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A CurtainUp Feature
The Humana Festival: 2002
Charles Whaley

Plays in the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville are never chosen to illustrate a theme, the theatre insists, but critics often manage to find one.

Steve Juergens, Claudia Fielding
Steve Juergens, Claudia Fielding
photo by Fred Furrow III
For festival number 26, a case could be made that Marlane Meyer's The Mystery of Attraction, which opened the event, serves nicely as a general theme as well as a play title. Meyer's intriguing dissection of the mismatched marriages of two clueless brothers--one of whom has a deadly attraction to gambling--prefigures other kinds of attraction dramatized in the shows that follow.

Christa Scott-Reed, Tom Teti
Christa Scott-Reed, Tom Teti Photo by Larry Hunt
With Charles L. Mee's lushly romantic Limonade Tous Les Jours the attraction is between a young French woman and an older American man, each recently divorced, who meet and fall in love in Paris in the spring.

Jerome Hairston's a.m. Sunday raises the curtain on a tense interracial marriage (black husband, white wife) threatened not by racial differences but by an affair the husband tries to conceal from his steadfastly loving wife.

Penny Fuller, Josef Sommer, Fred Major
(l-r) Penny Fuller, Josef Sommer, Fred Major Photo by Larry Hunt
Tina Howe's beguiling Rembrandt's Gift uses an elderly classical actor's attraction to the costumes and props from his long ago career as its starting point. Later, through stage magic that catapults long dead Rembrandt into the cluttered Soho apartment the actor and his photographer wife share, the fed-up wife finds herself amorously attracted to the old Dutch painter.

Robert Beitzel, Alaina Mills, Dallas Roberts
:(l-r) Robert Beitzel, Alaina Mills, Dallas Roberts
photo by Fred Furrow III
With Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases the self-destructive attraction is to drugs that wreck the talent and ambition of a once vibrant group of rock musicians now gone to seed in their East Village hellhole.

Tom Nelis photo by Larry Hunt
Music is the attraction compellingly explained and demonstrated by Leonard Bernstein in Score, the festival's sixth and final full-length play. Anne Bogart conceived and directed the performance piece, Jocelyn Clarke adapted it, and the SITI Company created it. Tom Nelis, billed as "performer", is a spellbinding lecturer as he waxes enthusiastically about the creative process (he even tap dances at one point) and mimes the conducting of Beethoven and Mahler.

Also featured at this year's festival is a dramatic anthology called Snapshot, to which 18 playwrights contributed scenes and monologues they developed based on their viewing of famed photographer Lee Friedlander's Mount Rushmore, South Dakota 1969. Twenty-two members of ATL's 2001-2002 Apprentice Acting Company are showcased in the commissioned work. David Lindsay-Abaire's History Lesson, in which Stacy L. Mayer as a tour guide just fired by her supervisor and ex-lover injects outrageously hilarious lies in her spiel for visitors, steals the show in a plot twist borrowed from Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage.

One of three so-called technology plays, taking the place of the popular telephone plays of previous years, incorporates computerized simulated voices in a dating scene set in a restaurant. Another puts on a pole three actors who change text and action based on audience commands. Still another puts the photographed faces of two audience members on mannequins involved in a visually projected story; the two are instructed to hold hands so that computer electrodes can monitor their vital signs and guide changes in sound and color.

At the Humana Festival anticipation always runs high for a knock-your-socks-off kind of new play--as in years past when Big Love,Kelly and Du, bobrauschenbergamerica, Dinner With Friends, or Anton in Show Business was presented. And though Adam Rapp's vivid, engrossing (some would say gross), and brilliantly performed (by Dallas Roberts, Robert Beitzel, and Jeffrey Bean) Finer Noble Gases came close, it wasn't until two 10-minute plays hit the stage running and kept the audience screaming with laughter that the breakthrough came.

Top honors go to Sheri Wilner's Bake Off, a devastatingly funny riff on the Pillsbury Bake-Off, in which contestant Rita (a star turn done to perfection by Kim Martin-Cotten), furious that a man won the previous year's grand prize for the first time, goes to any lengths to keep well-meaning Paul (Jeffrey Bean as the ideal foil for her) from repeating the other man's win.

Also terrific is Classyass by Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a gloriously satiric take on classical music snobs at a predominantly black college where the radio station DJ called Amadeus (the excellent Jason Cornwell) is confronted by a fast-talking woman from the homeless shelter (Nikki E. Walker, first-rate as well), who was dissed by Amadeus when she weighed in on a Poulenc vs. Faure question.

For this reviewer the festival highlights included the gorgeous staging of Limonade Tous Les Jours, so quintessentially Parisian with slim bare trees that seemed to dance and video projections that plumbed the city's essence. ATL's veteran scenic designer Paul Owen once again worked his magic on this play and all but one of the other five, which was Score, designed by Neil Patel. Patel's highly effective scenic design featured black metal music stands dramatically lit in front of a wide stage-length mirror that bisected a white concert shell and reflected part of the audience.

Among the most memorable performances in the uniformly fine acting for which ATL is noted were Fred Major's bravura portrayal of Rembrandt and the seamless ensemble playing of Major, Penny Fuller, and Josef Sommer in Rembrandt's Gift, the adorable Christa Scott-Reed as Jacqueline with her charming French accent in Limonade Tous Les Jours, and second-rate lawyer Ray (Steve Juergens) and bad cop Warren (David Van Pelt) as brothers and Claudia Fielding as Denise, Ray's waitress wife, in The Mystery of Attraction,which also offered stark threatening cameos by Lee Sellars as a bad-debt collector, Robert Ian Mackenzie as an evil rich man, and Laura Masterson as the "delicious gumdrop"stepdaughter he plans to marry if Ray will get her acquitted for murdering yet another man.

To keep up with what's happening at the Actor's Theatre check out their web site

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