A whirlwind weekend of theater. You could get lost in it. But
each play remains distinctive.
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre
of Louisville (Ky.) has been stocking the stages of regional
theaters and Broadway for 25 years with vital new works. Many plays
of this 2001 season will find their way onto stages across the
United States and in New York - or appear on TV or in the movies.
The festival draws press and producers from around the world.
What keeps theater professionals and critics coming back is the
thrill of the new. In a single weekend - culled from 3,000 entries -
six full-length plays, one series of 16 miniature plays, three 10-
minute plays, and seven "phone" plays (where a listener can pick up
a phone in the lobby and hear a production) deluged audiences with
Balancing established playwrights with emerging talents, and
realistic plays with experimental, the festival is a barometer of
what's happening in the theater. Two years ago, for example,
"Dinner with Friends" by Donald Margulies premiered at Humana and
went on to play in New York and win a Pulitzer Prize. This year it
will become an HBO movie.
Of those artists who devote themselves to theater, only a few
make a decent living at it. Why do they bother? What are
playwrights saying today? And what new forms are they creating?
These are questions the annual festival often seems to address.
This year's Humana felt slightly more eccentric than usual. Maybe
it was because longtime director Jon Jory was no longer at the
helm, although new producing director Marc Masterson says he has
made no major changes.
'The real world isn't real'
Even the most realistic plays at the festival had an edge of
hysteria. Yet the most extreme experiments were sane at their core.
Thought-provoking as it is, Mac Wellman's highly intellectual and
poetic Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness slaps the
viewer upside the head, asking us to exchange our sense of reality
The play takes place in a "vast, metaphysical Rhode Island,"
where members of the wealthy Ring family gather for a family
portrait. All the family dress in white - and feathers, fur, and
snow fly again and again.
The assumptions of privilege, superiority, race, and culture that
the word "whiteness" implies determine how we see "reality." These
assumptions he turns on their head by making the word synonymous
"The real world isn't real - it's quite mad," Wellman says. "In
conversation people don't know what they are saying, and they don't
care. One of the things theater is about is that there is always a
slippage between what people say and what they do."
Wellman indicts us for arrogance and presumption. Jane Martin, in
the screwball, surreal comedy Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage,
satirizes the ethos of the West, ridin,' ropin,' and shootin.' The
raucously funny tale concerns an aging rodeo queen who "heals" hurt
cowboys with rest and recreation on her own terms. When a young
girl shows up pregnant, chased by a psycho-biker, a six-gunfull of
lead can't kill him. And every time he rises again, the humor gets
grosser. It's a witty stab at our entertainments, with all their
guns and gore, at our traditional Western stereotypes, and at our
society, whose values have become so pragmatic and self-
Richard Dresser's dismal take on modern marriage, Wonderful
World, argues that honesty is not always the best policy -
particularly when it comes to confessing that you've thought about
murdering your beloved. Making the best of dysfunction seems to be
the best these characters can do. It's a sad commentary on our
expectations about love.
Sadder yet is Melanie Marnich's nicely written, but ultimately
disappointing Quake. …