Thursday, April 02, 2015

Humana Festival 2015: Multi-talented acting interns shine in 'That High Lonesome Sound'

The cast of "That High Lonesome Sound"
Photo: Bill Brymer
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Who: Actors Theatre of Louisville
What: That High Lonesome Sound by Jeff Augustin, Diana Grisanti, Cory Hinkle, and Charise Castro Smith
When: March 27-April 12

[Watch my video capsule review with co-critic Tina Farmer]

Every Humana Festival has a late night show consisting of short plays with a common theme and featuring members of the Acting Apprentice Company. "That High Lonesome Sound"—this year's show—is all about bluegrass music and the mountain culture that spawned it. And it's a real winner.

"Punk Bitch"
Photo: Bill Brymer
The show's title, according to Hannah Rae Montgomery's program essay, "comes from a phrase commonly used to describe the wistful tenor twang of many bluegrass singers." I'd say it also describes the way this music conjures up the remote woods and mountains where bluegrass originated, and where the membrane separating the worlds of the living and the dead seems more permeable. Ghosts put in regular appearances in traditional music, and at least three of these plays contain elements of the supernatural.

The eight short pieces in this eighty-minute show are the work of playwrights Jeff Augustin (whose "Cry Old Kingdom" so impressed me at Humana in 2013), Diana Grisanti, Cory Hinkle, and Charise Castro Smith. They're a varied and beautifully written collection of comedy and drama. Most involve some live music, and all of them use music as a dramatic element.

"Dot and the Guitar"
Photo: Bill Brymer
My personal favorite is Ms. Smith's "Dot and the Guitar," about a young girl in a traditional mountain family who saves up for a guitar. When it arrives, the simple beauty of her playing and singing inspires the rest of her fatherless family—and angers her bullying older brother. The script reminds us that this music originates in a culture that can be violent and sexist—and that beauty and ugliness often co-exist.

I was also taken with Ms. Grisanti's "Florence Reece Goes to Camp," about a campaign to co-opt Reece's classic union anthem "Which Side Are You On?" for a corporate marketing campaign. It's a reminder of what happens when we lose touch with our origins.

Ms. Smith's brief "Miss Faye and the Banjo," about an elderly spinster who is convinced—not without reason—that she's turning in to a musical instrument, was also great fun. Cory Hinke's "The Peace of Wild Things" is also about transformation, as a young woman searches for a vanished sibling who may or may not have changed into something else entirely.

"A Buried History"
Photo: Bill Brymer
Every actor in the 21-member student cast does impressive work here, acting, singing, dancing, and playing up a storm. Blake Russell was a standout as the bluegrass-inspired rapper in Mr. Augustin's "Punk Bitch" as was Erika Grob as the guitar-playing Emily. Taylor Abels was spot on as the spoiled rich kid with the marketing inspiration in "Florence Reece Goes to Camp." Lexi Lapp, who has a lovely cameo in "I Will Be Gone," did nice work here as well. Kayla Jackmon had a powerful opening monolog in Mr. Augustin's "A Buried History." And John Ford-Dunker perfectly captured Miss Faye using only a pair of glasses, a walker, and solid vocal and physical acting.

They are all, in short, tremendously talented young performers. It was a joy to watch them. Seeing this level of skill always makes me hopeful for the future of theatre in this country.

Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh keeps it all moving with fluid scene changes and blocking that shortchanges nobody in the Bingham Theater's in-the-round space.

Bluegrass is not one of my favorite musical genres, but I nevertheless found "That High Lonesome Sound" utterly captivating—as did my wife, who is much more of a "trad" music fan. Yes, the 11 p.m. curtain time is a bit late for some of us, but it's worth staying up until well after midnight for theatre as good as this.

"That High Lonesome Sound" runs through April 12th in the Bingham Theater at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It's part of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. For more information:

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