Lynda Gravatt and Kelly McAndrew in <em>Wellesley Girl</em> by Brendan Pelsue.

Cardboard Piano by Hansol Jung

“What happens when you’re confronted with a truth you’d tried to bury, and everything breaks?” asks Hansol Jung, author of Cardboard Piano in the 2016 Humana Festival of New Plays at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. Positing questions of faith, religion, forgiveness and absolution in a time of life-shattering violence, Jung’s use of theatricality and wit help restructure what we come to expect in American realism today. The slight, savvy calculations in Jung’s form—via two-character casting and temporal drag between acts—echo the shattered and rebuilt lives we see onstage.

“I think it is vital we produce plays that are not just (about) this country,” says Les Waters, Artistic director of the festival. Vital indeed, as Hansol Jung’s expertly crafted new work shows. Landing on the eve of the millennium (“We survived!” exclaims one of our protagonists ironically) the story begins in the heart of war-ravaged Northern Uganda. Two star crossed young lovers prepare for their secret marriage in a church till plans go awry—(sound familiar? Don’t get too comfortable…Jung explodes the Shakespearean trope into something transcendental.)

Directed with a vivid, serious eye by Leigh Silverman, hymns frame the action (along with a rather Brechtian gesture in casting) to give the audience a rich and complex lens into the scene. What is it to view gay children in a Christian church in a country where homosexuality is illegal from a theatre seat here, now in the American South?

Though some of the playfulness and warmth of the first scene felt slightly strained after such a loaded start, the grace and joy of the magnetic performance by Nike Kadri kept me hooked. Adiel and Ruth—the bright figures Kadri embodies—shine in simplicity and vivacity in what could easily become sweet or sentimental moments. Her romantic heroines always breathed fresh air into a loaded room with charisma and poise.

The writing—witty, playful, dangerous and graceful in the first act (exceptional lines of mistranslation and intimacy–“I am sexy when you speak my language” were moments of true delight)—soared. Jung’s craftsmanship, along with the actors’ performances, made Piano into a piece that will undoubtedly stay with me for years to come.

When we think there is no going on, Jung re-frames our lens and forces us—like her protagonist—to go on. Briana Pozner’s Christina who, at first felt slightly labored grew to great heights in her act two resurgence. It proved difficult to love this young white American woman without the sense of discomfort via pangs of imperialism bleeding into her unflinching lover’s will. A gratifying point landed when Pika (Jamar Williams) is offered a gesture of absolution by Christina to which he replies “It don’t understand why you have the power.” Christina’s response? “Me neither.” The position of volatility and maturation of Christina in act two, however, shed an interesting light on the unanswerable questions about growing up both as an ex-patriot and as a queer child in an intensely religious household.

In a notable performance Michael Luwoye managed to bring vibrant swagger, gentle insecurity and commanding grace to both his roles. He and Kadri were a gift to watch onstage together in the second act. Jamar Williams re-emerging in act two also solidified his engaging performance.

The swift- sometimes horrifying-surprises throughout the play kept me on the edge of my seat. It is evident that Korean-born Jung pens plays that set the bar high for both her collaborators and audiences without feigned inaccessibility. I can’t wait to see Piano make a west-coast debut. Keep your eye on this rising playwright star.

Residence by Laura Jacqmin

In Laura Jacqmin’s Residence new mom Maggie (an engaging Danielle Slavik) spends four weeks in an Arizona extended-stay hotel peddling sonogram machines. The irony? A medical bill debt incurred by her mental breakdown sparks the trip. Two of the employees at the hotel seem to be in difficult waters themselves. Though the play reveals itself slowly, Jacqmin’s deftly composed work touches almost too close to modern working-class home. The play aptly posits this question: when does the facade of meritocracy and the American dream break down and rear its racist, sexist, inhumane head? Answer—All. The. Time.

Other subtle, complex questions—about parenthood, student loans, identity, liberation and family—surface and bleed into the audience’s psyche. Jacqmin, together with director Hal Brooks, does not prescribe answers but weaves the work’s complex inquiries into a kind of hypnotic, acerbic blanket. With a gorgeous scenic design by Daniel Zimmerman, machinated minimalism, graceful transitions and simple human touches transport the audience into the liminal space of Residence.

Beyond the physical world—the exceptional performances allowed the complex headiness of the piece to be grounded in formidable heart. Bobby, the lovable stoner and hotel employee (played by the charismatic Alejandro Rodriguez) charmed the pants off of every woman in the room while still being haunted by the nuances of his paternal position. Theresa—the manager in training and full time graduate student—was played with richness by the magnetic Leah Karpel. She conducted the audience incidentally in their laughing, scoffing, sighing and wincing with uncanny grace. Avery Glymph stood out in an exceptional performance embodying multiple doctor-customers in a various sonogram sales situations. From the haughty to the horrified, Glymph brought clarity, spark and humanity to each of his unique physicians. Amelia Workman dazzled in one of the play’s pivotal moments and Slavick lead the pack with complexity and heart.

The commitment and nuanced storytelling of the ensemble as a whole in Residence kept me engaged for the long haul (the piece ran one hour and fifty five minutes with no-intermission.) Like many of its other Humana counterparts, Residence’s ensemble-driven ride felt provocative and enriching. Jacqmin is an invigorating and savvy voice in the American theatre and I look forward to more of her work onstage in the near future.

