When it is March in Louisville, critics, directors, actors, theater enthusiasts, and even first-timers congregate with anticipation (and lots of wine and coffee) for a time-honored ritual of our national theatre scene: the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Subtly engaging with traditions of American dramatic form and narrative, new plays are the postmark of how we define and probe our oldest ritual: live storytelling. In the hustle and bustle of the Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2016 Humana Festival, sponsored by the Humana foundation, six exciting new pieces came to life: Cardboard Piano by Hansol Jung directed by Leigh Silverman, Residence by Laura Jacqmin directed by Hal Brooks, For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday by Sarah Ruhl directed by Les Waters, This Random World by Steven Dietz directed by Meredith McDonough, Wellesley Girl by Brendan Pelsue directed by Lee Sunday Evans, and Wondrous Strange by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park and Jen Silverman, directed by Marti Lyons.
From questions of faith and survival, from a post-apocalyptic water crisis to a young love, from the nuanced pangs of death to the birth of new life— Humana’s lineup proves a diverse and invigorating mix. “I suppose it’s to do with urgency- that you feel that somebody is writing something with a real necessity” says Artistic Director and theatre legend Les Waters about curating this Humana season “Something really vital is being written about this particular period in which we live.” In this, the 40th season of the festival, running from March 2nd to April 10th, the creative team gathered some of the most innovative US voices in playwriting today. Various pens, from that of the seasoned MacArthur award-winning Sarah Ruhl to the one belonging to up and coming Yale MFA student Brendan Pelsue, inscribe a variety of stories from the present and the past, but always in relation to our American moment today.
How does one take in a new play? “You just have to open up and get on its journey” according to Waters. From his last journey with BAM-bound Glory of the World to his direction of For Peter Pan, Waters surprises his audience with everything from live animals to leaf blowers onstage. What could sound like a gag becomes a critical poetic gesture in Water’s pieces. He is a legend globally for his innovative work. As the Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, which hosts the Humana festival, Waters, along with his brilliant associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough and a team of literary, educational and managerial minds reads “somewhere between 500 and 600 plays” in order to choose the lineup. “The big read usually starts in mid May to June and may go through October” Waters told me, adding that “if you read a play in early June and you like it and it sticks with you for a very long while then that’s something special.”
My journey with the festival began with the vivacious and witty Steven Dietz. His play, This Random World is a sharply directed rhythmic whirlwind of missed connections that ranges from the intimate to the otherworldly while continuing to ask the question “what if?” Charming performances by Brenda Waters as a secretive aging globetrotter and Deonna Bouye as Rhonda, a funeral parlor attendant, ground the show’s wild premise in simplicity and feeling. Although the pieces of This Random World never shake the audience to a passionate fervor, the play’s gentle invitation to question our unknown losses drapes a subtle melancholy over both the breadth of the possibilities missed and the sanctity of what hasn’t been lost.
In Jacqmin’s Residence, the gorgeous set design (by the lauded Daniel Zimmerman) invites us into the cold affair of long-term business travel and the intimate vulnerability posed by a new community. While dealing with fresh wounds and mistakes, Residence implies that sanity, in its vast array is a question of both social and economic constructs. The identities of parent, of businessperson, of student and of client are all examined. The frightening complexity of a multifaceted, imperfect human in any of these roles gets prodded beyond its thresholds into a slow burn.
Cardboard Piano is an incredible work by Hansol Jung that begins in a church with questions of love, faith and forgiveness and then—after everything breaks—returns to the same church, now soaked in the blood underneath those questions, fifteen years later. With electric performances and the loaded premise of queer love in war-torn Northern Uganda, this smart new piece brings empathy and wit to stakes that seem untouchable yet urgently have to be grappled with. As the only piece in the festival with three non-American protagonists, Cardboard Piano reminded festival goers that we are a nation of predominantly international stories built on a history of immigration and civil war. It reminded us also that we are in a globally interdependent moment of climate change and crossover amidst technological innovation, and that boundaries and identity—even within the national—have become more and more liminal spaces.
Wellesley Girl by Brendan Pelsue echoes and expands on this notion by questioning the relation of time to national identity. As directed by Lee Sunday Evans, it proved to be one of my personal favorites from this year’s festival. Almost too relevant today to have been written even eight months ago, the play is set in Weston, Massachusetts circa 2465 C.E. Two members of congress—one of whom resembles a certain “spectacular” current Republican presidential candidate—debate a plan to venture outside their gated suburb in order to confront the problem posed by potentially poisoned water. The impending sense of doom reflects both Flint’s current water crisis and the larger question of immigration reform, leaving the audience with a witty, disarming post-apocalyptic drama that’s radically charged with the issues of our current moment.
Lastly, Sarah Ruhl’s For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, directed with panache by the incomparable Les Waters, shines with a uniquely subtle grace among its urgently charged peers. Sarah Ruhl is a master of coaxing secret tears of both melancholy and joy from her audiences, and this play was no exception. A family gathers to prepare for the passing of their patriarch and Ann (Kathleen Chalfant) recalls her moments of glory onstage as the imp who wouldn’t grow up. Slowly and carefully, surprises and heart-jerking moments of Brechtian brilliance meet the audience at every turn amidst filial discourse, remembrances and revelry.
“We have a real belief, “ said McDonough of the Humana approach “if you are going to give something its premier you should give it the best premiere it can have.” This year’s program proved exceptional. Because of not only its main stage shows, but also the many soirees, panel discussions and more that Humana offers, the experience of taking in the entire festival can involve one in a communal transcendence that ultimately brings participants back down to a richer earth. Concocted in an ethereal tradition shared between audience and storyteller alike, this year’s plays gently opened, tinkered with, reinvigorated, and expanded the form of American theater from within.
As evidenced by the roughly 37,000 people a year who come out each year, the festival’s programming elicits something akin to an interactive thrill ride of the imagination. Though Peter Pan may need fifty years to realize that she has, perhaps, grown up, the journey of Humana offers those from 19 to 92 who love storytelling something perfectly fantastic and as timeless as Neverland. I urge all theater lovers to book tickets for next year and to bask, between rounds of Kentucky biscuits and gravy, in the leading lights of the American theater.