REVIEW: Humana Festival of New American Plays

April 2, 2013
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In yesterday’s post, I mentioned being embedded in Louisville as part of a team of arts journalists from around the country covering the Humana Festival of New American Plays for the pop-up newsroom www.engine31.org.

What I failed to mention was that the festival still has another weekend to go.

Considering taking a ride down to Kentucky? Here are my thoughts on some of this year’s offerings:

Will Eno's “Gnit”

Look elsewhere if you want a detailed analysis of the similarities and differences between Will Eno’s "Gnit" and various versions of "Peer Gynt." In fact, you can look to the two academic guys who left the theater ahead of me in a peer snit, claiming the play was “insulting to Ibsen.”

Look here, though, for my praise of a play that manages to produce anger, big laughs, pity and self-reflection, sometimes at the same time. And all of that in an impeccably cast production where silences are as funny as the best punch lines, big set pieces are delightfully underused, and one outstanding actor unforgettably plays everyone in town.

Like his peer in "Peer Gynt," Gnit, the most anti- of anti-heroes, sets out in search of his authentic self. Imagine the early, self-awareness-free Steve Martin persona as Pippin, but without a single lesson learned, and you have some idea of the arc-lessness of his journey. Gnit’s misadventures—in his own back yard and around the world—add up to a lifetime of self-deception and the burden falls on Eno and Director Les Waters to keep this life-on-a-treadmill illusion of motion fun and interesting. And to give it the needed payoff that keeps "Gnit" from feeling like a series of comedic sketches. Justified praise for the versatile cast (most notably Kate Eastwood Norris and Danny Wolohan in multiple roles) should be partnered with praise for Costume Designer Connie Furr-Soloman, who helped keep them sharply, playfully distinct.

As a rule, I’ll take big, audacious plays over smaller, safer ones—even if ambition sometimes leads to missteps. But a too-long first act and a few awkward transitions don’t significantly diminish "Gnit's" enormous theatrical pleasures.

Jeff Augustin’s “Cry Old Kingdom”

In Jeff Augustin’s "Cry Old Kingdom," Edwin (Andy Lucien) is an artist believed dead by the oppressive Haitian government while his full-of-life wife, Judith (Natalie Paul), yearns for revolution. Life gets more complicated for the couple when Edwin encounters a young man, Henri (Jonathan Majors), collecting wood to build a boat to escape to America. Edwin makes a deal with Henri: secrecy in exchange for modeling duties.

As one would expect, interpersonal drama collides with national politics as each of the three characters struggle toward freedom in different ways. But the revelations and plot developments aren’t given enough time to simmer. Would-be cathartic moments are muted and unclear. (In the lobby afterward, I overheard a few audience members who were confused as to what exactly had happened.) Port au Prince seems underpopulated, leaving me wondering what "Cry Old Kingdom" would feel like with a cast as large as, say, Lynn Nottage’s "Ruined" (another play about survival under brutal political conditions). And the play’s final moments, involving the retelling of a dream, feel like a placeholder awaiting a better dramatic solution.

Augustin is clearly a writer of talent. But there’s still work to be done. "Cry Old Kingdom" cries out for a larger canvas to be fully realized.

Mallery Avidon’s “O Guru Guru Guru or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class with You”

A small play wrapped in colorful costuming, Mallery Avidon’s intimate production is a triptych of very differently structured scenes. The first is a direct-address would-be lecture/confessional from a woman with confused experiences growing up in and out of an ashram. For the second section, we are taken inside the ashram for a patient, meditative look at its rituals and practices (where audience members are invited to take off their shoes, accept a pillow, and sit on the stage floor). The third, which has its own surprises, is a more conventional, primarily two-character theatrical scene.

By defining its own rhythm, taking its time, the play undermines expectations of audience participation, and finding a fitting and proper conclusion that neither makes too much or too little of the protagonists' situation, the ideally cast “O Guru Guru Guru” sparkles in surprising ways.

Sam Marks’ “The Delling Shores”

From the opening moments, you know that things are going to bypass testy and go quickly to hostile in Sam Marks’ play about an unsuccessful writer, Frank, trying to land an apprenticeship for his daughter, Adrianne, with Frank’s former friend, successful novelist Tom.

Frank and Adrianne are the not-particularly-wanted guests at the rural home of Tom and his annoyed daughter, Ellen, and we quickly discover why the welcome mat isn’t completely rolled out: This whining bundle of needs would be unwelcome just about anywhere.  

Unfortunately, Marks does little to turn this into more than a grad school writing program complaint session. Of course, there’s a plagiarism question. Of course, there’s generation-hopping attraction. And even after voices and accusations have been raised, our foursome stops to play a too-long game, a book-geek variation on Balderdash.

Despite strong performances, particularly by the men, there just isn’t enough reason to care about any of these characters. Nothing feels at stake. I was far more interested in knowing what was going on up the road at, allegedly, Charles Van Doren’s home.

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