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When in the Course of Humana Events...

Leslie (Hoban) Blake reports on the 2005 Humana Festival in Louisville.

By New York City
Mhari Sandoval and Maureen Muellerin A Nervous Smile(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
Mhari Sandoval and Maureen Mueller
in A Nervous Smile
(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
"I hope we didn't keep you up too late last night," joked Marc Masterston at the 10am Saturday morning performance of John Belluso's A Nervous Smile. He was addressing an audience of theater professionals on the next-to-last weekend of the 29th annual Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL) Humana Festival of New American Plays.

The weekend had begun on a highly political note at 7:30pm the night before with Kia Corthron's Moot the Messenger, directed by Marion McClintock (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom). It's a powerful, issues oriented play about many of the ills facing this country right now, including the war in Iraq, the abuses at Abu Ghraib, and the lack of truth in journalism. Then, at 11pm, an apprentice musical showcase titled Uncle Sam's Satiric Spectacular: On Democracy and Other Fictions, Featuring Patriotism Acts and Blues Songs for a Red State continued the evening's political theme.

The rest of Saturday offered three more full-length plays, each containing its own political threads. There was Adam Bock's The Shaker Chair at 2pm; Kathleen Tolan's Memory House at 5:30pm, and Carlyle Brown's Pure Confidence at 8pm. Allison Moore's Hazard County would be seen the next day -- Easter Sunday -- at 2:30pm, after a morning panel discussion on new play publishing. Those attending the festival even found time to hob and nob while seeing six new full-length plays plus that apprentice showcase (written by several well known writers including Humana vet Richard Dresser). Sleep time was available but optional.

Started by former ATL artistic director Jon Jory (son of actor Victor Jory) in 1976, the Humana Festival quickly achieved national recognition via a 1978 Pulitzer Prize awarded to D.L. Coburn's The Gin Game. A second Pulitzer followed in 1981 for Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart, and a third came in 2000 for Donald Margulies' Dinner with Friends, produced at Humana in 1998. Also in 2000, Jory turned over the reins to Marc Masterson, veteran producing director of Pittsburgh's City Theatre. (Five years into his Louisville tenure, Masterson looks younger and more fit now; obviously, this job agrees with him!)

Plays and playwrights discovered at or fostered by the HF include Marsha Norman's Getting Out (1978), John Pielmeier's Agnes of God (1980), and 2005 Pulitzer winner John Patrick Shanley's Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (1984). There was also Jane Martin's 1982 collection of monologues, Talking With, the first of numerous productions by the never-seen playwright who is rumored to actually be Jory. Martin (Jory?) also won a Pulitzer nod for Keely and Du in 1993. The Humana Festival has nurtured and maintained relationships with such other playwrights as Lee Blessing, Charles Mee, Anne Bogart, William Mastrosimone, Naomi Wallace, Naomi Iizuka, and José Rivera. Most of these names are also familiar to New York audiences, as are 90% of this year's playwrights.

Every Spring, ATL is the theater place to be, and the connections made here are far reaching. Just ask Todd London, artistic director of America's oldest non-profit center for the development of playwrights: New Dramatists (ND), located in New York. "We make space and time for writers to work and develop their work. Then I come down here to see plays that we've help nurture get the full productions they deserve." Since the festival's inception in 1949, more than 500 playwrights have participated, from William Inge, Paddy Chayevsky, and John Guare to the Wilsons -- Lanford, August, and Erin Cressida.

This year, several ND alumni were represented at the Humana Fest, including Dresser, Belluso, Kia Corthron, and Carlyle Brown. "One year," London said with a grin, "Five of the seven playwrights were all from New Dramatists, and our actors and directors also come to Louisville." Director Marion McClintock and cast members Tamilla Woodard and Brenda Thomas were all part of the original ND workshop of Corthron's play, Moot the Messenger. I had the opportunity to chat with Corthron and several other HF playwrights about their works.

********************

Tamilla Woodard and Erik LaRay Harveyin Moot the Messenger(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
Tamilla Woodard and Erik LaRay Harvey
in Moot the Messenger
(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
Kia Corthron, Moot the Messenger

"Moot was my graduate play from ND," Corthron readily admitted. "I had a full seven-year residency, so it was a little like leaving home. We live in political times," she went on, "and I'm drawn to political issues and images. I was also down here in 2003 with Slide Glide the Slippery Slope [about cloning]. Marion and I have also worked together several times before. The Humana's location plays a very important part in this process for me. Seeing the play here, I didn't feel I was preaching to the converted. In fact, at the preview, about 10 or 12 right-wingers got up and left, although everybody stayed on opening night."

Corthron was one of six American playwrights -- including Tony Kushner -- who traveled together to the Middle East in September, 2002. On that trip, she first met current cast member Sami Metwasi, co-founder of the INAD, Southern Palestine's first professional theater.


John Belluso, A Nervous Smile
The central figure of A Nervous Smile never appears onstage, but her wheelchair does. This intermissionless, 90-minute play follows Belluso's self-proclaimed mandate to put both the experiences and the politics -- i.e., HMOs -- of disability on stage. Never maudlin or preachy, Belluso uses sly humor to get his points across. But in Smile, based on a true story, he and director David Esbjornson (the ubiquitous new artistic director of Seattle Rep) presented problems encountered by caretakers of the disabled while offering a shocking denouement.

