Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The 2007 Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville

I’d never been to the notable Humana Festival at the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), which staged its 31st season this year, but the roster of talented women playwrights presented under its auspices drew me to explore what I’d long heard was a hotbed of exciting new projects. Over March 24th and 25th, I saw five plays in two days and reveled in the intensity of the festival atmosphere. In between productions, actors from one show mingled in the lobbies with actors from another. Other spectators began to look familiar as we cycled our way through the productions. Performers could be spotted in the audiences for one another’s shows, watching carefully as they all plied their craft.

Last weekend was apparently the “professionals” weekend, when lots of dramaturgs and other staff from regional theatres and universities around the country descend on the festival to check out the wares. People wandered the spacious ATL facility with badges, and the air crackled with that very particular vibe of people who toil in the same field but don’t often get to spend face-time.

As an academic, I’m not considered a “professional” and enjoyed being on the festival’s fringes. For me, Humana felt like a lark, and I wasn’t disappointed by my luxurious weekend at spectator’s camp.

Here, in order of delight, is my round-up of the shows I saw.

Batch: An American Bachelor/ette Party Spectacle
conceived by Alice Tuan, Whit MacLaughlin, and New Paradise Labs

Alice Tuan’s plays stretch the proprieties of American morality. She stares in the face of all our taboos and preconceptions, and insists that we take a very close look along with her, staging a gaze so intense that everything we thought we knew begins to melt from its heat. Tuan received an MFA in playwrighting from Brown, where she studied with Paula Vogel. Vogel’s spirit of absurdity crossed with her enormity of heart and feeling also imbue Tuan’s work with verve and importance. This collaboration with Whit MacLaughlin and New Paradise Labs, a movement theatre company based in Philadelphia, sees Tuan’s words embellished by a rich physical style that literalizes the lines she crosses.

Batch was staged at The Connection, a gay bar several blocks from ATL, a sprawling two-story corner building with three different bars, video monitors of various sizes playing along the walls, a large lit dance floor graced by the ubiquitous disco ball, and of all things, a theatre in the back of the place borrowed for the occasion. I saw a 5:00 performance and wondered if later in the evening, spectators waded through crowds of dancing, drinking gay men to arrive at the theatre. Such an experience would only underline the complications of heterosexuality that Tuan and NPL viscerally engage.

But for the 5:00 show, we crossed an empty dance floor and wended our way through stale cigarette smoke and left over beer haze into the theatre, where we took seats at tables set in two tiers around a stage raised 10 feet above the floor. The square wooden empty playing space drew attention with its height and its emptiness until the first performer appeared through a square trap set upstage left. Four huge video screens hung from the theatre’s walls, surrounding the audience and the stage with visual images sometimes projected directly from cameras manipulated by actors, sometimes cut from stationary cameras around the theatre, and sometimes culled from video shot at other times, in other spaces.

Unlike some multi-media performances in which video seems a pretentious embellishment that distracts from the live performance, in Batch, video images made the truth tangible and mysterious, as spectators watched previously taped or projected simultaneous images interacting with live bodies. Sometimes, the images created a mirroring effect that extended a moment into infinite time and space; other times, the video images graced a scene with an echo of a poignant moment, or allowed us to focus on an actor’s reaction to a particular line or gesture. The projected images worked scenically, as well as thematically, to enhance the live spectacle Tuan, MacLaughlin, and the six performers created.

Batch takes on the pre-marriage rituals of bachelor and bachelorette parties, exposing the homosocial bonding that leaves actual marriage secondary to this “last chance” to play with same-sex friends. Batch revels in Dionysian rituals of abandon and celebration, in final flings of freedom. These parties, the play suggests, release something primal that (if we let it) would upend the socially sanctioned marriage pact. One of the play’s best jokes is that the “bride” and “groom” barely know one another and have neither kissed nor touched. Their estrangement presents a deft and cynical view of a contract that’s supposed to be sanctified and lasting, but the play’s poignancy lies in the rich familiarity and intimacy it finds in the pre-nup parties.

