Sunday, April 09, 2017

Variety is the spice of the 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Photo: Justin Philalack
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It's spring, and once again yours truly and a coterie of local theatre folk made our annual pilgrimage to the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. As we have done for the past few years, my fellow KDHX critic Tina Farmer and I posted instant video blog mini-reviews from the festival on YouTube. Unlike previous years, however, Tina and I have agreed to split up the written reviews.

Over the course of last weekend (March 31 - April 2), we saw six plays: Tasha Gordon-Solmon's comedy I Now Pronounce, Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas' drama Recent Alien Abductions, Chelsea Marcantel's Airness (a love letter to air guitar), the comedy/dramas We're Gonna Be Okay by Basil Kreimendahl and Cry it Out by Molly Smith Metzler, and The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield, a collection of eleven mini-plays written for the acting interns of the ATL Professional Training Company. Tina is reviewing the first three and I'm covering the others.

Cry it Out by Molly Smith Metzler

Andrea Syglowski and Jessica Dickey
Photo: Bill Brymer
The best of my three was unquestionably Cry it Out. The play is set in Manorhaven, a Long Island village described in the script as "directly on the ocean, heavily populated, and, depending on the block, either middle-class or quite rundown." The action takes place in the back yard of Jessie (Jessica Dickey) a new mother who left a job as a high-powered lawyer to start a family and now isn't sure whether or not she wants to go back —a thought she has yet to share with her husband.

The yard behind hers belongs to Lina (Andrea Syglowski), a brassy but loveable community college dropout. She and her husband are living with his alcoholic mother. Jessie and Nate are comfortably upper-middle class; Lina and John are barely holding on to blue collars. But Jessie and Lina had bonded in the Stop and Shop over the joys and woes of infant care and are now getting acquainted over coffee in the no-man's land between their houses where the coverage of their baby monitors overlaps.

The play starts out as a smart, funny, and completely believable story of two very different women thrown together by the demands of motherhood and drawing strength from each other while growing in the process. That all by itself would be enough to recommend it, but things get more complex when Mitchell (Jeff Biehl) drops in on one of their meetings with a request that they invite his wife Adrienne (Liv Rooth) to join them. She's also a new mom and he thinks "it would do her a lot of good to get out and talk to some moms like you."

Mitchell and Adrienne live in Sands Point, the über-wealthy neighborhood on the cliff above town ("we look down on you," says Mitchell, a phrase he immediately regrets), and while Mitchell is affable, Adrienne proves to be a bundle of hostile snobbery inside of which is a women who is not at all sure she likes being a mother.

The play that spins out of these complications addresses issues of social class, economic disparity, lack of access to health care, and the confusing expectations placed on American women without ever becoming preachy or even directly bringing any of these issues up. This is a play that asks you to think about its message instead of beating you over the head with it for which I was very grateful.

I was grateful as well for the fine performances of the cast. Ms. Dickey and Ms. Syglowski, in particular, did a marvelous job of distinguishing their characters both verbally and physically. As soon as they appeared on stage, their body language made it obvious that Lina was an outgoing free spirit while Jessie was more reserved and even a bit defensive. Ms. Rooth's Adrienne, like Pooh-Bah in The Mikado, was apparently "born sneering" and Mr. Biehl's Mitchell was clearly hiding something behind his affability. David McCallum's direction was precise and sure-footed. Cry it Out is, in short, a first-rate play that is likely to have a life after Humana.

We're Gonna Be Okay by Basil Kreimendahl


The cast of We're Gonna Be Okay
Photo: Bill Brymer
Basil Kreimendahl's We're Gonna Be Okay, on the other hand, seems unlikely to survive the festival — partly because its technical requirements are significant, but mostly because it's simply not a very good play.

Set during the run-up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, We're Gonna Be Okay is, in some ways, similar to Cry it Out in that it concerns neighboring families whose economic circumstances are very different. Efran (Sam Breslin Wright) is a middle-class motor mouth who browbeats his more taciturn blue-collar neighbor Sul (Scott Drummond) into cooperating with him on the construction of the bomb shelter because, Efran is convinced, "it ain't a matter of 'if' but a matter of 'when'" nuclear war breaks out. Their interactions were so reminiscent of the 1960s comedy routines of Burns and Schreiber that I have a sneaking suspicion Mr. Kreimendahl might have been inspired by them.

