Humana Theater Festival Report
Santa Barbara’s Kate Bergstrom Saw Many New Plays in Louisville
The 41st annual Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actor’s Theatre of Louisville started with “crying it out” and ended with the assertion that “we’re going to be okay.” Those bookend titles accurately encompassed the wide range of funny, poignant and hard-hitting plays seen at the festival this year. With the impending demise of the National Endowment for the Arts potentially leading to the defunding of multitudes of artistic institutions, there was a loaded call to – as Molly Smith Metzler said — “ask the big questions” at this year’s festival. Artistic director Les Waters and Associate Director Meredith McDonough, along with their savvy team of associates, compiled an eclectic, moving collection of commissions and new works to be performed in rep on their three stages. Humana, according to Waters, is “always evolving according to the shows we have the passion to do each year…what interests me when they are all put together is how people will detect something that wasn’t there necessarily consciously.” Staples of the season include an ensemble showcase of the nineteen apprentice actors and a talk with a leading national figure in the theatre. This year that role went to none other than the demi-god Taylor Mac.
This year’s apprentice show, The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, co-written by Jeff Augustin, Sarah DeLappe, Claire Kiechel, and Ramiz Monsef, dug into the meat and bones of ownership, technology and invention. Deftly helmed by Erik Hoff, who has a strong design quality to his work and a history of engaging in collaborative processes, the show held everything from a voguing competition to a small operetta. Hoff’s vision led the pastiche of 11 short plays using a “giant silver thread of dramaturgy”—a versatile fabric swath. This motif, along with the title character, helped the audience track – or create – a cohesive journey through several very different pieces of work. The effect was a kind of architectural structure of different tones and textures left unfinished, thus prodding the audience to ask more questions rather than simply reflect on answers. Inspired by Louisville’s own mad wireless telephony inventor Nathan Stubblefield, the loaded themes of race, class, gender, mental illness, technological progress, and cultural appropriation kept the company and the audience on their toes. Vacillating from inspirations like “Yolanda, the only remaining disco ball manufacturer in the United States,” (based in Louisville) to the 19 actors with their myriad special skills (from dancing and singing to roller skating and rapping), the show was a unique feat. Elijah Jones, Andrew Cutler, Anne-Marie Trabolsi, Alice Wu, Alex Milak, Daniel Johnson, Kevin Kantor and Kathiamarice Lopez shone, and each member of the company gave an exemplary performance. Keep an eye out for these new powerhouses to hit the national theatre scene with a vengeance.
With exceptional wit, a multifaceted lens, and on-point penning of character, playwright Basil Kreimendahl’s We’re Going to Be Okay took the audience on a journey that was both a blast from the past and a trip towards a queer explosion. As I am certain this work will surface soon all over the national theatre scene, I will not give too much of its funny and poignant story away. I will say that the parallels it describes between a certain loaded moment of fear in the 1960s and our current historical moment run disturbingly deep. This intimate look at two contrasting families digs up fodder that was criminalized in their cold-war world. The takeaway from Basil’s story (excitingly directed by Lisa Peterson) is: the lower you try and bury it, the harder it explodes. Andrew Cutler shines with a natural ease and presence as the all-American son, and his colleague Anne-Marie Trabolsi dazzles in a subtle and demanding turn as the angsty, musical daughter of the next-door neighbors. Through these two young gazes we see the unique, refracted forms of their parents. The folks, played brilliantly by Kelly McAndrew, Scott Drummond, Sam Breslin Wright and Annie McNamara, were uniformly excellent. Wright’s deceptively obsequious salesmanship skates on the brink of untenable in all the right ways, and when a total transformation comes along in Act Two he – along with the others – must break through to the other side of their ingrained identities. We’re Going to Be Okay gives a clear answer to a question of progress in identity politics that I hope many will take into deeper, reflective consideration amidst change. Just look at the title.