Tuan and MacLaughlin and company address the gendered dynamics of these affairs with incisive critical wit. The play is staged in two rounds—one for the “women” and one for the “men”—and finishes with a coda in which the bride and groom descend to an underworld (performed below the surface of the stage and projected out via a live video feed or, for all I know, prerecorded and projected). The first round presents the “women” in cherry red cocktail dresses of various cuts, each of whom enters from the mysterious trap door that serves, in true absurdist style, as the site of ideological manipulation and assistance throughout the play.

As each barefoot woman parades up to stage level, accompanied by a vaguely Asian-inflected cover of “The Look of Love,” it’s clear that several of them sport chest hair, beards, and tattoos. Three of the “women,” that is, are men. This cross-gender play goes without comment; the men perform femininity as sincerely (and as critically) as the women. Here on the actors’ live bodies, the constructions of gender blend as seamlessly as the projected video images, all calling into productive doubt what we consider “real.” Betsy Competitive, the “bride” (who looks like a young Meryl Streep), faints and vomits regularly throughout the bachelorette party, a running joke that somatizes her anxiety (and perhaps revulsion) about her pending wedding. None of the other people comment on her reaction; they just scoop her up and move her along.

This first scene establishes that Batch isn’t about what the characters say or even about who they are, but addresses instead something more fundamental, derived from what the performers do and how they relate to each other in the moment. I can’t recall much of the actual dialogue in Batch, but I do remember with stunning clarity visual moments of physical interaction among the performers that spoke expressively about relationships past, present, and future, and the wistfulness with which we move from one moment in our lives to another.

Batch is about liminality, about people poised on that threshold between one thing and another and the reluctance with which we step from the present into the future. The large square trap door emblematizes our constrained choices and yet provides creative ways of managing them. The single entrance to the stage means there’s only one way in or out, but how the performers get there varies with thrilling theatricality. I can’t divine the stage magic that produced these effects, but the performers variously seem to fly from the stage to the under-stage, appearing quickly to fall long distances (as their dresses and hair rise above them with a whoosh of movement); walk sedately down stairs lit from below as their faces glow and the red of their dresses deepens; and slide into what could be a deep abyss, hanging on with their fingernails as some unseen force propels them downward. Alternately, props and people appear from below at various speeds and in unusual positions. As in Slawomir Mrozek’s absurdist drama Tango (1964), the hand of the state seems to encroach on the scene—not from the wings, as in Tango, but from below—handing up props that ensnare the performers in the seductions of liquor and the detritus of the marriage ritual.

Round Two begins with video of a bachelor party in a hotel room, in which the six performers—again, male and female, but this time performing as men—drink to excess and enact the trashing, scatological, virility-boasting practices of male-bonding. When the live performers enter in blue shirts and black pants, the men’s breasts from Round One still poke noticeably through their shirts, and the female performers now wear codpieces that bulge through their slacks. All six play at masculinity, exaggerating and yet strangely humanizing the excesses of socially inscribed roles.

The “groom” is a slight man, still “en-breasted,” who suffers his friends’ intent to inebriate him out of his mind. Once the men liquor up appropriately, a parade of sexy visitors arrive to torment the drunken groom. The first, a platform shoe-wearing stripper dressed to resemble Marie Antoinette, is a tall apparition from another world. Suddenly, the stage is littered with money, bills that stick to the performers’ bare feet and hands, and that seem to stay glued wherever they land. The bills materialize the financial transactions of marriage and sex and capitalism’s deep reach into rituals of heterosexual becoming. The second sexy visitor is “Special K,” a balding man/woman dressed in a form-fitting green gown, who uses a microphone as a dildo, slithering up the groom’s prostrate body then straddling his chest to force the mike into his mouth. The scene is redolent with a homoeroticism that’s both as “natural” and as mediated as any heterosexual act.

