Thursday, March 18, 2004

Humana takes risks

Louisville theater festival showcases trio of plays with sexual amorality, on-the-edge siting, and class conflict

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In a scene from Sans-culottes in the Promised Land are Kibibi Dillon (left) and Tamilla Woodard at the Humana Festival.

LOUISVILLE - The grass is tall and dry and wild and crowds the stage of Actors Theatre of Louisville's Pamela Brown Theatre.

The feeling is both of the wide open spaces of the prairie and the claustrophobia of knowing that you can run and run but there's no getting beyond this place.

Tallgrass Gothic is one of the opening entries in this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. Having viewed three of six of the festival's full-length plays, this 28th edition is looking like one of the strongest - and most pertinent - in years.

Somehow taking root between the tall grass of the title are a beat-up bench car seat, two short rows of church pews, a basic double mattress. Off to one side is sketched in the front door of a dilapidated farmhouse, to the other a section of old barn, perfect for chugging Buds, telling ghost stories and committing heinous acts.

On Paul Owens' superbly evocative set, the drama that unfolds is not so much gothic as Jacobean, ripe with sexual obsession, brutality, murder, vengeance.

What: The Humana Festival of New American Plays
When: Full-length plays performed in rotating repertory: At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka, tonight through April 4; Sans-culottes in the Pomised Land by Kirsten Greenidge, tonight through April 3; The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff, Thursday through April 10; Kid-Simple (a radio play in the flesh) by Jordan Harrison, Friday through April 4; After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo, Saturday through April 3; Tallgrass Gothic by Melanie Marnich, March 21-April 4.
Where: Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville. (At the Vanishing Point will be performed at 151 Cabel St. Shuttle transportation is provided from Actors Theatre of Louisville.)
Tickets: $20-$45, according to theater and performance day. Multiple ticket packages are available for selected weekends in March and April. (800) 428-5849;
Humana continues with full-length plays:

After Ashley by Gina Gionfriddo takes a hard look at victims and violence in the media today. "It often seems like TV crime shows are getting steadily more lurid and perverse," Gionfriddo has observed. "Reenactments interest me because they acknowledge entertainment value in violent crime, which is a weird, complicated idea for me."

Kid-Simple, a radio play in the flesh by Jordan Harrison is described as "part fairy tale, part meditation on the nature of sound" which "draws on everything from 1940s radio drama to B-movie adventures to contemporary literary criticism" to tell the story of a young girl who invents a machine that can hear beyond the human ear.

The Ruby Sunrise by Rinne Groff (author of last year's Orange Lemon Egg Canary) charts the development of television, from the idealism of its early creators to the censorship and commercial compromises that marked its "Golden Age" in the 1950s.

Also playing: the anthology Fast and Loose (an ethical collaboration) in which playwrights Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt and John Walch address fundamental questions of human conduct; and a program of 10-minute plays by Dan Dietz, Craig Wright, Vincent Delaney and Steven Dietz.

Playwright (and one-time Cincinnatian) Melanie Marnich uses The Changeling from 1623 as source material for her entertainingly over-heated tale.

Gothic is nothing more or less than a riveting, richly detailed mood piece. Marnich, a past Humana winner for Quake, has always been terrific at snappy, smart-mouth dialogue, but what's wonderful here is the tension and atmosphere of entrapment that starts in Gothic's opening minutes and which is sustained to the bloody end.

Gothic centers on Laura (Lia Aprile is deliciously, unrepentantly selfish and sexual) who is unhappily married to a brutal husband and obsessed with another man. Both men want her; so does a scary/creepy itinerant. For that matter, so does her best girlfriend.

Everyone is unlikable, and the high emotions are over the top enough to make it easy for the audience to relish the blood and violence (Cincinnati's Drew Fracher is the fight director who orchestrates the near-rape bedrooms scenes) with no twinges of conscience. ATL artistic director Marc Masterson wrenches every drop of sweat the script has to give. Marnich couldn't ask for a better-directed production.

Site-specific theater

Over the past few years, Humana has been experimenting with all sorts of ways to get audiences to think of theater in new ways. There have been phone plays (the audience individually stood at a wall phone and eavesdropped on a conversation), there was even a play that had the (miniscule) audience watching from the back seat of a car while the performance played out in the front.

This year, the Festival finds success with the site-specific At the Vanishing Point by Naomi Iizuka, who has been represented at Humana several times (including Polaroid Stories, produced locally by Know Tribe) and who has had great acclaim most recently with 36 Views.

Point will probably never have a future life. It is a series of interweaving monologues about the Louisville neighborhood of Butchertown, and it's performed in a one-time auto body shop in the northeast side that earned its name as the home of slaughterhouses and meatpacking. But it does something very important - it reminds us all, no matter where we're from, of the importance of honoring our community, of remembering and repeating our stories.

You enter the Cabel Street "theater" through what was once a break room - linoleum covered floor, fluorescent lighting overhead, an old stove, a wall that has the remains of time cards.

Iizuka created Point's script from interviews with Louisville residents. The first person we meet (Bruce McKenzie) is an optician and amateur photographer who understands how the world around us is framed in the retina and who has a unique view of the world.

He sets the bare stage by telling us of the important people (Thomas Edison was, briefly, a Western Union telegraph operator) and the life-changing events (the flood of 1937, also the stuff of legend in Cincinnati). But it's just as important, he tells us, to understand our immediate world, to have a sense of place, to know that stockyard worker, the soldier, the girl in the school play who, over the course of a century or so, have, just by having lived, helped paint not merely a portrait but a living history of a place.

Les Waters, who directed Big Love into the talk of Humana a few years back, returns to expand the playing space beyond its concrete walls. The ensemble, playing multiple roles, is terrific.

Every community would be better for this kind of theatrical exploration. I hope Cincinnati has the opportunity to embark on one some day.

Nanny takes care of daughter

The most interesting thing about Kirsten Greenidge's Sans-culottes in the Promised Land is that, like Blue, currently at Playhouse in the Park, it centers on the African-American issue of class.

Both center on wealthy black families - and how the matriarch treats the disadvantaged who come into her sphere.

Blue is by far the better play. Greenidge is a young playwright and employs the A.D.D. writing style of remote-controlled television, lots of choppy little scenes - which could be the future of the theater for generations raised on constant commercial interruptions. But I'll continue to hope not.

Mom is always working deals and handing off all responsibilities for her precocious daughter to the nanny (hiding her dyslexia), the housekeeper (who has a little voodoo thing going), even the woman who tutors rich black kids in their African heritage once a week.

There's potentially incendiary material here: along with the observation that a big bank account brings on bad behavior (the kind rich folks of every ethnicity and nationality have indulged in since the beginning of civilization) there's the issue of the upwardly mobile black youngster.

The daughter (acting intern Kibibi Dillon steals the show) is fixated on lily white fairy tale heroines, Snow White in particular, reminding us that she has no role models from her own race. She has zilch interest in the extracurricular study of her roots and she's the next thing to a latchkey kid as both parents are way to busy for her. (Dad, who has a wandering eye, comes and goes in the house.)

Greenidge bounces along but still hasn't developed the craft to empower her ideas.

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