New American plays mirror transitional theme

by Jennifer de Poyen | Apr 25, 2001
New American plays mirror transitional theme During the traditional gathering of critics, producers, theatrical agents and Hollywood scouts at the 25th annual Humana Festival, much of the talk centered on the future of the country`s most prominent showcase of new plays.

How will Humana change now that its founding director, JonJory, has moved on to a teaching job in Seattle? Will we ever see another offering by Jane Martin, the reclusive playwright - widely believed to be Jory himself - who is Humana`s most produced author? Will there be a nurturing climate for playwrights now that the festival`s beloved literary manager, Michael Bigelow Dixon, is leaving?

And how will the tastes and practices of Marc Masterson - the newly appointed artistic leader of Actors Theatre of Louisville, which produces the festival - affect the impact and direction of the annual gathering?

It was hard to read the tea leaves in this year`s plays, which were largely commissioned under the old regime. If there was a trend among the six new full-length works by Richard Dresser, Eduardo Machado, Melanie Marnich, Jane Martin, Charles L. Mee and Mac Wellman, it was a move away from stage realism, the reigning aesthetic of the American theater. But that shift was already well under way before Masterson, who nurtured relations with the experimental community through his post at Pittsburgh`s fringelike City Theater, took the helm at Louisville.

One change that`s likely to come under the new artistic director`s tenure is a greater openness to diverse theatrical voices. For this year`s popular Phone Plays, Masterson invited five small, adventurous troupes from around the country to create the three-minute works that patrons experience by telephone in the theater`s lobby.

The telephone format is too reductive to draw conclusions about Masterson`s instincts and abilities as a new-play curator. But there was no denying the urgency of Jennifer Nelson`s "Somebody Call 911," a vital, disturbing portrait of an abusive family, performed by Deidra LaWan Starnes and KenYatta Rogers of the Washington, D.C.-based African Continuum Theatre Company, or the narrative gifts of San Francisco`s Brighde Mullins, whose "Click" centers on a late-night conversation between a woman and her locked-up-in-rehab lover.

Unlike last year`s gathering, at which Mee`s raucous, startlingly inventive "Big Love" entranced critics and audiences alike, this year`s experimental offerings didn`t seem to engage the crowds, or even many critics. If one play seems to have legs, it`s Machado`s passionately political, though problematic, "When the Sea Drowns in Sand," due in New York this fall for a commercial off-Broadway run.

Audiences at Louisville stood and cheered for Machado`s sometimes poetic, astutely cast play, which explores questions of identity and exile, and Elian-inflamed relations between Cuba and the United States, so my sense that it needs some fixes, or perhaps a new medium, is doubtless a minority view. So is the perspective (also mine) that Mee`s new play and particularly Wellman`s musical collaboration with San Diego composer Michael Roth are more worthy of praise and future productions.

Mee`s post-"Big Love" showing was "bobrauschenbergamerica," an effervescent, poetic and poignant theatrical collage about the artist Robert Rauschenberg, whose work in Pop Art, alongside Jasper Johns`, helped alter how we see art and life in America.

Over the course of Mee`s absorbing, colorful play, we never hear the word "combine," the term Rauschenberg coined to describe his groundbreaking works that mix painting and sculpture, and painting and found objects. But the play, as directed by Anne Bogart for her SITI Company, is alive with that feeling of creative freedom, and the sense that the best art sings the songs of real life. "Painting relates to art and life," Rauschenberg once said, famously. "I try to act in the gap between the two." Mee`s play, too, occupies that space.

Seen in the context of Mee`s earlier works and Bogart`s experimentalism, "bobrauschenbergamerica" is an unusually accessible, not to say linear, piece of theater. It draws playfully on the culture of mid-century life (the terrific Kelly Maurer, as Bob`s Mom, is the quintessence of the perfectly coiffed, immaculately aproned housewife; exuberant lovers Akiko Aizawa and Leon Ingulsrud Ingulsrud do face-plants in a slip-and-slide doused with dry martinis and olives, while pointing to the assertive, persistent American underbelly of violence, dislocation and alienation. (Ed Araiza`s Becker, a wistful and filthy derelict, remembers a childhood in which "you could walk to the end of the block and step right into the countryside"; Gian-Murray Gianino`s creepily calm Pizza Boy recounts the mass murders he committed.)

And like much of Mee`s and Bogart`s work, the play blends in song and dance - disco beats, Cuban songs, romantic ballads, square dance tunes - suggesting both the joy and sweep of Pop Art, as well as the mongrel nature of American culture.

From the very first scene, when the actors rip away a Rauschenbergian white-on-white canvas to reveal James Schuette`s striking Jasper Johns-inspired set - an enormous, starlit American flag - the audience is engaged in a sensuous, ebullient meditation on the relation between art and life. "I would just take delight long-term," a man tells his lover near the end of the play, during an exchange that`s soon echoed by another couple. It`s a sentiment that resonates equally in the realm of the real and the province of art.

