LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The 2013 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville ended a month ago, but its impact will be felt at other festivals and theaters long after living moments there are just memories. Of course, that opinion is a fairly safe one since the springtime theatrical conclave near the south bank of the Ohio River that draws theatergoers, artists and journalists from around the globe has had a profound impact on the theater world for nearly four decades.
As always there are plays that are embraced by many in attendance – some go on to lengthy and sometimes lauded theatrical lives (from Agnes of God, The Gin Game and Crimes of the Heart to Dinner With Friends, Omnium-Gatherum, Becky Shaw and beyond there have been several jewels that received full-production polish at the Humana) – while others will sadly have their fifteen Warhol minutes and be discarded by all but their most fervent followers. No matter what one thinks of a particular show’s story and its dramatic effectiveness, though, as a witness to several Humana offerings through the years it’s not hyperbole for me to write that the overall quality of production values and performances has been consistently high.
“I think it’s a rare achievement to be able to consistently do it, and once you’ve got a reputation for that it does become harder,” says Artistic Director Les Waters. “The festival is 37 years now…and sometimes you’re under the burden of history where people will say, ‘But actually the best was from ’85 to ‘92’ and it wasn’t necessarily true.
“It’s a blessing to have that great history…but sometimes memory can fail. What is most important now is the work we’re doing and the paths we take in the future.”
A WONDERFUL MIXED BAG
A wonderful mixed bag of established and upcoming playwrights, directors, designers and other theater practitioners produced another broad Humana slate. As is typically the case at each festival there was apparent consensus about some offerings: I agree with some of my journalism colleagues and others that felt Sam Marks’ The Delling Shore – where the actors were game but the story was in part undermined by a game where the winners and losers were telegraphed well in advance – was essentially a warmed-over variation on humans behaving badly that Yasmina Reza does much better in Art and God of Carnage; I also agreed with those that felt terrific performances by Jordan Baker and her colleagues in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Arkansas-set family drama Appropriate couldn’t cover for a second act where too many dramatic explosions obliterate the play’s focus.
Mallery Avidon provided an 80-minute treat that was the theatrical equivalent of Neapolitan ice cream – three flavors – with her O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you. A lecture, a satsang meditation and a movie set frame the proceedings; Avidon’s sharp observations and engaging performances by Rebecca Hart, Khrystyne Haje and their cast mates provided the final ingredients for a pleasant experience.
What’s it been like for Waters, a theater veteran but recent addition to the ATL family? “Often theaters in a season might present two new plays,” he notes. “Here we present six or seven new plays right at the end of a season. It is hard work and the staff are remarkable.
“There’s an extraordinary team here that among so many incredible people includes Meredith McDonough, who’s a former student of mine at (the University of California-San Diego) and is now the associate artistic director; the literary department (headed by Director Amy Wegener) is wonderful and (Associate Director) Zan Sawyer-Dailey, who’s been here a long while and knows how this machine works.
“It’s been a big, exciting and exhausting year…a first season, a first Humana, (a New Voices Young Playwrights Festival that was held in April) and then a 50th anniversary season, one after another after another, and that’s demanding. Sometimes it feels like standing on a beach looking out at the ocean and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s a big wave,’ and then as it gets closer thinking, ‘My Lord, that’s a tsunami!’ But ultimately it’s good.”
ESTABLISHED AND UPCOMING
There are many examples each year of the balance the Humana Festival strikes between newcomers and veterans. One staple that brings both together is the showcase that features ATL’s apprentices and interns; this year works by Rinne Groff, Anne Washburn and Lucas Hnath under the umbrella title Sleep Rock Thy Brain gave them a chance to shine.
Perhaps the best example of established and upcoming at the 2013 festival was provided by playwrights Will Eno and Jeff Augustin. Eno, 47, has written a host of superlative works that include The Flu Season, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist Thom Pain (based on nothing), The Realistic Joneses, Title and Deed and Middletown ; Augustin, 20 years Eno’s junior, is a 2011 Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award winner that has been writing plays while pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of California-San Diego.
THE SUBLIME AND THE RIDICULOUS
Eno’s Gnit is, to borrow from the title page of its script, a “rough translation of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Ibsen turned his 1867 dramatic poem based on a Norwegian fairy tale into a five-act 1876 play that many theater lovers have heard of but few in recent decades have actually seen because of its length, multiple locales (including Norway, Morocco and Egypt), obscure philosophical ideas and many monologues.
“I’ve been kicking it around for a very long time. No one asked me to do this, which surprises some people since it’s certainly not an uncommon thing for a theater to ask someone to adapt a classic,” says Eno. “I think there are people who find it strange that I undertook this for my own silly reasons.”
