Humana Festival Wrapup

Brownsville Song, Partners, The Grown Up

By: - Apr 14, 2014

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Since joining the America Theatre Critics Association we have attended conferences in Chicago, Indianapolis, Shepherdstown, West Virginia and most recently the 38th Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Kentucky. There will be a mini meeting in New York this fall then New Orleans this time next year, Philadelphia, and likely the Alabama Shakespeare Festival the years after that.

During high season in the Berkshires we are flat out covering music, dance and theatre. Usually that entails being out five nights a week with noon deadlines. Last fall we enjoyed a week in Dublin with one in London. Normally we manage spring and fall weeks in New York and one in Boston.

There is a syndrome when you take in theatre, museums and tourism in such gargantuan gulps. There are experiences that stick with you forever as well as ones that seem to evaporate instantaneously. Some linger in the sharpest detail while others fade into a blur.

I admire colleagues who have the ability to recall details of every production they have ever seen. Or every gourmet meal like my friend and colleague Fast Eddy who keeps elaborate journals of this information. One day they will comprise a formidable archive of the theatre, fine arts, travel and dining of our era.

This website functions in that way for me. What I forget, for instance, is archived. That comprises thousands of articles by our many contributors. It is a resource well used by readers. Quite different from daily newspapers which vanish or charge for their archives. Websites are providing a resource of free and accessible information more vast than the legendary Library of Alexandria.

Through ATCA  we are getting an overview of regional American theatre. The well organized conferences comprise intense experiences with meetings, panel discussions, and major keynote speakers. (This time Steinberg Award winning playwright Lauren Gunderson. She was also the keynote speaker for the conference and this is a link to the text of her address.) There are typically five to seven plays. It’s a lot of information to absorb and hopefully the intensive professional dialogues help to hone our craft. Long time New York critic Ira J. Bilowit was honored for lifetime contributions to theatre.

There are always lively debates. Since we are all from out of town, and not going head to head with reviews, there is a lot more openness in discussing the plays. The range of diversity is often astonishing although more often than not there is a general consensus on what does and does not work. The least important plays result in a kind of benign apathy.

Plays I can hardly remember move Fast Eddy to tears. For sure he’s a three hanky critic. No wonder theatres love him.

He also is the epicenter of the social whirl at conferences. That always includes evenings at restaurants that are way over our budget. But they are not to be missed social occasions with his California friend, the actor, Toni Sawyer.

We enjoyed hanging out with our California correspondent, Jack Lyons. What a treat to share his running commentary based on decades in theatre and film. Sandy Katz and her husband Jerry, from Charleston, are the life of the party. Herb Simpson is always quick with an insight. Then there is Tim Treanor from DC with a booming voice that requires no microphone. His wife Lorraine is always sharp and feisty. We sipped bourbon and swapped tales with Chicago critic and ATCA president Jonathan Abarbanel.

Meeting in Louisville there were generous open bars and free flowing Kentucky bourbon. That’s dangerous prior to an evening of theatre. Late nights there were parties in the hotel bar but mostly we crashed after long days.

The great fun is seeing colleagues and making new ones. We ran into Ed Herendeen and a gang of 18 from Shepherdstown. The final of three weekends at Humana is built around visiting professionals from critics to artistic directors, producers, and agents.

Other than trailing along on a half hour hike to an elegant old restaurant with Fast Eddy we didn’t get to see much of Louisville. The luxury Galt House where we stayed was literally across the street from the theatre festival. That proved to be fortuitous during a week of rain and mostly chilly weather.

We encountered teens in colorful costumes. Not quite sure why but they were adorable and willing to pose for us. We never got to the Derby track, the Louisville Sluggers factory, or the many distilleries.

It was our first visit to the prestigious Humana Festival but for many of the critics in our group it’s an annual event.

Of the plays we saw The Christians and Steel Hammer were the most provocative and memorable. They are likely to have further productions. We have three capsules of other plays.