In the third part of Batch, after the two gendered rounds, the bride and groom do finally get together and touch, as another version of “The Look of Love” plays in the background. Their interactions are surprisingly tender and moving, given the uproar of gender play and celebration that precedes their coupling. The other four performers, acting now as a chorus of satyrs, appear as non-gendered rams, half-person, half-animal creatures with furry leg-wear and boxing headgear and gloves, who usher the couple through the underworld of marriage.

Batch shifts tone for this last third, engaging more mythological, allusive references that entwine the couple in the plots of loss and longing and entrapment. They descend under the stage, where we watch them on video (whether taped or live isn’t clear, but only adds to the scene’s ethereal quality). They encounter a “Myclops,” whose all seeing, single round eye is located on her one exposed breast, crossing Homer’s race of giants with Sappho’s Amazons. They take tea, as if they’re at Alice’s party through the looking-glass.

Through the Myclop’s eye, the couple see their reflection and fall, Mulholland Drive-like, into an alternate reality in which, dressed finally in the wedding clothes that signal their union, they’re caught running up and down stairwells with locked doors, unable to escape steps that wind about like an Escher sketch. They find their way to the blank hallways of a hotel, but here, too, offers no means of escape.

Although in its last moments, Batch begins perhaps too obviously to speak its subtext, its final descent into myth and archetype is sincere, relevant, and primal. Marriage, after all, is one of western culture’s motivating mythologies, its foundation in property exchange and gendered servitude cloaked under modern veils of romance and destiny. Batch deconstructs this myth, reminding us of the primacy of friendship, the eroticism of our bonds with people we’ve often known much longer than our partners (the incidental queer moments are lovely, including a long, unexplained kiss between the bride and a girlfriend in Round One), and the lurking pitfalls of capitulating to an ideologically driven ritual that promises us adulthood but too often proves a dead end.

Tuan’s collaboration with MacLaughlin and his physical theatre troupe help punctuate her language with schematic, non-realistic yet fully embodied movement absolutely true to the play’s ideas. Each of the six performers’ commitment to their work grounds the experience in the moment and lets spectators understand them not as “characters,” and not as “types,” but as performers in the present of performance. They play out on their bodies various gender roles and variously gendered relationships. They seduce the audience with their willingness to experiment, rather than be entrapped themselves in the limitations of Western cultural dictates regarding bodies and their interactions, emotions and their effect. The performers’ physical and emotional precision, in which every gesture is indeed gestic and meaning-laden, brought Batch alive as a Brechtian experience drenched in thoughtful, heightened emotion.

When Something Wonderful Ends: A History, A One Woman, One Barbie Play
by Sherry Kramer

Kramer’s melancholy, elegiac meditation on her mother’s death and world affairs is a one-woman, 90-minute monologue in which “Sherry”—the character who represents the author onstage, played here by Lori Wilner—tours the audience through her collection of 1960s Barbie dolls, their wardrobe, and their boxes and packing cases that decorate the stage. Out of this simple premise, Kramer stages a intelligent, moving, even gripping analysis of the state of the nation as the American Dream “goes bad.” With acute political clarity (the “vivid clarity that comes after a death,” Sherry explains), Kramer argues that the last forty years of American foreign and domestic policy has revolved around safeguarding the country’s access to oil. Combining a left-oriented history lesson with an exhortation about environmentalism as one way to counter our reliance on the resource that corrupts the nation, Kramer requires the audience to listen to a progressive Jewish woman speak at the intersection of the personal and the political.

The autobiographical piece presents Sherry packing up the family home after her mother’s death. The occasion elicits Sherry’s memories, cherished and regretful, but her monologue addresses mostly her mother’s life, rather than the personal details of her own. Her musings connect world politics to the personal in ambivalent, contrary ways. Intermittently, Sherry shows an Inconvenient Truth-style slide show about the war in Iraq and more broadly about the “petrochemical regime” under which we live, moving in a Brechtian fashion between personal narrative and political analysis.