Tasha Grodon-Solomon’s I Now Pronounce (directed by Stephen Brackett) depicts a cross section of the generations present at the wedding of Adam and Nicole. Till death do us part takes on more serious connotations from moment one. That being said, this farcical romp vacillates between instilling a complete mistrust of the cultural institution of marriage and a sacred look at what dedication and love to another person may entail. Clea Alsip and Satomi Blair were lovely and engaging as the bridesmaids, as was Alex Trow as the bride. The little girls were obscenely endearing, and the men all gave formidable performances of life, death and the existential crisis between. Ray DeMattis proved particularly endearing in a surprise entrance.
Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas’ brilliant script Recent Alien Abductions is a tectonically shifting slow burn for the stomachs and brains of its audience. “It was very difficult to work on both because the subject matter is not easy and because the production is in a state of tension the entire time. Something horrible is happening and something is going to explode,” said director Les Waters. The play opens with a gorgeous image of Jon Norman Schneider bathed in a low smoky glow and framed by a wide band of amber lights. Waters’ scalpel-sharp direction here with Cortiña’s wildly exciting script begins with a non-stop twenty-five-minute monologue about the X-files. The result? Twenty-five of the simplest and most riveting moments in the theatre I’ve ever experienced. For Alvaro, the main character, “this episode is important to me because I’m trying to instruct my identity through this…why did they change the end of this episode and why am I the only person to have noticed?” Waters explained. Cortiñas’ lens was integral to unpacking the fraught and opaque relationship Puerto Rico has with the U.S. for Waters and the cast.
Schneider dazzles and confounds as Alvaro. His cast mates also pull off the kind of subtle mystery coupled with pedestrian presence necessary to land the meticulously crafted tone of the piece. Bobby Plasencia is strikingly off-putting. Elia Monte-Brown, Ronete Levenson, Carmen M. Herlihy, and Mia Katigbak give subtle yet demanding performances as well. “The company of actors are just phenomenal,” says Waters. ‘The performances, direction and incredible set design (by Dane Laffrey) were beyond noteworthy feats of prowess, yet Cortiñas’ exceptional writing and Schneider’s almost other worldly triumph launching the play achieved the otherworldly. Cortiñas’ ability to play with dramatic tension and form without losing narrative energy makes him one of the most exciting playwrights alive. Waters’ tenure at the helm of Actor’s Theatre and beyond has brought about some of the most exciting work happening in the country. The match between them was transcendent in the most unexpected of ways: it invited, using simplicity, a gaze into the way we use stories and story-telling to re-capture our own lives – and our identities – in the face of trauma. One hopes that Cortiñas’ piece continues to thrive, and finds its way to the west coast soon. I look forward to more groundbreaking work over the years to come from both of these modern masters.
From a husband’s faux-pas at Stop and Shop to breastfeeding in the backyard — what sounds like sitcom gold has, in Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, become a transcendent challenge to, homage for, and celebration of motherhood and female friendship. Metzler’s story of two women cooped up on maternity leave captures the physiological vulnerability and emotional strength garnered by a new mother. As social class inevitably intersects with the navigation of child rearing, the women become more and more caught up in a fraught web pitting social mores against survival. With wry wit and humor, Cry It Out asks intimate questions about how as Americans we define and construct privilege throught this intersection.
The play is also deeply personal. “We’re both all through the play, and also not at all” said Metzler about how she and her husband figure in the story. Their initial experience of child raising sowed the creative seed that became this play. The play challenges gendered expectations about child rearing, even those encountered among the most progressive feminist gazes in the workforce.
“I had some trepidation about directing it as a man” said Cry It Out director Davis McCallum, a long term collaborator with Metzler. “Then I saw this shirt that read ‘Shhhh the women are talking’… and I thought if I could just do more listening than talking, it might work out.” McCallum, whose sharp direction in-the-round on the sparse set invoked a kind of voyeuristic intimacy with the audience, seems to have gambled and won. The powerhouse cast of four’s off-the-charts chemistry and individual prowess lit up the stage. Andrea Syglowski as the boisterous, grounded and whip-smart Leena traveled into the realm of genius. By the very crunch of a celery stalk, her sharp native-Long Islander flies in the face of the mysterious, pretentious, and heartbreaking Adrienne (played by the electric Liv Rooth.) “We really lucked out with this cast;” said Metzler, “they’re all extraordinary.” The glue of the piece – warm and fierce Jesse, played by the stunning Jessica Dickey—centered our gaze on the trials and tribulations of parents returning to work after the birth of a child.
