The 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays

A Year of Redemption Where ‘Empathy Is a Bird’

The 42nd Humana Festival ran from February 28 through April 8, 2018.

Artistic Director: Les Waters
Associate Artistic Director: Meredith McDonough
Managing Director: Kevin E. Moore

https://actorstheatre.org/humana-festival-of-new-american-plays/

In its 42nd season, the Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville featured an exceptional lineup of nine playwrights with six pieces in rep, plus a series of parties, panel conversations, and awards, marking the departure of longtime artistic director Les Waters. With unapologetic abandon, audiences were invited to take a seat at the national theatrical table. Over the course of a whirlwind weekend, this metaphorical table was at various times crawled on, beaten up, created with fabric, sat at, made makeshift, and covered in pizza boxes, revealing dysfunction, transcendent hope, and radical formal reimaginings of what an American play can be.

Of my favorite offerings, the filial comic-drama God Said This by Leah Nanako Winkler, shines. Set in Kentucky and directed by Morgan Gould, God Said This accumulates around the hospital bed of cancer-riddled Japanese matriarch, Masako (movingly embodied by Ako.) Tensions pull taut between James (Jay Patterson), the reformed alcoholic father of the family, and his estranged East Coast liberal daughter, Hiro (the electric Satomi Blair). As the born-again youngest, Sophie, tries to keep the family together, illness’s awkward pain and powerlessness bring old and new difficulties to the surface. As a woman whose mother has undergone painful cancer treatments, I was moved by the way Winkler removed all sugar coating from the unbearable process of chemotherapy. In a script written with wry, honest wit under extraordinary personal circumstances, Winkler’s voice grips and seduces. Lines like “I feel so lonely here with my family” sting gleefully. Gould, who met Winkler when they were both interns for Young Jean Lee, is a personal hero and one of the seminal New York writer/directors of our generation. She leads the audience into a glimpse at the Rose family whirlwind with sharp turns, steadfast clarity, and unapologetic care. “My family is back!” said Gould, who had a previous relationship with these characters in Kentucky — Winkler and Gould’s first piece together at EST. This play, which Gould describes as like a “fishbowl, where we are outside seeing the fish active in their little ecology,” and these two brilliant women will undoubtedly have a long prolific life in the American theater. As God Says This moves to Primary Stages in the coming season, I highly recommend a visit to New York City to see it.

Marginal Loss, written by Deborah Stein and directed by powerhouse Meredith McDonough, asked some tough questions. Primarily it tackles not only “how do we go on?” as a society after a trauma, but also “should we?” and “in what way?” In a stark New Jersey warehouse beautifully realized by set designer Andrew Boyce, displaced finance workers strive to save their livelihood during the first 48 hours after the destruction of their investment firm in the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. “That's what these characters are going through” said McDonough, “shock and trauma, and it is hitting them, as character John (Ted Koch) says, ‘in waves.’” A directorial build to the final moments of the work featuring an electric Carla Duren leaves the audience significantly uneasy. I still ruminate on how the piece quietly reconfigured my perspective about our post-9/11 society and the moment we are in now.

Susan Soon He Stanton’s we, the invisibles, directed by Dámaso Rodríguez, constructed an enticing collage with deft performances by a cast playing myriad hotel workers. Though centered on the high-profile sexual assault case of former International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the piece also probed the question of how recent immigrants carry on their legacy and culture when displaced in America. Set in a luxury hotel, we, the invisibles investigates the playwright’s perceptions of herself, her peers, and her work. The audience is asked to come to the table, visibly, to check intimately how ignorance, classism, racism, sexism, and more permeate lives chiefly mediated by transactions. Tricia Alexandro and William DeMeritt stood out with memorable presence.

Another ensemble piece, You Across from Me, features the 2017-2018 Humana Fest training company and the writing of Jaclyn Backhaus, Dipika Guha, Brian Otaño, and Jason Gray Platt. Using sleek, witty, highly choreographed transitions, Jessica Fisch showcased the eclectic work of the writers. Her careful craftsmanship tuned the audience’s ears acutely and highlighted the unique personalities of the company members. A surreal dinner gathering between sons and a strong-fisted matriarch, a group interview for a “diversity” slot turned on its head, and a queer fantasy from a 1950s housewife were some of the show’s highlights.

