Next Stop Broadway? ; Playwrights Showcase Their Innovative and Lively New Works at the Venerable Humana Festival before They Arrive in Theaters around the Country

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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 vivid imagery.

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 for Wellman's.

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 with "sin."

"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- interested.

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. …

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