Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Oh, the Humanaty

Daniel Pearce, Cassie Beck and Sara Surrey in
Elemeno Pea
As some of you may know, I spent last weekend immersed in the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. I had a darned fine time, and I’d like to spend some electrons telling you why.

The festival – now in its 35th year – features a raft of world premiere plays by upcoming and established playwrights over the course of almost two months. The shows are all performed by the Actors Theatre of Louisville in their impressive facility on the city’s riverfront. With a respectable hotel (the Galt House, where our group stayed) and a plethora of restaurants and bars within walking distance, all the ingredients for a great theatre geek weekend were in place, and the results did not disappoint.

Taking advantage of one of the festival’s New Play Getaway weekend packages, I and six other St. Louis theatre folk made the trek to Kentucky to see five – count ‘em, five – shows: one on Friday night, one on Sunday afternoon, and three on Saturday (a matinee, an evening performance, and a nightcap at 11 PM). We all loved three of them and disliked the other two to varying degrees – a rather remarkable unanimity of opinion from a group that usually has pretty widely divergent tastes in drama. Even the two that we thought were failures, however, failed in mostly interesting ways. Indeed, one measure of the strength of the festival, in my mind, was the fact that nothing we saw was mediocre.

Friday night started things with a bang with the energetic comedy Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler in the company’s main stage Pamela Brown Auditorium. Plot summary: “When Devon visits Simone for an end-of-summer sibs fest on Martha’s Vineyard, she finds her little sister changed beyond recognition. As personal assistant to wealthy and demanding trophy wife Michaela Kell, Simone enjoys a lavish beachfront lifestyle that these girls never could have imagined growing up in blue-collar Buffalo—but is all this luxury really free of cost?”

Lampooning the self-indulgence of the excessively wealthy is a time-honored theatrical tradition and Pea fills the bill nicely. Metzler resists the temptation to make Michaela entirely a cartoon and even gives Simone’s foppish boyfriend a genuine moment or two. As with all the shows in the festival, a strong cast and impressive tech made a good case for the show.

The necessarily lavish set might be a challenge for some smaller theatre companies, but otherwise I’d expect this to have a good post-festival life on the regional theatre scene.

Saturday afternoon brought Anne Washburn’s A Devil at Noon, staged with just about every technical trick in the book in the Bingham Theatre. The Bingham is the Lexus of black box spaces, with a stunning lighting grid, surround sound, and a sophisticated set of traps and motorized lifts.

Ms. Washburn’s script pushes those technical facilities to their limit, but it’s an incoherent mess. It’s intended as a kind of homage to Philip K. Dick and, given that it makes just as little sense as some of Dick’s more hallucinatory novels, I suppose it succeeds in that regard. The combination of demanding tech and narrative opacity will likely keep this one from seeing the light of day very often.

Things were looking up again Saturday night, with a top-notch presentation of A. Rey Pamatmat’s beautiful and painfully realistic Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them. Twelve-year-old Edith (a crack shot with her air rifle, hence the title) and her brother Kenny are largely fending for themselves in “a non-working farm” in the Midwest, kept afloat only by their mostly-absent father’s inconsistent support checks. The situation is complicated by Kenny and his boyfriend Benji’s attempts to keep their blossoming romance concealed from Benji’s conservative parents.

Mr. Pamatmat’s insight into his young characters’ complex emotional lives rings true, as does his funny and utterly convincing portrayal of the boys’ attempts to come to grips with their sexuality. Any guy who has survived puberty will recognize their joy and pain, regardless of sexual orientation. Some things are just universal.

The show presents some casting challenges to companies interested in producing this script. Edith and Kenny are Philipino, so directors would need to find East Asian actors young enough and small enough to believably play the parts. Fortunately, Mr. Pamatmat has simplified the task by keeping the adults off stage and unseen. Technically, the script is well within the capabilities of even the smallest theatres, so this may be another work with a life outside of Louisville.

That’s enough for one blog post. I’ll save my comments on the last two shows for next time.

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