Plot? Mostly Not. No Problem. Humana's Varied Menu Is Bolstered by New-Play Investigations

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AS THE GRANDDADDY OF NEW-PLAY FESTS, it's incumbent upon Actors Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New American Plays to check the pulse of its life-blood from time to time--and the event's 33rd annual airing examined the new-play view from both inside and out.

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Two new studies looking at the lives of playwrights were rolled out for the festival's heavily attended special visitors weekend, April 3-5: the Plays and Play wrights Playwrights Project, led by New Dramatists's Todd London under the auspices of the Theatre Development Fund; and "The Gates of Opportunity: A Field Survey on the Infrastructure for New Works in the American Theater," written by Arena Stage's David Dower and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. (Further discussion of the Mellon and TDF reports were scheduled to take place in June at the Theatre Communications Group National Conference in Baltimore, a report on which will appear in the September issue of American Theatre.)

A panel discussion held the previous weekend, moderated by American Theatre, took the outside-in approach and investigated the relationship between audiences and new work. "I want to build a work which includes the public but does not exclude the artist," says an actor in Charles Mee's Under Construction, presented by the New York City--based SITI Company in this year's festival--and the conundrum was considered in overview by Marge Betley, literary manager and resident dramaturg at Geva Theatre of Rochester, N.Y.; Sean Daniels, associate artistic director at ATL; playwright Jeffrey M. Jones; Ellen Lauren, actor and associate artist director of SITI Company; and longtime ATL board member Ted Rosky.

If the lineup for the festival itself was meant to be a study in how varying dramatic structures affect audiences, it certainly succeeded. Half of the full-length plays presented at this year's fest (or four of seven, if you count the annual apprentice showcase, Brink!, a collaboratively written collection of skits by a roster of hot playwriting talent, this year including Lydia R. Diamond, Kristoffer Diaz, Greg Kotis, Deborah Zoe Laufer, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb and Deborah Stein) were collage pieces, making it possible to spend nearly eight consecutive hours in the theatre without hitting upon a sustained plot. And though two of the most noteworthy shows--performed by the SITI and Universes ensembles--fell into the former category, it was the traditionally structured family drama Absalom, by Zoe Kazan, that left many audience members feeling most satisfied.

UNDER CONSTRUCTION IS SITI COMPANY AND Mee's third meditation on an American artist (following bobrauchenbergamerica in 2001 and Hotel Cassiopeia in 2006, which both also premiered at Humana). This time Mee focuses on two artists: early- and mid-century painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell and installation artist Jason Rhoades, whose career was cut short in 2006 by heart failure. What results seems to be the actors' attempt to put together tableaux of Rockwellian America from within one of Rhoades's duct-taped, sex-obsessed, junkyard-beautiful exhibitions. The piece, like America, "remains permanently under construction," we're told in a prologue.

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It's a straightforward theme, but even within its freeform, installation-art framework, the play's seams rip a little, threatening to open into something more cacophonous and unruly. At one point actor Ellen Lauren brings a microphone into the audience to demand highly detailed information regarding spectators' sex lives (answered, one has to assume, with varying degrees of honesty). In another seeming rupture in the play's structure, actors retrieve personal cell phones, each with a separate ring tone, and engage in what becomes an overlapping series of raw, painful conversations as the audience eavesdrops on the dissolution of nine love affairs. The moment, quickly passed over, is utterly heartbreaking. …