Mee`s new work wasn`t the only play to provoke thoughts of the relationship between art and life, between artifice and realism. Paradoxically (or not, depending on your point of view), the plays that honed most closely to stage realism - Martin`s inconsequential, B-movie horror-Western parody "Flaming Guns of the Purple Sage," directed by Jory, and Dresser`s cartoonish, cringe-inducing melodrama "Wonderful World," directed by Masterson - were the least engaged in the concerns of people who live in the real world.TRUE PORTRAITS

Instead, it was the festival`s most fanciful, and most determinedly abstract, offering, Wellman`s "Description Beggared; or the Allegory of Whiteness," that presented the truest portrait of family life, historical imperatives and political realities. An ambitious new piece of musical theater - created with local composer Roth, a longtime collaborator - it conjures the mythical tale of the Ring Family, set in "a vast metaphysical Rhode Island."

Most American theatergoers reach for their pistols when they hear the word "allegory," and "Description Beggared," though deliriously gorgeous, is both disturbing and especially perplexing; many viewers (this one included) left the Bingham Theatre puzzled as to its meaning. But serious art, not unlike life, doesn`t resolve itself in two hours; this musical (musical play?) lingers, like dreams that haunt by unearthing innermost thoughts and desires.

Impeccably cast and directed with lyricism and wit by Lisa Peterson, "Description Beggared" shimmered with the patina of privilege, evoking a world of tenuous, morally suspect gentility. The design team (Linda Roethke, costumes; Paul Owen, sets; and Tony Penna, lighting) conjured an alluring, unsettling wonderland of whiteness.

As usual, Wellman`s script is a babbling brook of language; a poet, he`s more engaged with the sounds and moods produced by the juxtapositions of words than with ordering them into everyday sentences. Language, he seems to be saying, is music; and, as with music, one draws meaning, character and emotion from Wellman`s polyphonic word play.

When the musical opens, the patrician Ring family has assembled for an annual photograph. Squabbling incomprehensibly and floating about the stage with dreamlike logic, they offer an unerring portrait of domestic discord. Uncle Fraser (Edwin Owens), decrying the "black art of photography," refuses to have his picture taken; over time, we learn of his fear of being exposed, and his shameful past. And as the characters` words circle around images of whiteness, the audience is invited to make broader connections - to WASP culture, to traditional white privilege, to the persistence of a society`s collective memory and the primal urge to conquer and destroy.

As the Rings - Owens` formidable Fraser, Adale O`Brien`s mordant Cousin Julia, Anne Sullivan`s wispy Aunt Bianca, Eleanor Glockner`s dignified Moth and Lia Aprile`s endearing Louisa - spin stories, members of the band break in to comment (with songs and musical riffs, with sweetness and hostility) on the characters and action. Roth`s impressive score includes a pair of gorgeous, almost hymnal melodies and a rousing, disturbing title song. A recurring cradle tune challenges the family`s notions of innocence. There`s talk of ancestor worship, to the stirring, militaristic strains of a trumpet and drum.

As in some of the other plays - "bobrauschenbergamerica," Melanie Marnich`s funny, often glib "Quake" and Machado`s stirring, uneven "Sea" - Wellman and Roth`s musical explores the yearning for a place to call home.

"In our absence," Uncle Fraser says early on in "Description Beggared," "a place cannot be said to constitute a place, only an emptiness." It`s a sentiment shared by an exiled Cuban named Federico (Joseph Urla), meditating on questions of belonging as he travels to the land of his birth in "Sea."

"Home is that sentimental, abstract place," he tells his friend and would-be lover Fred (Ed Vassallo). "Home. Is that, yearning from the gut, feeling." In a dramatic gambit that doesn`t always ring true, his turbulent journey is also a path to sexual discovery.

There`s much to like in Machado`s characters, especially Felix Solis` Ernesto, the reluctant tour guide who with the flick of a shoulder transports us to Cuba on Paul Owen`s blank-canvas set. And there`s much to admire in the ambitious reach of the playwright`s sexual and geopolitical musings.

It`s not clear, though, that Machado has found a theatrical vision for "Sea" (Michael John Garces` bare-bones direction doesn`t help). The script reads like a movie and, given the playwright`s filmmaking career, perhaps that is where this story`s destiny should lie.


A formal ambivalence also mars "Quake," the story of a young woman who roams the country in search of the love of her life. Or herself. Or both. On the way, Lucy (adorable Tracey Maloney) meets and mates with a slew of men who disappoint, betray or abuse her, and her dreams are haunted by That Woman (Lusia Strus), a brilliant but deranged astrophysicist who runs around killing men. She "killed a couple boyfriends and now she`s branching out," says Lucy, who`s strangely drawn to the murderer.

For Marnich, the Humana production of "Quake," is a big break. (She`ll get another one in May, when Manhattan Theatre Club presents "Blur," first produced in 1998 by the ambitious Fritz Theater.) Directed with visual wit by Susan V. Booth, "Quake" veers from comic, snappy dialogue, where the playwright seems most at home, to airy monologues, from brisk realism to more meditative dream sequences. While Marnich`s stylistic experimentation is welcome, it doesn`t always coalesce in satisfying ways.

In this last year of works shepherded by Jory, Marnich was the only playwright whose work had never been produced at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. That`s bound to change as Masterson puts his stamp on the festival over the four-year term of his contract. One challenge does seem clear: He will have to strike a delicate balance between his adventurous bent and the need to attract corporate support and the interest of the theater in-crowd that has traditionally flocked to Louisville.

(c)Copley News Service

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Author: Jennifer de Poyen


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