Speaking directly to the audience, she dresses and undresses her Barbie and Ken dolls, their little costumes pristine and valuable, and puts them in their original boxes and cases while she explains how and why they were manufactured and their complicity with petrochemicals (Barbie is, after all, made of plastic). Barbie’s “impossible proportions,” she relates, were meant to flatter the drape of her clothes, not to model, as the doll came to do, the inability of women’s bodies to conform to her ideal. Sherry rejects or resists what Barbie dolls stand for even while she recalls the pleasure of collecting and playing with them in the early 60s.

She makes room, in fact, for such ambivalence, also letting us know that she has no right to preach about the pervasiveness of petrochemicals, because despite her exhortation about greening ourselves away from our reliance on oil, she drives an SUV. None of us are pure, she suggests; all of us are implicated. But it’s how we come to terms with the dark side of the American Dream that matters. “When did we stop wanting a better world,” Sherry asks, surrounded by antique dolls that beckon her to a vision of gender and heterosexuality that was always constructed and idealized and as false as the righteous claims of politicians who were busy “regime-changing” in the Middle East to ensure the U.S. maintained its oil flow.

Sherry tells us that we need a consumable alternative to petroleum so that we can all get out of bed with the Saudis, but she doesn’t present pat answers. “We can count on greed to find solutions,” she says, indicting capitalism for the “river of fetish and greed that the internet made of the American Dream.” Her implicit plan is to reignite the longing for agency and for the belief that we need to honor a country that promised equality and democracy, rather than submitting to its current “deism,” the verticality of politics based in religious, rather than secular, faith.

Kramer puts Judaism front and center in Wonderful Ends, suggesting it’s an “upgrade in religion,” a kind of “God 2.0,” because with Judaism comes the end of “other worldliness” and a focus on the here and now. She describes carrying out Jewish rituals for the dead, and their loved-ones’ responsibility to honor and remember (although I must admit that I’ve never seen even reform Jews bring flowers to cemeteries as Sherry describes throughout the play. Usually, a visit to a grave is marked with a small rock or pebble, placed on top of the headstone). Religion, she says, “arranges the passage from living to dead”; this, she implies, is plenty. Religion shouldn’t also run countries. Her connection with these memorial rituals keep Sherry connected to something private (her mother) but also deeply public, which is the status of the nation she claims.

One of the ever-changing slides that provide the performance’s scenic décor reads, “I’ve been scared a long time,” again humanizing and personalizing without reducing or trivializing the impact of national policy and ideology. And yet Sherry leaves us hopeful, suggesting that “the miracle we do for our dead is save the world.”
I felt moved and stirred by this gesture of faith and idealism, and proud to hear this story told by a woman whose words and presence captivated the audience with her convincing, well-researched, politically progressive, and astute social and personal critique. She leaves enough room for ambivalence and ambiguity that the story doesn’t sound like a harangue, but a careful analysis and an exhortation to be, if anything, mindful of the contradictions and concessions we make in our own lives. The Barbies she’s collected were made to replicate the nuclear perfection of family and heterosexuality, but it’s clear that Sherry’s is not a domestically driven life. Seeing a woman command political issues, and hearing her interweave her story with personal musings and memories that aren’t about marriage and children provides a refreshing, pleasurable surprise. By the end of the performance, Sherry has neatly packed and stacked at the back the dolls and their clothes and boxes that cluttered stage, leaving our minds and our souls clear to take up Kramer’s challenge to change the world.

The Open Road Anthology, The As If Body Loop, and Strike-Slip

The other plays I saw at Humana less successfully provoked my emotions or my political or intellectual sympathies, although all were valiant attempts to say or do something new in the theatre. The Open Road Anthology was composed of short plays by a variety of playwrights and performed by ATL’s Apprentice Company. The plays linked thematically around the theme of travel and how it founds the American imagination, as well as the ways in which we find our identities by heading out toward a horizon of possibility that’s not always clearly defined. The piece is punctuated with music and songs—provided by the band GrooveLily, and often played by members of the cast—that give the performance a light, rollicking, wistful, always earnest attitude and tone.

