A CurtainUp Report
The 2006 Humana Festival of New American Plays Celebrates its 30th Anniversary
By Charles Whaley
For the 30th anniversary Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville it was a very good year. On stage were a top-drawer selection of six full-length works, three 10-minute plays, and a Las Vegas-themed anthology.
Topping the list was Theresa Rebeck's The Scene, a devastatingly corrosive look at our current celebrity culture as exemplified by Clea (the mesmerizing Anna Camp), a sexy bubble-headed arriviste from Ohio whose superficial self-centered ways put her on the fast track to media success in New York as she blithely wrecks a marriage and feels no remorse. Charlie (Stephen Barker Turner), an out-of-work actor married to Stella (Carla Harting), who books celebrity guests for a TV talk show, is initially appalled as is his best friend Lewis (David Wilson Barnes) when blonde Clea, wearing skin-tight pants, suddenly appears on the loft terrace where the men are talking, and begins inanely chattering about the "surreal view"” while leaning over the rail and wiggling her behind.
"Why do you talk like that?" Charlie asks her. Blabbing on, she tells about a job interview conducted by a "frigid infertile Nazi priestess" who was constantly using highlighters on lists she consulted. That turned out to be Charlie's efficient wife Stella, who paid all the bills since he wasn't working. Exit Charlie, but Lewis (long in unrequited love with Stella) gets Clea to his apartment (a hilarious scene with the manipulative Clea downing vodka, though claiming never to drink because of an alcoholic mother, and putting the moves on Lewis after questioning his intentions for inviting her). Suddenly Charlie bursts in, yelling furiously about the demeaning treatment he received at lunch with an old school classmate who was green lighted for a pilot and could have given him a job. Clea is awed and tells him so. Turner is stunning in this scene. He shines as well in subsequent scenes after Clea gets her claws in him, has sex with him in his apartment just as Stella comes home, and unmans and discards him when he's no longer useful to her. Stella, distraught and still caring for him, finally faces up to Charlie's complete meltdown and starts a new life with Lewis. Rebeck's climactic scene between the monstrous Clea and "nothing left to lose" Charlie is harrowing. But hope seems on the horizon for Lewis and Stella, who were skillfully portrayed by Barnes and Harting under Rebecca Bayla Taichman's sure-footed direction. Also at the top of their game: Playwright Charles Mee and director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company with a gorgeously poetic and pictorial reverie called Hotel Cassiopeia, about artist Joseph Cornell, with quietly effective Barney O'Hanlon as Cornell and incomparable Ellen Lauren as ballerina Allegra Kent . . . . the performance/recording artist, poet, and social activist Rha Goddess in her electrifying one-woman show about mental illness called Low and directed by Chay Yew . . . ATL's marvelously talented apprentice actors in Neon Mirage.
This last was an anthology of 17 sketches and songs about Las Vegas by six excellent playwrights --Liz Duffy Adams, Dan Dietz, Julie Jensen, Lisa Kron, Tracey Scott Wilson, and Chay Yew-- and composer Rick Hip-Flores whose words and music were an unalloyed delight, especially his At the MGM Grand. Julie Jensen shared credit for the sketch with its fabulous costumes by John P. White for the company led by a leggy, scantily-clad showgirl (the versatile Stephanie Thompson) under a gigantic feathery headdress. Kudos also to Lisa Kron's amusing Montecore with Toby Knops and Tom Coiner as Siegfried and Roy's white tigers from their Vegas act that went awry when one of the tigers injured Roy. Another gem was Air Conditioning, a Hip-Flores song with mobster Bugsy Siegel and fellow gangsters doing a Guys and Dolls type number about building Bugsy's Flamingo club in the desert.
The satirical Natural Selection rang all the right bells under ATL artistic director Marc Masterson's keen direction. Coble's script has the nerdy Henry Carson (endearingly played by Jay Russell) being sent out by his tough superior (Heather Dilly, doing this and two other parts to perfection) on a helicopter flight out west to restock the Native American Pavilion at Orlando, Florida's Culture Fiesta with a captured Navajo (Javi Mulero). With him is Ernie Hardaway (the astounding Mark Mineart), a Rambo-type misogynist blowhard who is always accidentally injuring himself. Henry, his constantly blogging wife Suzie (an enchanting Melinda Wade), and third-grade son (whose schoolwork and extracurricular activities are done through electronic devices in a room he never seems to leave) reside contently in a virtual reality world until Henry's interaction with his quarry turns his life around.
Six Years by Sharr White and directed by Hall Brooks, was a wrenching look back at 24 years of post World War II America as lived by traumatized veteran Phil Granger (Michael J. Reilly) and his wife Meredith (Kelly Mares). White focuses on what happens to his characters at six-year intervals from 1949 to 1973. This serious, slice-of-life drama, extremely well written and superbly acted, may be considered old-fashioned by some who see it as soap opera. But it could have a long life in regional theatre if not in New York.
Jordan Harrison's Act a Lady had its moments and was generally fun to watch, especially in the campy French farce enacted by men dressed as women that's a play within the play set in 1927. Harrison's idea came from old photos of "womanless weddings" staged by Midwestern towns with prominent local men in female dress. The three men who played women--Paul O'Brien, Matt Seidman, and Steven Boyer (particularly Boyer as a saucy French maid)--were great. So was Sandra Shipley as the britches-wearing director with a European accent imported for the Elks Lodge fund-raiser. Admirably directing Harrison's comedy/drama with its often witty but sometimes heavy-handed take on gender differences was Anne Kauffman.
In a festival year without a single dud, the three 10-minute plays were smashing: Listeners by the pseudonymous Jane Martin (generally thought to be former ATL producing director Jon Jory, who returned to Louisville to direct), Sovereignty by Rolin Jones, a writer for Showtime's Weeds (Shirley Serotsky directing), and Three Guys and a Brenda by Adam Bock (Frank Deal directing)
Listeners is a dark and jarringly comic imagining of the Bush Administration's domestic spying program taken to its limits as two government agents in suits and ties invade the home of Eleanor Leftwich (Melinda Wade) after technology has identified her as "a valued citizen who just might be a little cranky." Her cathartic rant after they allow her to speak directly to "he who, let us say, hears all"”was a stinging enumeration of ruinous fallout from Bush policies. Cheering enthusiastically at Eleanor's list of grievances, the audience could sense what was foreordained for poor Eleanor after being allowed to practice her "free speech."
Also terrific was Sovereignty, set in a suburban enclave where cheery neighbor housewives (maybe a bit desperate, too) Mrs. Elsbeth (Heather Dilly) and Mrs. Merriweather (Sandra Shipley) chat at their mailboxes and occasionally reveal while speaking directly to the audience some kinky sexual happenings they seem to regard as normal. They're curious but aren't prying too much about the new neighbors, Mr. Taneeshiwaka, his wife, and hungry young son (both bear signs of physical abuse), from whose dwelling come loud thumps, screams, and moans. "Things beyond the garden, they happen so far away," says Mrs. Elsbeth. Their narrow neighborhood's a microcosm of the real world.
Adam Bock's Three Guys and a Brenda is a slight, gentle rumination on gender typified by three young restaurant workers, all acted by women convincingly playing males. One of them wants to tell his supervisor--another woman but this time played by a woman--that she's pretty. It's G-rated and sweet, unlike the vastly superior Listeners and Sovereignty.
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