On the Verge

The Humana Festival Presses Its Limits

Louisville Has the Actors Theatre of Louisville gone avant-garde? While that might be overstating matters, there's no denying that the 23rd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays marked a significant departure from the kind of Southern-fried realism that has been ATL's house specialty. Beth Henley and Marsha Norman are the playwrights one normally expects at the three-day playgoing shmoozefest, not Mac Wellman, who, as a panelist and author of one of the "T(ext) Shirt Plays" being sold for $20 in the lobby, was a refreshingly incongruous guest of honor.

The bill of five new plays and eight 10-minute pieces was expanded to include a series of extracurricular events and gimmicks designed to open our thinking about where theater can take place. In the "Phone Plays," it was possible to eavesdrop on one of five three-minute taped conversations by picking up the receiver of a specially programmed pay phone. A battered Lincoln Town Car parked outside the theater provided backseat room for three audience members to watch two front-seat actors perform Richard Dresser's surreal hitchhiking skit, What Are You Afraid Of? And at any time during the festival one could purchase a cotton T with a playlet by Wendy Wasserstein or Tony Kushner scrolled across it.

If none of the enlisted artists fully exploited their unique venues, their work nevertheless contributed to the generally relaxed spirit of theatrical experiment. Anne Bogart's newest offering, Cabin Pressure, which was developed with actors from her Saratoga International Theatre Institute, places under discursive analysis just this type of adventurous playgoing atmosphere. As ticket holders are led to their seats, the cast enacts a highly stylized scene resembling something from Noël Coward's Private Lives. After several retakes, the actors bow, head backstage, then return for a scripted postshow discussion, where they "respond" to a moderator's questions about how they felt during different stages of their performance. Later they transform themselves into characters from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, after which they return to mime the range of audience reactions to their work.

Part didactic treatise, part metatheatrical collage, Cabin Pressure measures in academic ways the rarefied environment created by actors and their audience. The production, however, seems extremely derivative of Bogart's earlier works, particularly her Albee-inspired theoretical physics cartoon, Going, Going, Gone, which made its debut at Humana three years ago. As intellectually rich as the new material is, it fails to sustain the colorful vitality and wit that have become the signature of this highly prolific auteur director.

The most intriguing dramatic work of the festival was Arthur Kopit's Y2K, which moves well beyond the hysteria of the imminent computer crisis to offer an erotically charged information-age thriller. The well-acted story is narrated by a sexually intense young man (Dallas Roberts) with blue-highlighted hair and blue shoes who occasionally goes by the alias of Costa Astrakhan. After entering the life of Joseph (Graeme Malcolm), a prominent British editor, through a writing course at the New School, he has a torrid affair with Joseph's wife, Joanne (Lucinda Faraldo), who dumps him after she's had her orgasmic fill. At least this is what Costa claims as the motive for his vengeful actions, which entail implicating Joseph in an Internet pedophilia ring, doctoring up computer- generated porno photos of Joanne, seizing their joint assets through some sophisticated password cracking, and, as a grand finale, creating a birth certificate out of an abortion record so that he is now officially the couple's long-lost son.

As told from Costa's perspective, the facts keep blurring into fantasy, which lends the action a menacing, Pinteresque uncertainty, though Kopit makes things somewhat more confusing than he needs to. The only other flaw is the far-fetched ending— who would passively accept that their bank accounts are gone? But the suspense of this sharply written drama is unrelenting.

Though not entirely successful, Naomi Iizuka's Aloha, Say the Pretty Girls searches for a contemporary farcical structure that can contain her flaky characters' escape from New York to Hawaii and eventually to Alaska. It's a long and sometimes tedious distance to travel for a little existential clarity, but the playwright reveals a quirkiness that promises better journeys ahead.

David Rambo's God's Man in Texas is a solid if somewhat rambling drama about fundamentalist Baptist preachers competing to be the dog-on-top in a powerful congregation. The Cockfighter, Vincent Murphy's adaptation of Frank Manley's novel about the testosterone-ridden "sport," offers a faux-poetic exploration of a father and son and their relationship to their (you guessed it!) cocks.

The real disappointment, however, was the Life Under 30 series of 10-minute plays, which provided a near-lethal combination of Gen X disaffection and sentimentality. Perhaps next year will feature a more diverse group of young playwrights willing to exploit the Humana Festival's welcome shift toward the cutting edge.

 
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