A few of the best pieces capture the clarity of theme and character that short plays require. In Rolin Jones’s Ron Bobby had Too Big a Heart, the conventions of senior proms are upended when it’s clear that the girl wearing a blood-drenched dress has conspired to kill someone with her girlfriend. They hit the road, like Thelma and Louise, heading toward some reconfiguration of their dreams. In Ain’t Meat, by A. Rey Pamatmat, a Los Angelenos traveling across the country stops in a roadside diner for a meal, and is seduced with a series of double-entendres by his waiter. Their sweet gay encounter ends when the waiter yells at a waitress he calls “MethMom” that if she doesn’t shut up about their kissing, he’ll send her to be the only straight woman in West Hollywood so she can see how that feels.

Kia Corthron’s Trade puts two women on a New York subway, one wearing a black burka that covers her from head to toe, and the other a flighty barmaid recently arrived from LA. The LA woman chatters at the burka-wearing woman, projecting her vision of otherness and difference and a superficial understanding of politics in the Middle East. “We have lots of diversity in LA,” she says, “but everyone’s driving in their own car.” When the woman wearing the burka answers a cellphone, she’s revealed as an ordinary American who’s wearing the garment to stage a protest. At the end of the short scene, the two women trade clothes so that the woman from LA can see what it’s like to wear coverall garb.

In this very brief, funny play, Corthron crystallizes issues of identification and empathy that overshadow our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the politics of the Taliban, and the detentions at Guantanamo. The collection of short plays trades in standard American dramatic mythos and themes, but the diverse writers and performers twist the conventional into more fruitful, contemporary, and relevant insights, all with a patina of fun and sweetness.

Ken Weitzman’s As If Body Loop thematizes a similar American mythology through football metaphors, and like Wonderful Ends, centers on a Jewish family’s analysis of the politics of the moment. Aaron, Sara, and Glenn are siblings who’ve been deeply affected by traumas both personal and public, which the play unravels in two acts slightly tinted with magical realism. Aaron, the oldest, is a sportswriter with a bad stomach. Sara, the middle, is a social worker who comes down with a mysterious malady that drops her body temperature to 40 degrees and prompts her to repeat cryptic phrases about lists. Glenn, the youngest, breaks out in an unsightly rash when he leaves the house, condemning him to the company and teachings of his mother, who’s some sort of New Age healer.

Weitzman literalizes Antonio Damasio’s notion that when you see someone suffer, you suffer yourself, as a way to paint America post-9/11. Sara’s symptoms derive from her over-empathic sensitivities, which also produce unexplained earthquakes and snowfalls (not so subtle references to the World Trade Center towers crumbling on 9/11 and the ash that fell from the sky in Lower Manhattan). Only when Aaron takes on some of her felt responsibility does she begin to literally warm up and heal. The client with whom he connects is a black man who didn’t pick up his cell phone when his wife called him from the WTC that day, living out his grief through anger. Aaron uses a blocking sled—in a kind of football therapy—to help Martin get back on track.

Although the play’s ethnic politics have potential, the racial politics represent the rather tired cliché of a white man rescuing a black man. While As If is well-meant, it also suffers from tonal and generic confusion. Is this a comedy? A dramedy? A satire? Are we meant to laugh? Cry? Empathize? The characters aren’t drawn well enough to know; at this point, they remain the embodiments of symptoms, rather than fully fleshed out people whose suffering demands witnesses.

Least appealing and successful was Naomi Iizuka’s Strike-Slip, a failed attempt at a Crash-style episodic puzzle of a story of intersecting lives that feels forced and never rises above the obvious. This is surprising for a playwright whose other work—particularly the also episodic but much more theatrically interesting and insightful 36 Views—seems so sharp and sophisticated. Strike-Slip's resolutely domestic dramas center on three different families. A white couple buying an expensive house buries their disagreements and differences under the veneer of heterosexuality. But the man, a seismologist whose work lends the play its operative metaphors, is secretly gay and eventually comes out, leaving his crushed wife to adopt a baby from China by herself. A tyrannical, conservative father governs a motherless Korean family with a suffocating will, although he only wants the best for his first-generation American boy and girl. A righteous mother, who works as the real estate broker who sells the white folks their house, runs her fatherless Latina family, expecting great things from her teenaged son.