"I have another play dealing with care-takers that we're about to do at the Magic in San Francisco," Belluso told me, "but they're a working-class father and daughter, while the couple in Smile are affluent New Yorkers. I went to NYU and then stayed for 10 years," continued the Rhode Island native, who's currently living in Los Angeles and writing for such television series as Deadwood and Eyes.

This is Belluso's second year at the Humana Festival. "Part of the experience has been to bring new work to the same stages where all those other plays were performed. It's a great legacy. I find Humana humbling, exciting, scary and wonderful, all at the same time," concluded Belluso, who has three different plays currently being produced in three different states in just two months. "For me, working in the theater is such a gift, plus I get to see so many different parts of the country."


Kathleen Tolan, Memory House

Even Memory House, a play about a mother and her adopted daughter veers into politics in that the daughter came from a Russian orphanage. "I'm fascinated by the intersection of adoptive mother and adopted daughter in general," Tolan explained. "It's a wonderfully complex relationship on so many levels, and then you factor in a rich nation and a poor one."

Tolan's first play -- A Weekend Near Madison, directed by Emily Mann -- premiered at Humana '83 under Jon Jory. Her latest, Memory House, is a prime example of the current movement and changes within regional and New York theaters. It was originally commissioned by Oskar Eustis (now helming New York's Public Theater) when he was the AD of Trinity Rep in Rhode Island and is already scheduled for a New York production to be directed at Playwrights Horizons by the peripatetic Esbjornson, former AD of New York's Classic Stage Company.


Carlyle Brown, Pure Confidence

This story of one of hundreds of African-American slaves who became jockeys is pure American history. The first five Kentucky Derbies were won by former slaves riding as jockeys; playwright Brown's Simon Cato is the best jockey in the South (or anywhere), but he can't buy his freedom and still ride as a jockey. Talk about a perfect topic for a Louisville play!

The Minneapolis-based Brown (The African Company Presents Richard III) revealed, "I never planned to write historical plays, but I do use history as a metaphor." He and his director, Clinton Turner Davis -- both Humana first-timers -- talked about creating the race courses and plantations that set the scene for Brown's funny yet touching story. "The play's already scheduled to be done next year at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, which originally commissioned it," Brown told me.


Kathleen Butler and Geraldine Librandiin The Shaker Chair(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
Kathleen Butler and Geraldine Librandi
in The Shaker Chair
(Photo © Harlan Taylor)
Adam Bock, The Shaker Chair

Bock explained, "I asked for a hallway and a couple of chairs," which is why the huge stage of the Pamela Brown Theatre was otherwise totally devoid of furniture. "Of course," Bock added, "first the actors had to get used to having no furniture to hide behind. The Shaker Chair was originally commissioned by New York's Playwrights Horizons, but when there was no room in their season, it was released and I sent it down to ATL. Fortunately, Marc wanted to direct it himself."

The play deals with environmental issues, plus ageism and political activism. One local Louisville reviewer wrote, "[Bock] reveals his admiration for the wisdom and strengths of older women." A native of Montreal, Bock told me, "I grew up with an activist mom and aunt, and I myself got very involved in gay rights stuff with Act-Up."

********************

"Was the political tone of this year's Humana Fest intentional?" That question elicited a wide grin from Marc Masterson. "Every year, you journalists try to find the 'themes of the festival,' and every year I say there aren't any, but obviously I can't say that this time. The theater has always played a role in the culture of a country; we specifically commissioned Kia, John, and Carlyle, knowing that they would definitely give us plays filled with ideas about who we are and how we got that way. This year's writers are posing big questions about trust and responsibility."

Although first Jory and now Masterson have always insisted that potential transfers have never been a conscious factor in choosing plays for the festival, from the very beginning, HF plays found their way not only to regional theaters but to Broadway and Off-Broadway stages. Two works from 2002, Marlane Meyer's The Mystery of Attraction and Adam Rapp's Finer Noble Gases, played Off-Broadway last season. The 2003 Pulitzer finalist Omnium Gatherum, by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros and Theresa Rebeck, arrived just a few months after its Louisville premiere. Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley (2004) just ended its extended run at the Vineyard Theatre and picked up a Lucille Lortel nomination as "Outstanding Play."

Of course, it can sometimes take a while for plays to get here; Richard Kalonoski's Beast on the Moon, opening April 27 at the Century Center, was favorably reviewed at Humana by Ben Brantley in 1995 and has already won 40 awards in 17 countries. By comparison, the 2005 Humana Fest feels like an express train to NYC. As mentioned, Kathleen Tolan's Memory House will be seen later this month at Playwrights Horizons, starring Dianne Wiest (for whom it was originally written), while Tolan's translation of Marivaux's The False Servant, directed by Brian Kulick, started previews at CSC on March 30.

The Thugs, the latest from Adam Bock (Shaker Chair), will be workshopped at the Vineyard this month. Bock is also one of more than 30 writers, composers, and lyricists involved in The Transport Group's current production, The Audience, an original musical extravaganza with a cast of more than 40; it's running at the Connelly Theatre through April 23. John Belluso returns for his second New York production since Pyretown in January at Urban Stages: His Henry Flamethrowa, starring Tim Daly, is being produced next month at Dante's Studio, Michael Imperioli's classy little theater in Chelsea.

Finally, in a neat turnaround, Allison Moore's Hazard County has already had a showcase production at the 14th Street Y Theatre. This fact-based dramedy revolves around the impact -- real or imagined -- of television's The Dukes of Hazzard on contemporary race relations in Southwest Kentucky. Sure feels like a Louisville/NYC connection to me!


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