Wondrous Strange by Majok, Miroshnik, Park, and Silverman

Wondrous Strange by Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park and Jen Silverman, directed by Marti Lyons and featuring the Acting Apprentice Company provides a hodge-podge of playful hauntings. The acting apprentice company—a talented bunch of recent graduates enacted everything from ghostly brothers to sinister bonnet-wearing serial killers. Their joy and passion shines in this ghoulish romp. What a perfect way to end a day full of plays than with some cabaret-esque and occasionally disarming ghost stories. Written by multiple unique voices, the event’s mash-up of joyful and disturbing haunting, humor and hubris held its peaks and valleys. A particularly simple and outstanding piece of the co-written pie came in Majok’s The Watch Man (tactfully executed by Michael Brown) when one man alone onstage shares accounts of missing children and the crippling image of a small sinister personage perched in his left eye. The range of garish strobe light and blood splattering (not as tight as one might have hoped given the man doused in row one) to the incredible gestures of intimacy give us mini-peeks of lustful wanderings in the dangerous unknown. Performances as the multifaceted but relentlessly bro-y Ghost Bros (written by Silverman) were definitely notable, and the stubborn gentrifiers (in The Holler written by Miroshnik) held a special place in my late twenties heart. Lyons’ direction kept us onboard—especially noteworthy in a late night show—and gave us a few good jolts up the spine to boot.

For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday by Sarah Ruhl

Neverland—a place where “dreams are born” and “time is never planned”—sounds, in its description, uncannily like a theatre. In For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday, the unique brilliance of playwright Sarah Ruhl and shrewd playfulness of director Les Waters fly us into a space of memory. The action begins on the eve of a family’s loss and ends on an eve—years earlie—of a great family triumph. Pan has defeated Hook, but can she defeat time as well?

As brothers and sisters gather to remember their childhood, political tensions and mixed reminiscences arise. “…the play is a family drama and most family dramas reveal something…and this doesn’t do that—it very quietly subverts what we think is a family drama…” says Waters. With five siblings in a hospital the first act seems to offer the possibility of kitchen-sink tumult: who has betrayed whom, and in what earth-shaking way? Instead of treading on this quaking path, Ruhl takes a turn for the slightly more Beckett and slightly more sublime. She lifts us as gently and painfully as the humming of an EKG into the surreally human sensation of waiting. From marching bands to flying beds, the subtle and subversive moments of transcendence bring us all the more movingly back down to earth. I will say no more in case Santa Barbara takes on this beautiful new work at some point in its coming seasons.

Like Les Waters, whose Glory (which ran at BAM) featured large- scale mattress play and lipsyncs, Ruhl is known for her poetically charged theatrical imagery. As does any great author, she has accessed another unique palette with the world of this piece—inviting us to grasp the value of the ground we walk on till we must fly. With a brilliant cast of performers led by the immortal Kathleen Chalfant, both the rhetoric of family banter and gestures of metaphorical transcendence come with ease. Ron Crawford as the elder patriarch could melt even the most callous of hearts and Lisa Emery’s embodiment as the darling’s youngest hits frighteningly close to home. While this play is sure to have timeless legs and international acclaim, this production between the legendary Waters and Ruhl felt seminal. Images of resonance continue to dart through my mind like the lost Neverland of my own youth onstage. If the immortal imp croons that we must find it with our hearts—Ruhl and Waters did.

Wellesley Girl by Brendan Pelsue

Strong tones of a current political climate punctuate the fodder of most timeless dramas: everyday human life. In Wellesley Girl by Brendan Pelsue directed by Lee Sunday Evans, a divided nation must face a water crisis and threats of internal and external violence. Sound familiar? Well it takes place in a (apparently there may be more than one…) United States of 2465 CE where the adult population rests at around 460 people, all living around the suburbs of Massachusetts. One of the work’s most empathetic figures comes in the form of its least human: Hank, the robot husband, played beautifully by SITI company member and seasoned Humana Vet Barney O’ Hanlon. A debate with his wife, Garth (played solidly by Rachel Leslie), holds unexpected poignancy. Jeff Biehl gave a fantastic performance as the unbelievable “Scott”—working beautifully with Phillip Taratula and the potent Kelly McAndrew in the awkward spaces where the political meets the personal. Lynda Gravátt provided an excellent “Court” of one as well.

Pelsue’s voice singes with simple wit in action: decisions made by the post-apocalyptic supreme court of one, a marriage to a robot in crisis, and a new bombastic “political” leader constantly speaking out of turn. In a premise that could be filled with pedantic cynicism, Pelsue and Evans probe deeper. The first question that arises carves a path to another: what is “America” without sea to shining sea, without connection, without water? I will not give away the ending(s) but needless to say echoes of cases like Brittany Maynard’s arise.

This Random World by Steven Dietz

In Steven Dietz’s This Random World, one is reminded of—even in death—of just how close we all really are. The production’s unique pace, wit, and melancholy shined with deft direction from Meredith McDonough. Her rapid and consciously off-putting transitions kept the “missed connections” undertone of the work from losing its potency. Her simple mirror-like concept of the ground plans kept the composition engaging and the banter from ever feeling repetitive. My favorite scene was one that took place in a Japanese temple between a daughter and her mother’s caregiver—the pair having no idea of their relationship to one another. It illuminated Dietz’s ability to keep us tautly within his web of mis-matched characters. A smart, vigorously charged cast of performers crafted the unique shape of this theatrical world. Outstanding simplicity in performances by Beth Dixon, Deonna Bouye, Todd Lawson and Shirine Babb grounded the play while fun and painful scenes between Nate Miller, Brenda Withers and Renata Friedman reminded me all too much of how family and love are full of blind spots.


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