In Mark Schultz's Evocation to Visible Appearance, directed by the inimitable Les Waters, the sublime Bruce McKenzie leads the charge as a disintegrating father figure. Exploring, exploding, and exposing none other than the Antichrist, Waters and Schultz walk the tightrope between hallowed and hollow with hearts on sleeves. Elements as disparate as black metal bands, falling lights, and bear burgers contribute to an eviscerating sense of dis-ease. Sublime acting by McKenzie, Luke LaMontagne, and Ronete Levenson, along with an epic Bieber-nation-esque monologue delivered drily and unapologetically by Lincoln Clauss, transcended. I found myself laughing ferociously in existential horror. Satan and absentia, violent nihilism and empty fortitude are played with fearlessly to great result. Although the appropriation of a young woman's body — in this case that of “17-year-old Samantha” (Suzy Weller) — as the conduit to hell is no surprise, Samantha’s sensational “in yer face” black metal journey soars. The piece is gleefully loud with caustic abandon. Hilarious, unapologetic, bleak, and demanding, Evocation packed an acerbic punch.

Failed fatherhood, a daughter’s insatiable lust for life, a woman’s hand for empathetic guidance — these were the story lines that permeated Humana’s offerings in 2018. They were most potently chewed up, spit out, and viciously reframed, however, in the festival’s crown jewel, the sublime, unprecedented, hilarious horror show Do You Feel Anger? by Mara Nelson Greenberg. Interested in "Treating feelings like something you need to problem-solve, almost like a math problem …” Greenberg brought her audience into a world where “empathy is a bird,” man-children wield baseball bats with abandon, and mermaids don’t exist until they bleed out in a girls bathroom. While initially an offbeat comedy about the trials and tribulations of teaching empathy to debt collectors, the piece quickly and adroitly maneuvers into deeper, more dangerous territory. Internalized misogyny, normalized violence against women, and evolving compromise with the absurd eventually explodes in a profound, core-shaking turn. Directed with intelligent, playful sharpness by Margot Bordelon, the cast blew the roof off the theater. As the toxically masculine boss, Dennis William Grimes delivered a monologue about periods that took down the house. Bjorn DuPaty’s electric, terrifying charisma and Amir Watchterman’s obscene energy as coworkers made it impossible to take one’s eyes off this train wreck. Dealing with a collection of humans who can barely identify what an emotion is, let alone have one, Tiffany Villarin as Sofia led the charge with cosmic intensity. Lisa Tejero took us for an elegant, sharp and dangerous ride, and Megan Hill elicited laughter from places I didn’t know existed. The ensemble broke hearts and retuned the audience into seeing our collectively broken American brain with fresh joy and absurdity. Greenberg’s unapologetically dangerous, hilarious, brilliant voice is about to lead the charge into a new era of theater making. I cannot wait to see where she takes us next, and I will be signing up for the ride.

A hard-hitting panel conversation with the Kilroys, plus an award ceremony celebrating new work bookended this thrilling 42nd Humana season. Anne Bogart spoke in the ceremony about intentional civics and about finding ways to address the chasms between us as a nation. As The Actors Theatre programmed a stellar lineup of probing, formally unique, disparate, extraordinary new plays for its audiences — I think they practiced what they/she preached. Keep your eyes and ears out for next season, as this gathering of makers, audiences, and new work is an alchemy not to be missed.

FEATURING PLAYS:

God Said This by Leah Nanako Winkler

Marginal Loss by Deborah Stein

Do You Feel Anger? by Mara Nelson Greenberg

Evocation to Visible Appearance by Mark Schultz

You Across from Me by Jaclyn Backhaus, Dipika Guha, Brian Otaño, and Jason

Gray Platt

we, the invisibles by Susan Soon He Stanton