We live in a moment where friendship between women can change and even save lives. This bond can relieve, transcend, challenge, and shed light on something that is now too often considered virtually expendable in our country: the lives of women. It is women, not as matriarchs or competitors, but as human beings who need and desire autonomy, visibility, and connection, who are the lifeblood of this play. The one male figure in the story, played with stunning care by the formidable Jeff Biehl, reframes audience expectations around child rearing and attitudes towards fatherhood.
Cry It Out is destined for greatness. Metzler’s delicate and hilarious gem pushes our nation’s tender buttons and will move our nation’s tender hearts. Wherever you’re from, and however a mother – or mothers – have affected your life, keep an eye out for your chance to experience this subtle, magnificent play.
For those who want to rock and roll all night and party every day – or for those whose dream of being in a Sprite commercial wasn’t all it was cracked up to be – Chelsea Mercantel’s Airness may have the answer. In this show, the pursuit is less about simple rock and roll and more about the work’s elusive title: Airness. It might have something to do with the fact that as hard as everyone rocks in the piece, there isn’t a single guitar onstage.
By entering her first air guitar competition, Nina dives into a personal and professional rabbit hole that’s deeper than she could have imagined. Deb O’s brilliantly seedy set seduced audience members into taking that deep dive right along with Nina. Coupled with McDonough’s vivacious, skillful direction, the set sparked a gleam in many an eye – a twinkling with desire to maybe try one’s own unpracticed hands at this airness business. “Everything is real, which I really appreciate.” said Meredith McDonough of the bar turned arena theater. The thrust stage showcased the fabulously committed and enchanting performances of the ensemble. Brian Quijada perfectly captures the guy we all love to hate and hate to love. Radiating a kind of Jay and Silent Bob best-friend potential coupled with nuanced, quirky excavations of each brilliant strange bird – the ensemble shines. Nate Miller’s heartwarming Ed refuses to grow up, Marc Pierre’s charismatic Golden Thunder moves for world peace, Angelina Impellizzeri’s Cannibal Queen lets down her walls and gets ugly, and Lucas Papaelias’ facemelter wears his heart on his shirtless sleeve. Each character moves us further into the core of the piece: “How to actually let people in.” For both Mcdonough and Mercantel, theatre became their tribe where this very journey took place. Each remembers their first stints in the community theatre feeling like home – something this gaggle of misfits builds around and with our Airness protagonist. As we traverse this brand new world of invisible wonders, Nina, played by the gifted Marinda Anderson- journeys with us. What is the perfect piece? How does one achieve airness?
For this important question we turn to Matt Burns- four time reigning United States Air Guitar Champion. Burns makes appearances and plays the emcee throughout the play. According to McDonough, Burns has an “A level of self-confidence that breeds generosity.” His input undoubtedly fortified the palpable commitment of the team to the live action role playing world of air guitar. “You have to not be judging it…in no way shape or form is the piece ever making fun of air guitar” Mercantel said of her play. She is right. In Airness, air guitar serves as a catalyst for a profound journey away from righteous anger and towards love of self. “I know what it is like to be a person who is new to a thing and to be helped out by the people who are inside of it” said Mercantel. Her piece serves as a celebration of community building, a call for female empowerment, and a cry for the continuation of arts education. In this moment, I can think of nothing better. If you are looking for an amazing piece of theatre that will get you on your feet tapping, wailing and clapping in mid-air – while also moving you to reflect on and care for yourself – look no further; this bad boy is for you.