Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS(Photo: Richard Trigg)
Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS
(Photo: Richard Trigg)
A live salsa band played into the wee hours of the traditional VIP party, marking the end of the Special Visitors Weekend for the 25th Anniversary Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville--the first for new artistic director Marc Masterson. Trying to guess in what direction Masterson, who replaced departed Festival creator Jon Jory (now teaching at the University of Seattle), will take the Festival for the next quarter century created as much drama off stage as the plays did on stage.

Under Jory and literary manager Michael Bigelow Dixon, HFNAP launched dozens of playwrights and hundreds of plays, including Marsha Norman's Getting Out , Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, John Pielmeier's Agnes of God, William Mastrosimone's Extremities, John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Jose Rivera's Marisol, Tony Kushner's Slavs, Naomi Wallace's One Flea Spare, and ATL's third Pulitzer Prize winner: Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends. Masterson comes from Pittsburgh's City Theatre, home of Squonk, and has been hailed as an innovative programmer as well as a "hands on" producer/director. He also comes with directing and producing ties to many familiar Louisville names, including Anne Bogart, Richard Dresser, Jane Martin and Eduardo Machado--all present on this year's roster.

Although the 2001 Humana Festival was chosen almost exclusively by the outgoing Jory-Dixon team, Masterson remarked, "This season falls well within the comfort zone of my own taste. But I'm also very partial to writers who may fall below mainstream radar, and we'll continue to make room for new writers and energizing work." The single Masterson entry picked from a list of Jory-Dixon suggestions--Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS, a chamber opera by the team of Mac Wellman and Michael Roth--d id herald a distinct departure from the usual Humana fare. Both Masterson and executive director Alexander (Sandy) Speer espoused a strong "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" stance while simultaneously admitting that some change is inevitable; it's next season, scheduled to open with the Adam Guettel/Tina Landau musical Floyd Collins, that will actually constitute Masterson's first.

In addition to Wellman, this year carried a familiar New York flavor as such well-known East Coast playwrights as Arthur Kopit, Richard Dresser, Charles L. Mee, and Eduardo Machado, all returned to the HFNAP, along with the prolific but reclusive Louisville native, Jane Martin (believed by all and sundry to be Jory himself). Even the one regional (Minneapolis) playwright, Melanie Marnich, is currently making her New York debut with Blur at the Manhattan Theatre Club. NYC directors also abounded, including assorted returnees ranging from Bogart (Mee's bobrauschenbergamerica) and Lisa Peterson (the Wellman/Roth work) to newbie Michael John Garces (Machado's When the Sea Drowns in Sand), plus Susan V. Booth (Marnich's Quake), recently appointed artistic director of Atlanta's famed Alliance Theatre Company and of course, past and present ATL heads Jory (Martin's Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage) and Masterson (Dresser's Wonderful World).

For those of us who regularly cover the Festival, the onerous task of finding trends and themes was relatively simple this year. Several productions came with accompanying, movie-like scores. This trend can be traced directly to SITI company sound designer Darron L. West, since bobrauschenbergamerica marks his 18th collaboration with SITI artistic director Anne Bogart. In his pre-SITI days as Louisville's resident sound designer for three years, West in turn influenced both SITI associate sound designer Kurt B. Kellenberger and former assistant Martin R. Desjardins. "We all work in the same realm," West explains, "and we share the same aesthetic." He labels his own work on the Rauschenberg piece "a landscape to listen to the play."

The Bogart/Machado connection could almost be considered a trend in itself. During our interviews, several playwrights mentioned one or the other, if not both. Bogart, whose SITI Company Pew Grant has been extended for a third year's residency at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, credited Machado with first getting her noticed at ATL: In 1991 he brought her in to direct In The Eye of the Hurricane, his first HFNAP entry. Machado, in turn credits Louisville discovery and Pulitzer Prize-winner Beth Henley with introducing him to Michael Dixon, who kept reading his plays. Chuck Mee worked with Bogart before and identifies with her technique of "appropriating found material." Bogart identifies with Machado, Mee, and Wellman, whom she dubbed "adventurers." Wellman and Machado are also the co-founders of New York's hip, downtown Bat Theatre. And of course, everyone praised Dixon, currently the Literary Manager at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, for always finding time for the writers and their plays.

The prevalent themes at Humana this year, which were mixed and matched throughout, included the movies, families, the search for love, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. The anthology Heaven and Hell, commissioned to showcase the apprentice actors, featured 16 short playlets wherein good battled evil. These were written by 16 playwrights--some well known (William Mastrosimone), some up and coming (Rebecca Gilman and Keith Glover)--plus a few new kids on the block (Jenny Lyn Bader and Hilly Hicks, Jr.).

Arthur Kopit and Jane Martin both took the "old movie" route. Kopit was commissioned by Dixon to write a "cliffhanger" and came up with Chad Curtiss, Lost Again, three connected, 10-minute one acts in the format of those Saturday morning movie serials. The forces of evil embodied by General Zarko and a defrocked minister continually batter the good but goofy hero of the title, who spends years searching for both his own true love and a tablet containing God's final four-word message (revealed in part four). Kopit missed the opening night of his newly refurbished Becausehecan (known as Y2K in its 1999 ATL premiere) at Princeton's McCarter Theatre, to be at the HFNAP. "I love Louisville," he enthused after parts one and two of CCLA. "There's so much energy inherent in this crazy festival. The audiences are wonderfully enthusiastic and I get to be part of a friendly, non-competitive group of writers hanging out together."

Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage(Photo: Richard Trigg)
Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage
(Photo: Richard Trigg)
Martin's genre-jumping Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage crossed the good guy/white hat-bad guy/black hat scenario of old cowboy movies with a screwball comedy plot relating the saga of Big 8, a veteran female rodeo rider with a string of much younger rodeo-cowboy lovers. A punked-out, pink-haired stranger steals the heart of Rob Bob, Big 8's latest boy-toy, thereby precipitating a Texas chainsaw-style massacre that spews stage-blood and -guts all over the set.

Families, with or without various dysfunctions, directly informed no fewer than four of the plays, and two--bobrauschenbergamerica and ...the Allegory of WHITENESS--also shared punctuation anomalies, not to mention phenomenal production values. Playwright Mee and director Bogart, in collaboration with the SITI Company, recreated the collages of Robert Rauschenberg on stage within the framework of a fictional Rauschenberg family album. "I asked myself," Mee said, "if I were to take the spirit of Rauschenberg's work--his happy, warm, inclusive embrace of life--and make a play, what would the play be? And the result is this quilt, stitched together as pieces, not one big narrative." Mee and Bogart presented much of the artist's most recognizable imagery (including used tires, chickens, and the world's largest and wettest dry martini) against a backdrop of the American flag to produce a relentlessly cheery, Norman Rockwell-esque, 1950s-style cornucopia of Americana. There were also several offbeat "boy meets girl"/"boy meets boy" scenarios plus a glimpse or two of a darker side, including vivid speeches by a Los Alamos scientist and a pizza delivery boy-cum-serial killer. The text of this, and all of Mee's works (including his $5,000 ATCA citation winner Big Love, coming to the Brooklyn Academy this Fall), are downloadable at www.charlesmee.com; he invites one and all to "take and re-use the text or make one of your own."

The iconoclastic Mac Wellman is certainly a different choice for the Humana Fest, where his only previous connection was The Fez, his text for a 'T-shirt play.' Wellman's work has been categorized as "veritable orgies of language...filled with the ability to amaze and stymie." Description Beggared; or the Allegory of WHITENESS, set to the music of his longtime collaborator, Michael Roth, did both in abundance. The tale of the dysfunctional Ring family was told by five actors clad in gorgeous if eccentric all-white costumes, a veritable five-ring circus set on a circular, white-on white target" The program notes that portions of the play were adapted from both Arthur Machen's White People about a Victorian girl turning into a witch) and August Strindberg's The Ghost Sonata, and it lived up to its own title; on leaving the theater, most of the audience freely admitted they hadn't the foggiest notion of what the play was about, but they were happily humming Roth's bubbly score and extolling the brilliant staging by Lisa Peterson while also heaping unanimous praise on the five piece band, listed as Purveyors of Transcendental Music and Bad Jazz.

Wonderful World marked Richard Dresser's fourth visit to Louisville, if you don't count his one act Car-Play, What Are You Afraid Of? (Below the Belt and Gun-shy also made the transition to Off-Broadway.) Dresser's latest began with the phrase "I never knew I could be so happy," and since it's a quintessential dysfunctional family play, you can bet that there was metaphorical blood on the carpet before the curtain. The play is about Max, his mother, his brother, and his sister-in-law, who take on the familial duty of destroying each other (plus Max's girlfriend Jennifer into the bargain). Dresser makes his living writing for television and film, most recently for Madigan Men starring Gabriel Byrne. "Writing for TV is liberating," he said. "I never expected to make money writing plays. You write television on a deadline, but plays come from deep obsessions. I'd been tap-dancing around the writing of this play, never thinking I could write about family issues. While it's inspired by my family, its no more autobiographical than any of my other plays." Let's hope not!

If Humana were a film festival, then Melanie Marnich's debut Humana Fest play Quake would be one of those requisite girl-coming-of-age flicks. But on stage, those kind of stories are not so common and rarely so honest. In the play, Lucy follows the curve of the earth, trying to find her "the love of her life." The piece is funny and acutely accurate, with some sharp observations and a helluva good set design at the festival, featuring crisscrossed pairs of rollers to keep Lucy moving quickly from encounter to encounter. Marnich considers herself an "accidental" playwright, having chucked a ten year career in advertising, to go back to grad school where she first began Quake. The Jerome Fellowship and McKnight Advancement Grant winner burbled, "I feel like the luckiest person in the world. It's sort of like, pinch me!"

When the Sea Drowns in Sand marks Eduardo Machado's third trip to the Humana Fest. His autobiographical play concerns a Cuban-born playwright who regains a sense of his lost family when he's finally allowed to return to Cuba for the first time since he left 40 years earlier aboard a "Peter Pan" flight. (These were pre-Bay of Pigs airlifts from Cuba to the U.S., carrying 13,000 Cuban boys and girls away from their homeland, often forever.) The spare, rhythmic production integrated dance and music, under the muscular direction of Michael John Garces and featured an on-stage percussionist who became a fourth character in Machado's three-character play. The playwright skillfully connected his protagonist's overwhelming desire to return and reconnect to the political overtones of a flailing Marxist-Cuban government, reunified for a moment by the Elian Gonzalez affair--the single child becoming a symbol of the 13,000 lost children. Machado, head of Columbia's playwriting department revealed, "I was a Peter Pan kid. So is the Mayor of Miami." He called his own return to Cuba "the most important experience of my adult life." For Machado Louisville is "still the safest, most communal place to work on a play, even with the rather daunting aspect of this final weekend and its pack of critics descending."