It has been called "the nation's best-known new play festival" by The New York Times and "the Kentucky Derby of American theatre" by he Los Angeles Times. "The Humana Festival," Time magazine has written, "is the center of the theatre world."

Anticipation for the festival is always high as audiences hope to witness the birth of another Humana Festival play that goes on to prosper in other cities and countries or wins prestigious awards such as the Pulitzer Prize for Dinner With Friends as recently as last year.

The new American plays in this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville turn out to be mainly by established playwrights whose works have been featured in previous Humana festivals. Festival stalwart Jane Martin (widely rumored to be former ATL producing director Jon Jory), Richard Dresser, Eduardo Machado, Charles L. Mee (in collaboration with Anne Bogart and The SITI Company), Arthur Kopit, and some of the 16 playwrights (William Mastrosimone, Elizabeth Dewberry, Richard Strand, and Michael Kassin) who contributed short works to the comic anthology performed by ATL' s Apprentice Company, all reappear in the 25th anniversary festival.

The prolific, well-known Mac Wellman makes his first appearance in the festival with the oddly titled Description Beggared or the Allegory of WHITENESS (the caps and punctuation marks are the author's). Only Melanie Marnich, a Minneapolis writer and teacher, with her quirky, uneven feminist play Quake is a new voice among the longer works presented. Her naive young heroine named Lucy (Tracey Maloney) travels through America searching for the love of her life. Her episodic quest is enlivened by encounters with her real or imagined idol, a tough female serial killer of men (Lusia Strus).

Wellman's WHITENESS is a visually arresting (via costume designer Linda Roethke's blindingly white clothing for the admirable cast and scenic designer Paul Owen's white stage of concentric circles) barrage of verbal exchanges that make little or no sense but can be taken as an offbeat commentary on racism. The Ring family (no Wagnerian connection here) has cornered the market on mechanical flea circuses recently or years ago and in a "vast, metaphysical Rhode Island" with "deep interior regions stretching for 3000 miles" has gathered to pose for photos as they squabble and preen. Wellman's often clever wordplay can be striking (could he be teasing us to change a couple of letters to make Description Buggered his title?). Michael Roth's catchy songs performed by musicians billed as Purveyors of Transcendental Music and Bad Jazz are the play's most pleasurable asset.

The Mee/Bogart/SITI Company bobrauschenbergamericais an unforgettable delight with its evocation of artist Robert Rauschenberg' Midwestern boyhood and the humble objects juxtaposed in his collages and assemblages (a bathtub, a tire swing, a stuffed goat wearing a pink tutu, a chicken in a baby carriage). Kelly Maurer, playing "Bob's Mom" in a prim but winning manner, contends that "art was not part of our lives." What the audience experiences in this masterful, touching, funny, thrilling performance piece contradicts her calm assertion.

Also topping the list of this year's festival successes l is Richard Dresser's Wonderful World,a witty, wise and smartly crafted serious comed about escalating family misunderstandings that involve two brothers and three women in their lives --t he overbearing wife of one, the muddled fiancee of the other, and their sweet-faced, flaky mother. ATL's new artistic director Marc Masterson, directing his first play here, displays perfect pitch in handling Dresser's snappy dialogue and fast-moving scenes.

Though not in a class with her/his award-winning Anton in Show Business from last year's festival, Jane Martin's Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage is a crowd-pleaser that keeps the audience howling. A send-up of B-movie westerns crossed with today's horror/slasher flicks, Martin's outrageous plot has Big 8 (Phyllis Somerville), the old time rodeo star from Martin's widely produced Talking With series of monologues, now living 20 years later on a small Wyoming ranch threatened with foreclosure. For income she grates cheese at the Beatrice Foods plant and takes in injured rodeo riders (the hunky kind, of course) to "heal" them. Her latest boy toy, the dimwitted Rob Bob Silverado (Leo Kittay) finds love at first sight, however, when a pierced pregnant urchin with hair the color of "throwed up strawberry milkshake" (Monica Koskey) storms in to blame the pregnancy on Big 8's lounge singer son (don't ask). A Ukranian biker named Black Dog (Mark Mineart), who has allegedly chopped off the girl's arm, is pursuing her to recover some cocaine money. Big 8's sister Shirl (hilariously played by Peggity Price) and her deputy sheriff boyfriend of nine years (William McNulty) are drawn into the side-splittingly gross events that follow.

Eduardo Machado's When the Sea Drowns in Sand is a pretentious, didactic, overwrought lecture on Cuban-American relations, engendered by the Elian Gonzalez case. Flamboyantly gay Federico (Joseph Urla), who was sent to America as a child by his rich parents after Fidel Castro came to power, returns to Cuba with his Italian friend Fred (Ed Vassallo) in an effort to recover his Cuban past). There's a lot of high-flown language about love and relationships, and most of it comes through as ludicrous. Moved by his experience in Cuba, macho Fred, after he and Federico have lingeringly embraced and kissed (Fred is also kissed long and hard by the heterosexual male Cuban hired as their driver), announces, "I want to be a man who can love like a woman--that is what this country is bringing out in me."

Arthur Kopit's Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, three 10-minute plays in serial form, was a lovingly staged version of those old cliffhanger movie serials such as The Perils of Pauline that often preceded the main feature in long ago times. All the conventions (the upright hero in constant mortal danger, damsels in distress, evil villains and henchmen, caves, explosions, last minute escapes) were observed in episodes performed one a day over three days only at the festival's visitors weekend for critics and theatre professionals. It was great corny fun.

As for the Heaven and Hell (on Earth): A Divine Comedy anthology showcasing, ATL's Apprentice Company, William Mastrosimone's Just Hold Me nicely performed by Brad Abner and Jessica Browne-White in a supposed car as they headed nervously for a first-time tryst, was among standouts that included Richard Strand,s amusing Rosa's Eulogy about a dead cat a girl picked up from the street and planned to bury, and Elizabeth Dewberry's Virtual Virtue, in which a young couple argues about cybersex as opposed to real sex. Once again the popular Phone Plays, begun three years ago, could be heard by theatregoers who picked up receivers on free pay phones installed against a mezzanine wall. Artistic director Marc Masterson invited five "small, adventurous theatre companies from across the country, dedicated to producing new work" to submit the three-minute conversations. Thick Description of San Francisco scored with Brighde Mullins's Click, about a young woman speaking in metaphors to a male friend in rehab, as did Clubbed Thumb of New York with Erin Courtney's Owls in which a worried father tries to figure out where his runaway daughter is and persuade her to come home.

From this year's festival the plays most likely to be seen in other venues are Richard Dresser's Wonderful Worldand the Charles L. Mee/Anne Bogart/ The SITI Company collaboration, bobrauschenbergamerica. Experimental theatres might be inclined to stage Mac Wellman's unusual Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITNESS and Eduardo Machado's When the Sea Drowns in Sand could find other life in cities with theatres interested in Cuban culture.

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