Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Humana Festival (Actors Theatre of Louisville, KY)

Humana Festival is theatre-goers dream weekend

From May 2 through the 21st, the Cleveland Play House complex will be host to FusionFest, an ambitious offering of new works. The events will include presentations from Cleveland Opera, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Verb Ballets, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Dobama Theater, Karamu House, Jewish Community Center, City Music Cleveland, Cleveland School of the Arts, and Shaker Heights High School.

Thus, CPH will be the only regional theatre in the country offering a new works festival that includes opera, ballet, theatre, dance and music. But, it is not the only venue to offer new works. One of the most exciting and ambitious is the Humana Festival of New American Plays which is now in its 30th year at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. Humana is so well regarded that the American Theatre Critics Association presents its yearly awards during the festival.

From March 31 to April 2, the festival hosted theatre reviewers and drama professionals. In two-and-a-half days attendees saw eight selections which, in reality were 6 full-length plays, 3 ten-minute plays and 17 short plays (‘NEON MIRAGE’).

Each script received a full-scale professional production, not just a staged reading. The shows had professional casts and the technical work was top flight. The authors were all well established scribes. Major play script publishers, theatrical agents, representatives from major theatres looking for scripts to produce were all present. A well received production could mean a lot of money and fame for an author.

It was interesting to hear informal comments about each play from representatives of papers such as Variety and representatives from New York, Los Angeles, San Diego, St. Louis, Miami and Cleveland. Yes, Cleveland was well represented. Tony Brown of the PLAIN DEALER and I were there representing the critics. Joyce Casey of Dobama Theatre, David Shimotakaraha and Pandora Robertson of Groundworks Dance were also present. And local playwright Eric Coble had his play ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ staged.

The likes and dislikes of the viewers reflected their theatrical philosophies. One reviewer, who favored esoteric and cutting edge scripts, praised ‘HOTEL CASSIOPEIA’ and ‘ACT A LADY.’ The former, by Charles L. Mee, mirrored the life of artist Joseph Cornell, who used articles of junk to create his collages. Like his art, the script was a fragmented view of Cornell’s longing, loneliness and heartbreak. The latter, by Jordan Harrison, was a gender-bending fable of a play-within-a-play which attempted to display the power of the theatre to illustrate the male within every female and the female within every male. I found both plays wanting.

Though praised for the performance by its author, ‘LOW’ by Rha Goddess was too long and a bit preachy. The African American writer probed mental illness, how to cope with drugs and the plight of the homeless. Cutting the last ten minutes would add much to the power of the script and intensify its meaning. We didn’t need the morale preached to us.

I felt the best shows were Sharr White’s ‘SIX YEARS,’ Theresa Rebecks’ THE SCENE’ and ‘Eric Coble’s ‘NATURAL SELECTION.’ Though all could use some doctoring, they each held the audience’s attention and I could see them as a candidate for being staged by one of Cleveland’s professional or semi-professional theatres.

‘SIX YEARS’ concerned a World War II veteran who fails to return to his wife and family for six years following the conflict. The play examines damaged souls who, by the closing curtain, have flipped in their security. Though the ending is a little self evident, the emotional highs and lows are audience involving. This might be a script that convergence-continuum would want to explore.

‘THE SCENE,’ which takes place in New York, concerns four people who find themselves playing scenes in their lives, scenes which reveal each of their vulnerabilities and motives. The script is ready for production. With an excellent cast it could be positively received by a traditional audience. It’s a show that would fit nicely in a Dobama or Beck’s studio theatre season.

In ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ Eric Coble digs into his years of living on American Indian reservations to examine what life might be like in the not-so-distant future when the only way to replenish the “stock” of the Culture Fiesta Theme Park’s Native American Pavilion is to venture into the wastelands of North America and find one. It forces the viewer to examine living in a world in which people find reality in cyberspace. It also examines the changing role of culture. At times paralleling the Noah story, the observer is forced into the Native American concept of the flood, the fifth world of the land of the rainbow.

Though the ending is a little dragged out, with some retooling, the play could do well in an off-Broadway or theatre which has a thinking audience. The script is generally surreal, funny, and engaging. Several reviewers shared that ‘NATURAL SELECTION’ was their favorite show.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The Humana Festival is a theatre-goer’s all-you-can-view opportunity. Hopefully, the Cleveland Playhouse’s FusionFest can do for the local theatre and the Northcoast area what Humana has done for Louisville.