Adding to the comic mix are Efran's wife Leena (Kelly McAndrew) with her bottomless bag of arts and crafts projects, Sul's quietly desperate wife Mag (Annie McNamara), Efran's sexually confused son Jake (Andrew Cutler), and Sul's daughter Deanna (Anne-Marie Trabolsi). Described in the script as "feminine but a little rock and roll masculine," she comes complete with sardonic attitude and a guitar.

Efran's verbosity is sometimes grating but overall the first act of We're Gonna Be Okay is often quite funny and, Efran aside, Mr. Kreimendahl's characters are endearing, if a bit superficial.

All that changes in the second act, which moves the action from the front yards to the bomb shelter where both families have fled in what feels like oddly chaotic haste immediately after President Kennedy's speech announcing the presence of missiles in Cuba. The shelter isn't fully stocked or completely finished (although it has somehow acquired a surface door that wasn't there at the end of the first act) and over the ensuing few days conflicts within and between the families erupt as secrets are shared and everyone but Deanna begins to question their life decisions.

None of this really goes anywhere or resolves, and after a while it begins to become repetitious. By moving his characters below ground, Mr. Kreimendahl has left them nowhere to go, both literally and dramatically. He has also left himself with no convincing way to end the play, and his final scene makes very little sense given what has gone before.

As is usually the case with Actors Theatre, though, the play got very strong performances from a fine ensemble cast. The younger actors were particularly impressive, and Ms. Trabolsi's musical contributions added a great deal. Her "Break It to Me Gently" was a welcome high point of the second act.

Director Lisa Peterson made the best possible case for this script, although the many anachronisms in both the dialog and costuming sometimes made it difficult for someone like me, who actually lived through the missile crisis, to take it all very seriously. This one needs to go back to the drawing board.

The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield by Jeff Augustin, Sarah Delappe, Claire Kiechel, And Ramiz Monsef

Henriettas
Photo: Bill Brymer
The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield is also unlikely to have a life after the festival, but that's mostly by design. Every year, the festival commissions an evening of short one-acts to be performed by the acting interns. The plays are always performed without pause and always deal with a common theme. Last year's Wondrous Strange, for example, dealt with the supernatural, while 2015's That High Lonesome Sound was a tribute to Kentucky bluegrass music.

The theme for this year's show was a bit more vague. As described in Jessica Resse's program notes, it's all about "the slippery nature of innovation, and the myths we tell about it." A secondary theme is the state of Kentucky itself. The titular character, for example, was a Kentucky farmer who came up with the principle of wireless telephony but failed to capitalize on it and died in obscurity.

Other plays approach the topic in more indirect ways. In Sarah DeLappe's Henriettas, for example, four hilariously decrepit elderly ladies named Henrietta rattle off an increasingly silly list of inventions for which they didn't get credit.

I Will Survive
Photo: Bill Brymer
The relevance of some of the plays is a bit harder to discern. Ms. DeLappe's I Will Survive, for example, seems to be about the quick rise and fall of "roller disco," as company members quickly alternate between gliding around the stage in spangled outfits and tediously assembling disco balls while dressed in jump suits. As the play progresses, the ensemble shrinks until it's down to just one actress (Alice Wu) who turns to the audience and says "It's definitely lonely." Although I never cared much for disco, I found it a curiously touching piece. Its connection to the theme felt tangential until I learned (via Twitter) that Louisville was the disco ball manufacturing center of the USA back in the day.

That's a minor complaint, though. As has always been the case with the PTC shows, The Many Deaths of Nathan Stubblefield benefitted from very solid performances from a cast of performers who, while still learning their craft, are already extremely talented and professional. Eric Hoff's fluid direction pulled it all together nicely.

The 2017 Humana Festival of New American Plays concluded on Sunday, April 9, but the Actors Theatre of Louisville's regular season continues with the New Voices Young Playwrights Festival April 24-26. For St. Louis theatre fans willing to make the four and one-half hour drive, ATL is well worth a visit, and the Louisville area has many other tourist attractions to divert you when you're not in the theatre.

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