On Wednesday night, prior to the official festival, we saw a “local” production that is best forgotten. There was a performance of three Ten Minute plays- Winter Games, Some Prepared Remarks (A History in Speech), and Poor Shem. As always with ten minute plays they are short and sweet or endure as long as a root canal. There was also the ambitious but sophomoric featuring the energetic Acting Apprentice Company. In nine segments for me it dragged on without mercy but for Astrid it was a fresh glimpse into the future with very young talent.

Brownsville song (b-side for Tray)
By Kimber Lee
Directed by Meredith McDonough
Cast: Cherene Snow (Lena), Sally Diallo (Devine), John Clarence Stewart (Tray), Jackie Chung (Merrell), Joshua Boone (Junior/ Brooklyn College Student)

This inner city drama started with a compelling monologue by a strong African American grandmother Lena (Cherene Snow) tasked with raising two children. They were orphaned by a father who took four in the chest and their Asian mother Merrell (Jackie Chung) who while struggling with addiction abandoned them.

The kids are Tray (John Clarence Stewart) an amateur boxer aspiring for a scholarship to college and the emotionally traumatized child Devine (Sally Diallo), who is nurtured and protected by her older brother.

With generally fine acting, particularly some cool moves by Stewart, this is a play that has promising elements. Tray and Devine dancing and playing together was an emotional highpoint of the uneven drama.

But the story line of talented kids gunned down by gang violence, while true, is too readily familiar to create any new variations or surprises. The script seems more suitable for TV than a theatre festival.

Beyond that there are plot lines that just don’t equate. We are well into the play before we have a handle on Merrell and why she is so despised by Lena. It’s confusing to follow her self deprecating and cowering responses to the other characters. Mostly her position in the play, tutor to Tray, abandoning mother of Devine, just never equates.

There is that all too predictable eventuality when, duh, Tray is popped seemingly randomly by, guess what, four in the chest. Like father then like son.

In a flash back Tray reappears to read that too too eloquent college application letter. Yet again hopes and dreams have been snuffed by gang violence.

Oh please Ms Lee, spare me. Surely you can do better than that.

By Dorothy Fortenberry
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
Cast: Annie Purcell (Clare an aspiring chef), David Ross (Paul her husband), Kasey Mahaffy (Ezra, Clare’s best friend and business partner), LeRoy McClain (Brady, Ezra’s boyfriend)

Mostly this was a fun, upbeat, gay themed comedy about two couples Clare (Annie Purcell) and her husband Paul (David Ross) entertaining Ezra (Kasey Mahaffy) and Brady (LeRoy McLain).

Clare loves to cook and entertain. Ezra wants to partner with her to launch a food truck and make money.

What a great idea.

Until Clare proves to be an uber conflicted, self destructive, nut job who brings down her self and everyone around her. Mostly, in some improbable plot twists, she is never up front about her feelings, phobias, paranoia and misgivings.

What starts as a witty, upbeat, often hilarious comedy gets terribly dark and spins out of control to an improbable, crash and burn conclusion.

Perhaps with triage this will have another production so we will spare you the details. But it entails conflating such improbable elements as a radish up the nose resulting in a concussion, huge hospital bills for the uninsured Ezra, and a windfall class action settlement which is squandered on an unlikely charity. Resulting is a heap of broken lives and shattered dreams. Or something like that.

I laughed through the first half of the play and then gasped aghast through the rest.

The Grown-Up
By Jordan Harrison
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll
Cast: Matthew Stadelman, Brooke Bloom, Paul Niebanck. Tiffany Villarin, Chris Murray, David Ryan Smith

In the fantasy, ersatz fairy tale The Grown Up, a magical door knob salvaged from a sunken pirate’s ship opens to a series of Magic Theatre fast forwards to the future.

The key character through a series of vignettes and adventures starts as a child and ends as an old man.

It seems that Harrison is a regular at the Humana Festival and has a loyal following.

Some of my colleagues thought it was the best play of the festival. Yes, Fast Eddy was moved to tears.

Frankly, I did not share those opinions.

It was all just too much of a stretch. You have to be in the mood for fantasy.

I wasn’t. But that was more about malaise and fatigue than the play itself.

That’s just a part of the collateral damage of festival syndrome.

Today we are in a Florida condo recuperating from Humana and it is time for a walk on the beach.