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The Humana Festival: 2004
Charles Whaley

This year’s 28th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville produced a bumper crop of worthy offerings. Of the festival’s six full-length plays--all but one of them by women--this reviewer found four to be outstanding:

--Gina Gionfriddo’s After Ashley, a caustic, surprisingly humorous look at how today’s media culture turns personal tragedies into public circuses for profit and other gains. A son’s horrified response to the rape and murder of his 35-year-old hippie mother by a homeless schizophrenic man hired to do yard work by his touchy-feely father sets the stage for the playwright’s mesmerizing treatment. It’s unforgettable.

--Rinne Groff’s The Ruby Sunrise, an absorbing, thought-provoking drama about a young girl’s attempt to invent the first all-electrical television system coupled with follow-up episodes 25 years later in a Manhattan TV studio. Oskar Eustis, artistic director at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R. I., directed the show in a joint production that will move to Trinity after its post-festival run in Louisville. Four Trinity company members, including the riveting Anne Scurria in dual roles as a hard-drinking farm wife and an old-time diva, play major roles.

--Naomi Iizuka’s At the Vanishing Point, a marvelously evocative paean to Louisville’s historic Butchertown neighborhood and the people who worked in its stockyards, meatpacking plants, and distilleries. The site-specific play was performed in an industrial warehouse in the heart of the area.

--Kirsten Greenidge’s cheeky Sans-culottes in the Promised Land, a satirical and disturbing foray into the home life of an overachieving black couple, their "yearning to be white" young daughter, and the blacks who staff their mansion in an otherwise white section. Greenidge takes George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum to a devastating new level.

The other full-length play by a woman, Melanie Marnich, the monotonous Tallgrass Gothic, was made a bit more interesting by knowing that its inspiration was Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s 17th century Jacobean drama, The Changeling. Scenic designer Paul Owen’s eye-catching set of high grass in an open field, reminiscent of a similar set in London and New York for British playwright Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, helped make all the lust in the Great Plains dust tolerable as did the striking performance of Tonya Cornelisse as the heroine’s beer-guzzling friend with a long repressed yen for her.

Jordan Harrison’s Kid-Simple, a Radio Play in the Flesh, was the festival’s low and extremely irritating point, though it had some admirers who may have been thinking back to their own childhood fantasies. It came off as a staged comic book about a quest for a stolen machine invented by a know-it-all teenage girl. Said miraculous machine was designed to hear sounds that can’t be heard, such as toenails growing on field mice, the sound of a broken heart, and schoolroom sounds pulled out of a blackboard. It’s a time-waster with great stretches performed in the dark as odd voices mutter unintelligible things.

Running through three of the plays--After Ashley, The Ruby Sunrise, and even Kid-Simple--are biting and dead-on critiques of media today with its catering to low tastes, its lack of seriouness, and its abandonment of the promise so eloquently expressed in The Ruby Sunrise: "Television’s gonna change people. Make a whole different world where people can see the world right in their own home. News, and sports, and culture. We’ll get pictures of people from all over the world, and when we see their faces, we"ll understand them better. All our differences will be settled around tables, instead of going to war. Television will be the end of war ‘cause who could bear it? Who could bear to see war right in your own living room?"

Media also figured in two of the four (all by men) 10-minute plays in the festival: Vincent Delaney’s Kuwait" in which a female correspondent for The New York Times is captured by U.S. soldiers after trespassing in a combat zone during the Gulf War, and in Steven Dietz’s The Spot, about filming phony and ludicrous TV testimonials for a political campaign. (I lost count of how many times The New York Times was mentioned in festival plays this year. Is this some trend?)

Dan Dietz’s A Bone Close to My Brain was a monologue about sacrifices for brotherly love, and Craig Wright’s Foul Territory was a one-joke exercise in which foul balls keep hitting a spectator at a baseball game.

The festival’s annual dramatic anthology to showcase its Apprentice Company was a mix-and-match collaboration on ethics by four playwrights. Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt, and John Walch started separate story lines for four short works for which the others in turn created other scenes.

Wake God’s Man dealt with the memorial service for a priest who had molested three sisters as children. Union was about labor strife. In This House had a childless couple making arrangements with a surrogate mother. The Mating Habits of the Sage Grouse was a trivial piece on dating and sex rituals among young people. In this one Pirronne Yousefzadeh made a strong impression as Danielle, talked into going on a blind date while suffering from a cold.

Editor's Note: The Festival comes and goes all too fast but the plays presented tend to leave lasting footprints, as attested to by some facts from the festival web site :
Over 300 Humana Festival plays have been produced, including full-lengths, one-acts, monologues, T(ext) shirt and car plays, representing the work of 206 playwrights.

Over three-fourths of the Humana Festival plays have been published in 17 Actors Theatre anthologies as well as individual acting editions, making them now part of the permanent canon of American dramatic literature. . . . Three Humana Festival plays have won the Pulitzer Prize: D. L. Coburn's The Gin Game, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart and Donald Margulies' Dinner With Friends. Keely and Du by Jane Martin was a finalist.

Five Humana Festival plays have won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize: How to Say Goodbye by Mary Gallagher, My Sister in this House by Wendy Kesselman, A Narrow Bed by Ellen McLaughlin, My Left Breast by Susan Miller, One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace. Nine others have been finalists.

Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories won the Pen Center USA West Award and Bridget Carpenter’s The Faculty Room won the Kesselring Prize for playwrighting.

Six Humana Festival plays have won the American Theatre Critics Award: 2 by Romulus Linney, Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies, Talking With by Jane Martin, Keely and Du by Jane Martin, Jack and Jill by Jane Martin, Getting Out by Marsha Norman.

Four Humana Festival plays have won the Obie Award: Slavs! by Tony Kushner, My Left Breast by Susan Miller, Marisol by José Rivera, One Flea Spare by Naomi Wallace.
Humana Festival Report--2001
Humana Festival Report--2002
Humana Festival Report--2003
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