As the wheels of fate move, the Latino son has a relationship with the Korean daughter. When she gets pregnant, they marry and he leaves school to work as a mechanic. The Latina mother’s disappointment in her son’s relationship leads her to disown him, which she comes to regret, especially when she finds out she has breast cancer. The Korean son has a one-night stand with the closeted white man, who says he’ll call the kid but never does. The paranoid, trigger-happy Korean shop owning father murders a customer and winds up in jail. Incidental and yet central to all these relationships is a corrupt, undercover African American detective who winds up helping the young Latino/Korean couple to better their lives in a way that’s not exactly legal.

This deliberate, multicultural puzzle could have been interesting and relevant, but it feels forced and way too coincidental, unreal, and didactic. Playwright/director Chay Yew’s staging can’t overcome the very wide proscenium of this stage; he creates flat, uninteresting stage pictures. The unwieldy areas of domesticity and work don’t read as iconically as they should; each area is too isolated, which prevents the characters from careening into each other as they otherwise might. The direction needs more energy and focus; the pacing is deadly, the relationships only sketched. There’s no backstory to any of these characters; we don’t know why we should care about them, and we don’t. Their journeys are adumbrated and empty, and we learn nothing from the two hours we spend with them.

A “strike-slip” is geology’s term for what happens when tectonic plates move past each other. It refers to the unpredictability of earthquakes and to the existence of fault lines that no one knows are there. As such, it’s a neat dramatic metaphor, but Iizuka’s writing and the Humana production leaves the play with a prosaic surface, rather than truly plumbing the more complex potential of the depths to which the title refers.

All these plays are deeply “American,” in that they engage the rituals, conventions, and ideologies of the country and its place in the world. Some focus on individuals and their dreams and failures (As If Body Loop and Strike-Slip), others on the community and its responsibility to help us all live in the face of uncertainty (Batch, When Something Wonderful Ends, The Open Road Anthology). The “America” theatrically presented here is multi-racial and ethnic, sometimes queer, sometimes heterosexual, and offered from mixed gender perspectives in very productive ways.

Glad to have gone,
The Feminist Spectator


  1. Constance Congdon's Tales of the Lost Formicans: A comic play involving Alzheimer's, Adolescence, and Aliens. Nicu's Spoon Inc. is located in NY and features diverse casting.

  2. I love TALES OF THE LOST FORMICANS, and am glad to hear it's being revived. Congdon wrote one of the plays in the OPEN ROAD ANTHOLOGY at Humana. Thanks for the tip.

    Best, jd

  3. I also saw some of the plays at the Humana Festival. I was troubled at how playwright-centered the festival is, and how little notice, recognition and credit the actors receive for their hard work. Even your review of Sherry Kramer's play, for example, talks at great length about the ideas of the play, and all you say about the actor is that she played the part. I think she did an extraordinary job doing a solo piece that was dense and difficult, and dare I say would have been far less interesting in the hands of a less deft actress.

  4. Thanks for this comment, which is well taken. I do in fact notice actors' work in performance, but will take more care to comment directly on it in the future. I disagree with you, though, about the quality of the performance by the actor in Sherry Kramer's play. I actually thought she seemed quite remote from the material, and although she evoked appropriate emotion at the appropriate times in the piece, I was never convinced that she had a deep connection to its ideas or its history. Her performance seemed to me affectless. This could be because I know Sherry Kramer, the author/character, and could imagine her, for instance, performing the piece with a lot more verve and vigor than Laurie Wilner provided. In fact, Wilner had a family emergency that required her to miss a performance or two, and Sherry did indeed step in to perform. I would have liked to witness those performances. Thanks for your thought.