And what were those reasons? “There was something I really loved about the play and there was something that really irked me – maybe there’s a stronger word than “irked” for how I felt – about it.
“Peer Gynt is a story about a guy’s search for himself. It’s a very long play with a lot of fantastical things based on ancient troll myths, and all sorts of fanciful things,” Eno explains. “…It has not sat on the stage quite neatly in some way – that’s one reason I wanted to do this – and also the fact that I felt from reading it many times in many versions that it had mistakenly been absorbed into the culture as a glorification of the search for the self and a glorification for finding ‘authenticity in yourself.’”
Eno’s take on Peer Gynt led to such notable changes as cutting the decidedly troubling button-molder featured in Ibsen’s Act V. “I had some serious troubles with how the play ends since it ends on a note of menace,” the playwright adds, “but then there’s also a real sense of forgiveness, uplift and hope. I tried to address those things in Gnit.”
His witty writing, Waters’ imaginative direction, Antje Ellermann’s striking set design and other elements combined with a first-rate cast led by Dan Waller as Peter and Linda Kimbrough as his mother made Gnit a marvel to watch. It’s hard for me to imagine anyone topping the overall effort of this production in subsequent revivals, but I certainly hope plenty try; Eno’s adaptation is a thoroughly entertaining look at the sublime and the ridiculous aspects of human interaction.
FINDING JOY IN SORROW
Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom looks at life under the stamp of oppression. That’s not to say the play itself is oppressive, though – in fact it’s a lyrical and lovely creation that owes much to the young playwright’s family.
He is the youngest of seven children, the last two of whom were born in the United States. His mother was born in Haiti a year before François “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power – he was elected President in 1957 before becoming “President for Life” from 1964 until his death in 1971 – and left her beloved land well into the autocratic reign of his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (which ended with a popular uprising in 1986).
“Growing up in Miami I heard these tragic stories,” Augustin says, “but I also heard my mother and grandmother speak of Haiti in romanticized ways that showed their great love for their country. …I became fascinated with this idea of ‘What forces us to leave and what forces us to stay?’ I wanted the play to look at people fleeing and why they wanted to leave, but I also wanted to look at the beauty of the country and why it’s worth staying and fighting for the nation you love.”
While working on this play a lot of Augustin’s research understandably involved calling his mother. Those discussions at times were very specific, and they provided insights that aided him and those who would later see Cry Old Kingdom. “One time I called her and said, ‘Let’s talk about soccer. What was your favorite soccer team?’ And she told me about certain teams meant to people there…it was one of those details I needed to complete the story.”
His mother got to see the play in Louisville. “Sitting next to her was amazing,” Augustin recalls. “Watching her react to moments as no one else did – when you write a play that’s so steeped in history it’s terrifying to have someone in the room that actually lived it. You want to get it right…and it was nice to see her nodding as she watched and get the feeling that this had a very personal resonance for her.”
We meet three people in the fear-filled Haiti of 1964: Edwin (Andy Lucien), an artist believed by many to be dead at the hands of the regime; his desperately hopeful wife Judith (Natalie Paul); and a young man name Henri (Jonathan Majors) who will do anything to escape Duvalier and his paramilitary Tonton Macoute henchmen to make a new start in the USA.
“People did things they never imagined they’d be forced to do….it’s tragic for all. Their choices weren’t good choices but under the system they were living in those were all the choices they had,” Augustin says. “If there’s anything anyone walks away with at the end of this play I hope it’s the idea that you need to live.
“You have to find the possibilities, and the light, no matter how dark things are around you. No matter how difficult if you don’t find those moments to laugh, to dance, to be joyous, then life can be crushing.”
The aforementioned actors, well-paced direction by Tom Dugdale and Augustin’s compassionate and insightful composition make Cry Old Kingdom one of the most emotionally powerful experiences I’ve ever had at a Humana Festival play. In finding joy in sorrow Augustin’s labor of love is a story specific in its setting and characters but universal in its humanity – in other words, drama that resonates far beyond a time or place.
And what Augustin feels about his Humana Festival experience this year echoes statements made by participants and patrons that witnessed it or past editions of this remarkable annual event. “It’s like a dream come true. I’m trying to take a step back and fully take it all in. Les and everyone (at ATL) have been incredibly supportive and amazing. And this city is fantastic…a vibrant community where you want and need to do theater.”
For more information on the Humana Festival of New American Plays and Actors Theater of Louisville please visit actorstheatre.org.
*Photos including those by Brett Marshall, Kathy Preher, Alan Simons and Hunter Wilson from productions of Appropriate, O Guru Guru Guru, Gnit, Cry Old Kingdom and of Les Waters courtesy Actors Theatre of Louisville.