The 28th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays
Every year, the Humana Festival of New American Plays turns the Actors Theatre of Louisville into a hotbed of activity. People from all over the world converge on this small southern city in hopes of seeing the next great play. On display are a number of full length and ten minute plays, most of which are receiving their first production.
Before the presentation of the four ten minute plays, the American Theatre Critics Association presented Lynn Nottage with the 2004 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award for her play Intimate Apparel. Finalists Rolin Jones (The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow), Carson Kreitzer (The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer) and August Wilson (Gem of the Ocean) each received monetary awards for their plays. At this ceremony, Jim Steinberg, from the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust, talked about the negative effects the state of the country has had on the American theatre. Thankfully, this year’s lineup of plays shows that new play development has not been negatively affected. Indeed, in the case of several of this year’s entries, the political landscape may have helped.
The Full Length Plays
After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo
The most thrillingly controversial entry at this year’s festival, After Ashley is a blatant attack on the media and its tendency to glorify victims of tragedy. After the brutal murder of Ashley Hammond (Carla Harting) by a homeless man her husband hired to work in their house, her son Justin (Jesse Hooker) and husband Alden (Stephen Barker Turner) try to rebuild their lives. Their tragedy has thrown them into the public light, and each of them deals with it in a different way. Alden has written a bestselling book about the tragedy and its effect on his family, and Justin is now known as “The 911 Kid” because of his heart-wrenching 911 tape reporting his mother’s murder, which has been made public (and later sampled into a rap song). Justin is not at all comfortable with his celebrity, and Alden is drawn into the spotlight, hosting an “America’s Most Wanted”-like television show, which features reenactments of sex crimes. But Justin has a surprise up his sleeve. Gionfriddo’s targets include Lisa Beamer, the 911 widow who wrote a book about the 9/11 tragedy and trademarked “Let’s Roll”, her husband’s famous last words. Directed by Marc Masterson, After Ashley is a potent political and social statement. Look for it in many resident theatres around the country.
At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka
Set in Butchertotwn, a historic Louisville neighborhood whose claim to fame was a slaughterhouse, At the Vanishing Point is a loving portrait of 11 real people who lived there. Performed site-specific in an abandoned Butchertown factory, At the Vanishing Point had a great deal of resonance with the local residents. However, the play is really about people and their relationship to one another. They just happen to live in the Butchertown neighborhood of Louisville, which is much like any other working class neighborhood anywhere in America. At the Vanishing Point needs a little tightening, but the potential is there for a lot future productions in smaller theatre companies.
Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh by Jordan Harrison
The most technically ambitious play of the festival, Kid Simple, a radio play in the flesh is the story of Moll (Maria Dizzia), a young girl who invents a device called the third ear, a device that is meant to hear imperceptible sounds, such as toenails growing on a field mouse. After winning a science prize for her invention, Moll receives a mysterious call from a man who wants her device. After her device is stolen, Moll goes on an odyssey to recover it. Kid Simple alternates between scenes with Moll’s family, the radio play that they listen to, and the evil syndicate that wants to steal Moll’s invention. Performed with a Foley Artist, Kid Simple is a fascinating blend of sound artistry. All in all, however, it needs some focus to make it a viable theatrical presentation.
The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff
Along with After Ashley, The Ruby Sunrise took the festival by storm. Ruby (Julie Jesneck), an enterprising teenage runaway, is realizing her dream – inventing the first all-electric television system. As her past creeps up on her, she becomes increasingly more unsettled as her father catches up with her and Henry (Stephen Thorne), a young man staying with her Aunt Lois (Anne Scurria), professes his lover for her. The play then jumps 25 years to a New York television studio, where Ruby’s daughter Lulu (Jessica Wortham) attempts to get the story of her mother told on the medium that her mother had such a contribution to. The Ruby Sunrise turns out to be more than a history lesson; it becomes a brilliant commentary McCarthyism on the narrow-mindedness of television networks. Moist likely, this play will also be seen quite a bit in regional theatres around the country.
Sans-culottes in the Promised Land by Kirsten Greenidge
Kirsten Greenidge’s Sans-culottes in the Promised Land is a commentary on the nature of the family, specifically the African-American family in the white dominated world. Greg (Leon Addison Brown) is an out of work Architect with a penchant for lechery and Carol (Angela Bullock) is a lawyer about to hit the glass ceiling at her firm. Their daughter Greta (Kibibi Dillon) just wants some attention and to fit in at school. As their nanny Lena (April Mathis) attempts to explain her illiteracy to Carol, and Greta’s teacher Charlotte (Tamilla Woodard) attempts to expose her to her heritage, the world that they live in begins to fall apart. Trees start growing in their house (literally) and their laundry room becomes possessed. Kirsten Greenidge has a great flair for language, but Sans-culottes in the Promised Land needs a good deal of work, and some of the characters (particularly the role of Greg) need to be re-focused.
Tallgrass Gothic by Melanie Marnich
Part gothic romance, part gothic horror story, part Macbeth, Tallgrass Gothic was inspired by The Changeling, a 1622 Thomas Middleton play that is bloodier than most movies you will see today. In Tallgrass Gothic, Laura (Lia Aprile) and Daniel (Asa Somers) are having a passionate affair, but Laura is unable to get away from her controlling, abusive husband. As Laura resists running away from her husband, Daniel becomes more frustrated and pulls away from her. Then the bloodshed begins. Tallgrass Gothic boasts a great set by Paul Owen, and a chilling production directed by Marc Masterson.
Fast and Loose, an Ethical Collaboration by Jose Cruz-Gonzalez, Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt and John Walch
If you found out a secret that might hurt a loved one, would you expose it? That was one four questions that this collaboration of four playwrights had to work with. Performed by the Actors Theatre of Louisville apprentice company, four vignettes intertwine in this 90-minute play. Fast and Loose has some good moments, but the experiment was only partly successful. Each of the four vignettes lack a consistent voice. However, it does serve as a good showcase for the apprentices.
In addition to these seven plays, we were treated to four ten-minute plays: Kuwait by Vincent Delaney, The Spot by Steven Dietz, A Bone Close to My Brain by Dan Dietz (no relation to Stephen) and Foul Territory by Craig Wright. A very strong series of short plays, they all were of different styles, and all effective in their own way – particularly Foul Territory and The Spot.
As usual, the Humana Festival is a great assembling of new works, and a group of playwrights who continue to forge new ground in the landscape of American theatre. Look for these plays at a theatre near you.